Italianamerican (1974) Martin Scorsese

Being Italian-American, and more importantly that my grandparents, parents, and other relatives lived in the same neighborhood, and in fact, some on the same street the Scorsese family lived on, Elizabeth Street, I had a curiosity about this film than others may not. Did anyone in my family know the Scorsese family back in those days, I wondered? Living in such a close congested area and only a few buildings away, anything was possible, I thought. Well, the answer was no, the name Scorsese was not familiar to anyone I knew.  Still, much of what was discussed in the film was so similar to my own family’s experiences that I felt a kind of correlation; here was my own family’s story being told.  

In “Italianamerican,” a 1974 documentary Scorsese made after “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Marty explores his heritage through his parents’ homespun stories. The setting is casual, right in his parent’s apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. The attention is strictly on his folk’s tales of their early life and that of their immigrant parents. Continue reading

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Pay or Die (1960) Richard Wilson

For three years, 1906-1909 Lt. Giuseppe “Joseph” Petrosino headed what became known as the Italian Squad of the New York Police Dept.  As a detective, Petrosino focused on fighting the Italian criminal element in New York’s Little Italy, a group known as La Mano Nera or the BLACK HAND a forerunner to the Mafia. The Black Hand began in the late 1890’s, a hoodlum by the name of Ignazio “Lupo” Saietta was one its original organizers.  Sainetta was big on extorting money from local Italian businessmen. He even penetrated the Union Scilciania, a charitable organization for newly arrived Sicilian immigrants in America. After obtaining a search warrant, Petrosino with other law enforcement officers found more than 60 bodies hidden in the Union Scilciania building. Most of the bodies were chopped up into pieces. After this Petrosino became even more determined to bring the Black Hand to justice. He came up with the idea of forming an all Italian member police squad hoping to win the confidence and help of the Italian community in capturing these criminals. Petrosino and his men went on a rampage; more than 500 hundred Italian criminals were deported back to Italy. Many others went to jail.

In 1909 Petrosino went to Italy as part of a joint investigation between the police and immigration officials. In Palermo he examined police files trying to identify criminals who could be deported as well as the real identities of many who changed their names. He also was searching for a connection between the Italian Mafia and the Black Hand back in the states. He came real close because Petrosino was shot dead in the Piazza Marina under the statue of Garibaldi after receiving an anonymous tip with promising information. Credit for the assassination generally is given to Don Vito Casico Ferro who had various run ins with Petrosino in New York before he returned to Palermo where he would become capo dei capi.  When Petrosino’s body was shipped back to Little Italy in New York more than 200,000 people came by to pay their respects.

From the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s the largest wave of gangster films were produced since the golden age of the 1930’s. Though mostly low budget, within a span of six years we saw ”Baby Face Nelson”, “Machine Gun Kelly”, “Al Capone”, “The Purple Gang”, “Young Dillinger”, “Bonnie Parker Story”, “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”, “Portrait of a Mobster”, “Mad Dog Coll”, “King of The Roaring Twenties”,  “Murder Inc.”, “The Scarface Mob” (two episodes of the TV series The Untouchables released as a feature film)  and “Pay or Die.” Of all these films, “Pay or Die” and “Murder Inc.” are arguably the most important of the group and “Pay or Die” is the only one of the films to focus on a heroic American figure in fighting crime.

“Pay or Die” is a vivid account of the life and times of Giuseppe Petrosino. Like most film biographies liberties have been taken but the overall story is true, including an extortion attempt on Opera star Enrico Caruso as portrayed in the film.  Though obviously filmed on a studio lot, the film reflects an accurate look at immigrant life at the turn of the 20th Century. Italian immigrants were pouring into the United States mostly from the poorer parts of Italy, and the poorest part was Sicily. Many of these families settled in New York, in what became known as Little Italy. The Black Hand preyed on the Italian community extorting money from store owners. If they didn’t pay, storefronts were blown up or worst the owners were brutally murdered. A note would be left with the body, a black hand imprinted on it as a warning to others.

The film opens up with the celebration of the Santa Rosalia Street Festival which includes a harrowing scene showing two young girls, about nine of ten years old, dressed as angels. The two girls are seen suspended on two clothes lines that stretch across the street between two tenement buildings. They are “wheeled” to the center of the street, two or three stories high and recite a pray. Down below, the crowd is thrilled, the girls parents proudly watch,  Lt. Petrosino roams the crowd as does a well dressed though slimy figure who we watch climb up to an apartment adjacent to  the clothes line. He pulls out a switchblade and cuts one of the clothes lines sending one of the little girls crashing down to the street below demonstrating the Black Hand’s persuasive measures to ensure people will pay. In another example of their brutal methods three thugs come into the bakery of Papa Saulino, who is “late” in paying. The men wreck the place, tie him up and slide him into the bread oven to think over his decision about whether to pay or die.  Later Saulino’s daughter (Zohra Lampert) and eventually, Petrosino wife, is attacked one evening on her way home from night school. She is threatened, her dress ripped and one of the thugs with black paint or ink on his hand presses a handprint over her left breast, a message to her father that his whole family is vulnerable.

“Pay or Die “provides a  tough look at the early days of the Italian criminal element in the United States and how they as predators, extorted and terrorized their own people, and one man’s attempt to fight back. The film uses the phrases “Mafia” and “Mafioso” at a time when J. Edgar Hoover only just began to admit that the Mafia even existed (maybe he watched this movie). Interestingly there was no outcry from the Italian-American community when the film came out, unlike some twelve years later when Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” hit the screens and used these same phrases, possibly because unlike the high profile Coppola film, “Pay or Die” came and went into theaters without much fanfare.

Ernest Borgnine is perfectly cast as Petrosino who comes across as a tough honest cop dedicated to cleaning up the Black Hand out of Little Italy and giving honest Italian immigrants the chance to become part of the American dream. Look for a young John Marley (Faces) as Caputo, the ragman.

Ten years earlier there was another film called “The Black Hand” with the very Irish Gene Kelly playing a fictional young Italian named Johnny Columbo and J. Carroll Nash in a supporting role that was based on Petrosino.  Of the two films, “Pay or Die’ is dramatically and historically the more interesting and more accurate.

The film is well shot by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who at times gives it a bit of a noirish quality (though this is no film noir). Ballard already had a long career behind him but would become best known for his later work with Sam Peckinpah photographing “The Wild Bunch”, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, “The Getaway” and “Junior Bonner.”  It was directed, without flare, by Richard Wilson who just the year before made “Al Capone” with Rod Steiger another low budget though decent gangster film.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) Robert Wise

At one point, James Dean was the leading choice to play Rocky Graziano, but when he unexpectedly and violently died in a car crash on September 30, 1955 the part was given to Paul Newman. Still living in the shadows of Marlon Brando, and whose film debut in “The Silver Chalice” almost ruined his career before it even got off the ground, this role would erase the bad taste left by his failed attempt in the religious drama.

Based on an autobiography written by Rocky Graziano and journalist Rowland Barber, with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film reflects a fairly accurate portrayal of Graziano’s life as a street punk with a bad attitude and a history of petty crimes. After spending time in a reform school, followed by some prison time, Rocky is released only to be drafted into the Army during World War II which results in a year in Leavenworth after he slugs an Officer and deserts. While on the run, Rocky changed his last name from Barbella to Graziano to avoid detection. Eventually caught he was dishonorably discharged.  Finally, after a life of violent and anti-social behavior, Rocky finds his redemption in the ring.

We are first introduced to Rocky as a young kid sparring with his failed alcoholic father Nick (Harold J. Stone) for the entertainment of  his dad’s friends. When one friend makes a comment about Nick being  a loser, old pop slugs young Rocky in the jaw. We next see young Rocky, expressing his anti-social behavior by throwing a rock threw a store window displaying a sign about gifts for father’s day.  Two Irish police officers grab the young kid but Rocky manages to escape running away. As the two police officers look on, one says, “Let him go, there goes another grease ball on his way. Ten years from now he’ll be in the chair at Sing Sing.” A quick cut to about 10 years or so later and Rocky (now Paul Newman) is still running from the law.

Hot headed, anti-social, quick with his fists (there are shades of DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta here), Rocky’s life leads him to a reformatory and eventually the federal prison. In Leavenworth, thanks to the Captain of the boxing team who sees potential in the street fighter, Rocky begins to channel his built-in hate to good use in the ring. After his release from Leavenworth, he reluctantly learns to box instead of just brawl. Romance enters with the introduction of Norma (Pier Angeli), a nice Jewish girl and a friend of Rocky’s sister. She is shy, attractive and sees something beneath Rocky’s uncouth exterior. He’s clumsy around girls but they fall in love and marry. Rocky’s career as a boxer shoots skyward, undefeated until he fights for the middleweight championship at Yankee Stadium and loses to Tony Zale. After  the fight, Rocky’s past begins to catch up with him. Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia), a small time hood he met in prison comes back into his life with a plan to blackmail Rocky, now a local hero, with his criminal past. Peppo’s plan is for Rocky to throw a fight, prior to his rematch with Tony Zale, the hood “promising” not to expose Rocky’s past history.  Refusing to throw the fight, Rocky fakes a back injury to get out of the match but that results in him facing an investigation with the New York State Boxing Commission who decide to take away his license to box since he will not cooperate in naming the hoods who were blackmailing him.  Without his license, the championship rematch with Zale is off and Rocky’s career, at least in New York is over.  Despite Rocky’s attempt to ease out of his predicament, the hoods still release to the media news that Rocky was dishonorably discharged during the war.  Deprived of his livelihood, publicly disgraced Rocky feels his life has spiraled out of control. However, Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) has arranged a championship fight against Zale in Chicago. At first uncomfortable with fighting outside of New York, he knows he will be booed, Rocky finds the courage, with the help of his wife, to take on Zale and win in Chicago.

As Rocky, Paul Newman, is all mumbles, hunched shoulders and dragging feet, at times funny and at times explosively violent, a man who does not give much thought to his actions. Fresh from the Actors Studio, Newman hung out with Graziano for weeks to pick up his traits, mannerisms and speech pattern. It is a controlled performance and was partially responsible for accusations by the news media that Newman was just a carbon copy of Brando. This irked Newman to no end. Compounding the situation was that Brando had previously studied Graziano’s mannerisms when he was preparing for the role of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and used some of those same characteristics for Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.”   According to author Shawn Levy when Graziano saw the play he said, “Hey that’s me!”

  After retiring from boxing Graziano found a second career as an actor and comedic Palooka appearing in shows with Dean Martin, Merv Griffin and on “The Tonight Show.” He films include “Tony Rome” and “Teenage Millionaire.” TV series included “Naked City”, “The Mod Squad” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”

To learn how to box, Newman worked out at the famed Stillman’s Gym in New York where Rocky trained.  Newman apparently became a fairly decent boxer and sparred with the real Tony Zale at one point. Author Shawn Levy states that Newman became a little cocky and began to hit Zale a little harder than needed, at least Zale thought so and slugged Newman just to let him know who was in charge. Zale was going to play himself in the movie but after hitting Newman, he lost that opportunity and Court Shepard was hired.

The film’s direction and editing is crisp, thanks I am sure to director and former editor Robert Wise who previously directed another boxing themed film, one of the best, “The Setup.”  While mainly made in Hollywood, there were a few location scenes in and around Manhattan; the Lower East Side, Stillman’s Gym, and in Brooklyn that contribute to the fine atmosphere of the film. The early Lower East Side scene with the crowded streets, carts selling fish, fruit and vegetables, the sounds of Italian being spoken are authentically reproduced and are reminiscent of similar scenes from earlier Warner Brother gangster films like “Angels with Dirty Faces.” During this scene among the working lower class immigrants, there is one sharply dressed man who stands out. He is most likely a local Don, and as Rocky passes by he comments,  “who house are you going to rob today, Rocky?”

The scenes of Rocky’s early youth also give us a preview of two sixties superstars together for the first time on film. Newman and a then unknown Steve McQueen have a few scenes together. We first see McQueen in a pool hall shooting pool with his back to the camera. When Rocky tugs at his pool stick, he quickly swings around, a switchblade swiftly popping open in his hand. The quick editing and the medium shot of McQueen as he turns to face the camera make for a magnificent introduction to one of the great future superstars of the sixties. As Fidel, one of Rocky’s gang members, this was only McQueen’s second appearance in a film.  Also in the gang is Sal Mineo fresh from films like “Crime in the Streets” and “Rebel without a Cause.” Other future well-known actors making their screen debuts include, Robert Loggia (Frankie Peppo), Dean Jones, Joseph Campanella and Angela Cartwright. Harold J. Stone plays Rocky’s alcoholic father, a boxer, who stopped his own career killing his dream of a being a champ with his marriage to his wife played by Eileen Heckart, who despite being only six years older that Newman portrays convincingly his mother.

If there is one thing detrimental to the picture it is the over blown sappy title song sung by Perry Como. The hot air blows and you just cannot wait for it to end. The song just runs in an opposite direction to the rest of the film.

The film was greeted with good reviews, praised for it realistic New York scenes. Newman was still being accused of imitating Brando with his method style acting.  Still, the film recouped Newman’s good graces in the film community after the debacle of “The Silver Chalice.” The film won deservingly two Oscars, one for best Art Direction/Set Direction/Black and White and for Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg). It was also nominated for Best Editing (Albert Akst).

 

Serpico (1973) Sidney Lumet

Heroes are in short supply these days. A recent article in the New York Times made me take another look at one real life hero from my own younger days.  Sidney Lumet’s 1973 work, “Serpico”, based on Peter Maas’ bestselling non-fiction book of New York City detective Frank Serpico, who along with fellow officer David Durk, confronted wide spread police corruption placing their lives on the line in the face of a closed culture that best considered to leave things status quo.  Maas’ book focuses on Serpico’s story reducing Durk to a supporting player, though one suspects he had to be more involved that the film lets on. In the film, Anthony Roberts portray Bob Blair supposedly Durk, under a fictional name.

Serpico is a young Italian-American who seems is alone in his position as an honest cop. Surrounded by a closed society, the blue wall, that consents to police officers getting a free lunch, literary, receiving payoffs to look the other way, and extorting money from criminal elements allowing to “do their business” without interference from the law.

An oddball within the police department, not just for his honesty and refusing to accept favors, but also in his rather bohemian lifestyle, at least bohemian for a police department filled with “straights” versus a “hippie” mentality. Serpico lives in the Village; he reads biographies of artists like Isadora Duncan. His girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) is a dancer with a seemingly waspish background. Serpico is the antithesis of your typical police officer wearing long hair and a beard in a time when the style was considered radical.

We first see Serpico graduating from the police academy with his proud immigrant parents at his side. As a rookie, Serpico just observes his fellow officers, saying nothing preserving his own code of ethics though every other cop seems to be accepting favors, even if it is just donuts from a local coffee shop. When he eventually expresses his objections to his superiors, he is placated by superiors who promise an investigation but do nothing. He soon builds a reputation as someone who cannot be “trusted” because he’s honest. He is transferred from one precinct to another. No one wants him around; the honest cop cannot be relied upon. His continuous accusations are met with false promises that there will be an investigation. His life is in danger; the threats come from his fellow officers, not from the criminal elements he faces in the streets every day.

Realizing the department will not clean up itself, Serpico and Blair leak the story to a major newspaper and the internal corruption becomes front-page news. Frank becomes a star witness in Mayor’s commission to investigate corruption within the police department.  Transferred to a narcotics squad in Brooklyn, it all come to a tragic eruption when during a drug bust, two fellow officer’s stand by and watch Serpico be shot in the face. The film concludes with Serpico sitting at a pier with his dog as the final words on the screen tell us he is now living somewhere in Switzerland.

Al Pacino gives a tense but controlled performance as Serpico, an intelligent and idealistic man who refuses to accept the status quo. At this early stage in his career, Pacino gave us some of his best work in a series of films that could not be sustained for long, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “The Godfather 1& 2”, “Scarecrow” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, it was one heck of a ride.  “Serpico” also gives us a rarity in American film, a heroic Italian-American instead of the usual portrayal of Italian-Americans as underworld figures or stereotyped as lower-class goomba’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx. Still the film plays down Frank’s Italian-Americanism, we do not see much of Frank’s background, his parents are shown only when he graduates from the academy and in the hospital when he is shot, other than that, Frank lifestyle is free of ethnicity. He moved out of the old neighborhood and into the more bohemian Greenwich Village, his girlfriends are non-ethnic and or artistic types.

Sidney Lumet has a feel for New York rivaled by only a few other directors (Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen are others that come to mind) and during his career Lumet has had a special affinity for looking at corruption and the relationships between good cops and bad cops within the New York City police department. He has address this subject in at least four movies, “Prince of the City”, “Night Falls on Manhattan”, “Q&A” and “Serpico” with varying degrees of success.

More than 35 years later “Serpico” remains a powerful and unsettling film. It’s not perfect, ii is marred specifically by an annoying soundtrack, and unlike, “All the President’s Men” a film made a few year later, by having to have use fictitious names for most of it real life characters. The film also gives the impression that practically the entire police department, except for two or three individuals, were corrupt, a fact that is hard to believe. That said the corruption that did exist at that time had to be wide spread enough that the true life Knapp Commission, formed by then Mayor John Lindsay did investigate police corruption and reform soon followed.

 

Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese

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Every serious film lover sees a film that once in awhile affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about, this is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it does not have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply.

Robert-DeNiro_Mean_l   The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was “Who That Knocking at My Door” back in September 1969 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie theater located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. At the time, the theatre showed mostly art house, foreign, independent and classic films. I was home Vietnam on leave, losing myself  in as many movies as I could. And if you want to lose yourself in movies, New York City is the best place to be other than maybe Paris.

I must have read a review of the film in a newspaper and the synopsis of a young Italian-American kid living on the streets of Little Italy struggling with life’s complexities (girls, Catholic guilt) appealed to me on a personal level.  The film was amazingly unlike just about any other I had ever seen. The fact that the filmmaker was this Italian-American guy, like me, and he wrote and directed the film made it even more enticing. My wildest fantasies were coming true, only it was Martin Scorsese who was living it.  I never forgot the film or the name Scorsese as I went off to Fort Polk, La. for four months and then thirteen months in Germany before being discharged and getting back to my real life, when in 1972, a Roger Corman produced film called “Boxcar Bertha came out and I noted the director’s name, Martin Scorsese. Hmm…  The film was typical King of the B’s Corman stuff, maybe somewhat better than most of his films filled with the prerequisite amount of violence and sex, all the good things low-budget filmmaking does best.

Then came October 1973.

Means Streets LC robinson    Scorsese wrote the script for “Mean Streets” along with his friend and fellow NYU student, Mardik Martin with whom he collaborated with previously on some of his short films. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Briskind states the two friends sat in Martin’s Valiant during a cold winter and wrote the script. Much of the story is from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in Little Italy. During the filming of “Boxcar Bertha” Scorsese tried to interest Corman into financing his next film. However, Corman would agree only if Marty changed all the characters to black. Fortunately, for all he found other financing from Jonathan Taplin, then a road manager for the rock group, “The Band.”

Scorsese hired Harvey Keitel to play Charlie Cappa, in time to film the San Gennaro festival, which takes place every October in Little Italy. He then offered Robert DeNiro a choice of any of the other roles in the film. The two originally met when teenagers but did not hang out together, DeNiro the child of two artists, grew up in Greenwich Village though he spent much of his time in the Little Italy neighborhood next door. He had seen Scorsese’s first feature “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” and was impressed with the film’s accurate portrayal of life in Little Italy.  After some discussions and a meeting with Keitel, who suggested he play Johnny Boy, it was settled.

“Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy, an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie is also having an affair with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson).

scan0021    Part of what drives “Mean Streets” is the interaction between the two protagonists whose improvised street-wise dialogue has a free form jazz like quality. Just listen to the Joey Clams/Frankie Bones monologue between Charlie and Johnny Boy.  Scorsese encouraged his actors to improvise, much of it worked on during rehearsals, which contributes to the film’s tempo. It helped that along with Scorsese, DeNiro and Keitel, some of the others in the cast grew up in similar New York neighborhoods and were familiar with the type of environment portrayed on screen.

Little Italy and its inhabitants were an enclave unto themselves, living a mostly separate existence from the rest of the city, insulated from the rest of the world. Outsiders were foreign and not wanted.  Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” shows us a world mixed with the old country and the new, a hybrid that never fully integrated. This is evident even in the superb use of music where the soundtrack combines the old (Opera), the traditional (Italian) and the modern (Rock and Roll).

Early in the film, Charlie enters a local bar owned by Tony (David Proval), sharply dressed, confident; he is greeted like a king. He dances to the beat of The Rolling Stones “Tell Me”, shaking hands with associates and friends, swaying to the music. Gliding through the room, he makes his way to the stage joining two topless dancers. This is Charlie’s world, he is the center of attention, and he is a man in his element.

Yet, Charlie is conflicted; he needs to reconcile his Catholic upcoming with his outlaw life. “Taking care” of Johnny Boy is Charlie’s attempt at redemption for his lifestyle. He knows that praying his ten “Hail Mary’s” and ten “Our Fathers” every week after confession is useless. As the voice over (Scorsese) at the beginning of film says, “You don’t pay for your sins in church; you pay for them in the streets.  Charlie is also conflicted with the women in his life. He is attracted to the black topless dancer and arranges a date with her, only when the time comes he stands her up knowing that in his world he can’t get involved with a black woman. He is already involved in a delicate relationship with the epileptic Theresa, who his Uncle disapproves of, telling him she’s crazy. Charlie, like many of Scorsese’s men has a Madonna/Whore complex. He resents Theresa’s independence. He chastises her for her vulgar language, which he and his cronies use all the time. He gladly has sex with her but fears a lasting relationship and his Uncle’s wrath. Theresa is in love with Charlie and she wants out of the neighborhood. She wants Charlie to commit to her and wants them to move uptown away from the neighborhood and into the outside world. Charlie cannot commit and he certainly will not leave the neighborhood. For men like Charlie, the neighborhood is everything.  scan0019

Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks.

Scorsese shows us a world where violence can erupt at any moment as it does in the now well-known “Mook” scene. Here we see Charlie and his boys go to a local pool hall to make a collection. The owner is happy to pay until one of the guys calls another a “mook.” While no one is sure, what’s a “mook” they are sure it’s an insult and soon a brawl breaks out between the two groups as The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” blast away on the soundtrack. Scorsese’s mobile camera is in the middle of the mix as we watch these guys battle each other, Johnny Boy jumping on a pool table swinging a broken cue stick and kicking wildly. The police break it up but are paid off not to press any charges. As the cops leave, the two sides agree to have a drink together; however before you know it, another fight breaks out.

Scorsese poured himself into this film; Charlie is Marty’s on screen surrogate. There are indicators throughout the film most obviously with the lead character’s name. Charlie was Scorsese’s father’s name and Cappa was his mother’s maiden name. Like Scorsese, Charlie likes movies, twice we see him in a movie theater. Also, Charlie’s struggle with religion versus his outside life reflects the young Scorsese’s own internal battle.

Influenced by the cinema verite documentary movement of the 1960’s, the French New Wave as well as by film noir of the 1940’s (Charlie’s Uncle watches Lang’s “The Big Heat” on TV) film critics greeted the film with warm open arms. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker called “Mean Streets”, “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times,   “No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter. Such a film is Mean Streets…” “Mean Streets” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973 and opened two weeks later exclusively at the Cinema 1 theater on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the film did not do well at the box office, it may have been too New York, too isolated to the tribal rituals of Italian-Americans or too blue collar. Finally, the film is not so much a gangster film as a coming of age story.

Amazingly, most of this New York film was shot in Los Angeles for budgetary reasons. Scorsese only shot about six days of exteriors in New York, including the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. In addition, the tenement building shots were filmed in New York because of their authenticity and atmosphere. In those six days of filming Scorsese crammed in a lot of Little Italy including the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and even a drive by shot of the Waverly Theater (now the IFC) in Greenwich Village.

Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy. As influenced as Scorsese was by those who came before, “Mean Streets” would go on to influence filmmakers of the next generation.

From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.