Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Mean Streets (1973)

by on December 13, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Dec 20 at 6:30* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

*Intro and Q&A with Martin Scorsese


FSLC is commemorating 30 years of the New York Film Festival with a selection from each consecutive year every week.


We’ve made it to 1973, and here’s something even New Yorkers don’t get everyday – while Scorsese relishes the opportunity to appear alongside his personal repertory favorites, it’s rare treat for him to elucidate one of his own masterpieces from the days of yore. Merry Christmas!


Noel Murray for The Onion AV Club:

After a few false starts, Scorsese established himself as a singular talent with 1973’s Mean Streets, a deeply personal film on two fronts. First off, Mean Streets’ story of a devoutly religious young man (played by Harvey Keitel) grappling with the obligations of his family, his faith, his job, and his loyalty to his friends (including one chronic fuck-up played by Robert De Niro) was drawn from what Scorsese had seen outside his own window, and what he’d experienced in his own life. Secondly, Mean Streets’ mix of tough-guy posturing, cinematic playfulness, and docu-realism fused some of Scorsese’s biggest influences—Warner Brothers’ crime pictures, Federico Fellini, and John Cassavetes, respectively—and showed that movie-making needn’t be so ideologically rigid, that the experimental could co-exist with the classical and the verité. For the remainder of his career, Scorsese would constantly rejigger the balance of those elements, but would keep them all in play, always. And though he’s put himself in service of other people’s stories more often than not, he’s retained a touch of “that guy who made Mean Streets” in nearly everything he’s made since.



Time Out (London):

The definitive New York movie, and one of the few to successfully integrate rock music into the structure of film: watch Keitel waking to the sound of the Ronettes, or De Niro dancing solo in the street to ‘Mickey’s Monkey’. Mean Streets is also pure Italian-American. Charlie (Keitel), a punk on the fringes of ‘respectable’ organised crime, ponders his adolescent confusions and loyalties. Beneath the swagger, he’s embarrassed by his work, his religion, and by women and his friends, particularly Johnny Boy (De Niro), who owes everyone money. Scorsese directs with a breathless, head-on energy which infuses the performances, the sharp fast talk, the noise, neon and violence with a charge of adrenalin. One of the best American films of the decade.


Nev Pierce for BBC:

The Godfather made the mob glamorous. Mean Streets made it real. Martin Scorsese’s ferocious, grimy 1973 classic is just as good as Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, but it shows us criminal life lower down the food chain: the footsoldiers struggling to make a buck without getting shot up. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is our anti-hero, a guilt-ridden hood trying to escape inner city New York. But his loyalty to the insane Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) keeps dragging him back in…Raw, passionate and aggressive, it was not Scorsese’s first film, but it was the first where he was allowed free reign with the material and just enough money to make it. voiceover, “You do it in the streets, you do it at home. The rest is bull**** and you know it.” Scorsese has been trying to atone for his sins in cinema. But, as phenomenal a career as he’s had, he’s never again made a picture as intimate and powerful as this.


Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

Scorsese’s Greeneian fable of sin and death in New York City was the beginning of his glorious association with an electrifying young Robert De Niroo, a lifetime’s worth of achievement for any other director and star. Johnny’s terrible fate assumes an ambiguously sacrificial, redemptive aspect by revealing the grim truth about this life of theirs. The movie’s blazing energy is still astounding; the vérité street-scenes are terrific and Scorsese’s pioneering use of popular music is genuinely thrilling.


Michael Musto reveals a fascinating coulda-been in The Village Voice:

In Corman’s World — the captivating documentary about renegade director Roger Corman — Martin Scorsese reveals that he originally brought his 1973 project Mean Streets to Corman.


Corman urged the young hotshot to change all the characters and make them black to keep it in line with the then-hot trend of blaxploitation flicks.


But Scorsese walked away and decided to keep the story set in Little Italy rather than Harlem, which turned out to be very good career news for Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and the gang. I wonder if Corman would have made Raging Bull about Smokin’ Joe Frazier.



Pauline Kael in her justly famous New Yorker review:

Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” is a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking. It has its own hallucinatory look; the characters live in the darkness of bars, with lighting and color just this side of lurid. It has its own unsettling, episodic rhythm and a high-charged emotional range, that is dizzyingly sensual. Movies generally work you up to expect the sensual intensities, but here you may be pulled into a high without warning. Violence erupts crazily, too, the way it does in life – so unexpectedly fast that you can’t believe it, and over before you’ve been able to take it in. The whole movie has this effect; it psychs you up to accept everything it shows you. And since the story deepens as it goes along, you’re likely to be openmouthed, trying to rethink what you’ve seen. Its about American life here and now, and it doesn’t look like an American movie, or feel like one. What Scorsese has done with the experience of growing up in New York’s Little Italy has a thicker-textured rot and violence than we have ever had in any American movie, and a riper since of evil.


The picture is stylized without seeming in any way artificial; it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that achieves the effects of Expressionism without the use of distortion. “Mean Streets” never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with common experience; rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them. Every character, every sound, is rooted in those streets. The back-and-forth talk isn’t little-people empty-funny; it’s a tangle of jeering and joshing, of mutual goading and nerves getting frayed. These boys understand each other too well. No other American gangster-milieu film has had this element of personal obsession; there has never before been a gangster film in which you felt that the director himself was saying “This is my story.” We’re so affected because we know in our bones that Scorsese has walked these streets and has felt what his characters feel. He knows how crime is natural to them.


Scorsese could make poetic drama, rather than melodrama laced with decadence, out of the schlock of shabby experience because he didn’t have to “dive below the polite level, to something nearer to the common life” but had to do something much tougher- descend into himself and bring up what neither he nor anyone else could have known was there. Though he must have suspected. This is a blood thriller in the truest sense.



Kim Morgan considers it one of the seminal films of her life, at her blog Sunset Gun:

And of course much has been written about Martin Scorsese’s masterwork and most of us love it (if you love movies, how can you not?). But it had been quite some time since I watched the picture, and upon returning, my ardor was re-ignited. As Woody Allen would say, I don’t just love the movie, I luurve it. And with further reflection, I thought the picture, of late anyway, just doesn’t get its due anymore. Do we take it for granted? We shouldn’t. It’s absolutely perfect.


Released in 1973, Mean Streets, a masterpiece of story, substance, music, camerawork and color, is one of the most influential movies of the last 30-odd years. Inspired by, among other influences, classic Hollywood cinema, the documentaries of David and Albert Maysles, the French New Wave, and of course, Scorsese’s own life growing up and observing life in New York City, Mean Streets‘ raw, blood-soaked power has still, in my mind, found no cinematic equal. Aesthetically and thematically honest, as well as experimental and purposeful, it’s a work of art that’s never faded through time. It still makes me revved up and emotional and depressed and happy and, yearning. There’s a yearning to Mean Streets that not only taps into creating something within your own personal life, but to create something, anything outside of it. As with all of Scorsese, there’s a sensuality to it that’s bloody and lovely and in moments, profoundly moving.


I’m not one to downgrade the importance of Citizen Kane and its influences (and certainly Scorsese wouldn’t as well) but Mean Streets is at this point, just as influential. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas may make the AFI lists, but Mean Streets deserves high mention. So many films emulate Mean Streets, but very few have achieved its beautiful, ugly, vulnerable, violent and thrilling power. If a movie could talk me into having sex in a dirty bathroom in some dive bar in NYC, Mean Streets could. If a movie could serve as my most beloved dysfunctional ex boyfriend, Mean Streets would be him. It’s one of the great loves of my life.



Marc Raymond for Senses of Cinema:

Scorsese’s first major critical success comes with his next film, Mean Streets, and in my opinion, this remains his best film. Unfortunately, most critics have reduced its complexity by imposing an ethnic/religious approach that only focuses on the film’s (and Scorsese’s) Italian Catholicism. And while these elements are certainly present, it diminishes the social dimension of the film to only consider it from a religious and/or ethnic point of view. Mean Streets is a major part of early 1970s American film and in many ways is an American Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) in terms of innovative technique and influence on subsequent filmmakers (ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Spike Lee to Wong Kar-wai and countless others). The film relies a great deal on the American genre system, even as it subverts it (as does Godard). The film is an argument against mythical gangster work like The Godfather trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-74-90). It is a ‘70s buddy film crossed with a film noir and a musical. The couple of the film is clearly Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) rather than Charlie and his girlfriend Theresa (Amy Robinson). This can be seen in one particular sequence in which Charlie and Johnny Boy stay out all night and sleep in the same bed together. Charlie gets out of bed and goes to the window, where he sees Theresa dressing. The next scene cuts to Charlie and Theresa making love in a hotel room. The displaced homoeroticism is clear. Johnny Boy plays the part of the femme fatale, the destructive yet also liberating force of the film. The film plays on the genre of the musical, trying to unite the characters through the utopian energy of pop music. The scenes of visual excitement in the film (the bar entrances of Charlie and then Johnny Boy, the pool fight, Charlie’s drunk scene, Johnny Boy’s run through the city) make heavy use of non-diegetic music and are similar to Hollywood musical song and dance numbers. That the utopian unity of the musical ultimately fails to unite the characters in this regard points to the inadequacy of Hollywood myths in regard to the lives of real characters. Scorsese would maintain this split between reality and artifice in all his major films, combining realistic elements such as Method acting, detailed renderings of specific times and places and nonlinear plots, with expressionistic techniques such as rhythmic editing, slow-motion cinematography and non-diegetic sound effects.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Mean Streets” isn’t so much a gangster movie as a perceptive, sympathetic, finally tragic story about how it is to grow up in a gangster environment. Its characters have grown up in New York’s Little Italy, and they understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it. Scorsese places these characters in a perfectly realized world of boredom and small joys, sudden assaults, the possibility of death, and the certainty of mediocrity. He shot some exteriors in Little Italy, where he was born and where he seems to know every nuance of architecture and personality (though most of the movie was shot in Los Angeles), and his story emerges from the daily lives of the characters. They hang out. They go to the movies. They eat, they drink, they get in sudden fights that end as quickly as a summer storm. Scorsese photographs them with fiercely driven visual style.
We never have the sense of a scene being set up and then played out; his characters hurry to their dooms while the camera tries to keep pace. There’s an improvisational feel even in scenes that we know, because of their structure, couldn’t have been improvised.
The movie’s scenes of violence are especially effective because of the way Scorsese stages them. We don’t get spectacular effects and skillfully choreographed struggles. Instead, there’s something realistically clumsy about the fights in this movie. A scene in a pool hall, in particular, is just right in the way it shows its characters fighting and yet mindful of their suits (possibly the only suits they have). The whole movie feels like life in New York; there are scenes in a sleazy nightclub, on fire escapes, and in bars, and they all feel as if Scorsese has been there.



Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

Early on, when Charlie, Johnny and others go to extract a debt out of a pool room owner, Johnny’s mouthing off (“A mook?…What’s a mook?”), his tinny truculence and adolescent attitude, precipitates an all-in brawl that sees our lads careening off walls, dancing on pool tables, swinging broken pool cues, fighting three-to-one, until the clash is busted up by cops who accept taxi fare to Philadelphia to go away. Johnny even blows the resulting truce, and he and his pals flee in a flurry of index fingers and insults. It’s a hilarious and invigorating scene, justly famous, that perfectly captures a common brand of macho confrontation, surreal violence, and urban incident. It also refers to the opening street fight of Who’s That Knocking…, and reveals how Scorsese nurtured his style. Instead of the gifted-child impressionism that breaks up his first film’s texture into fetishized pieces (the ghost of film theory and experimental ethic in Who’s That Knocking…, which favor the shot over the scene, the dominion of narrative and Hollywood), Marty constructs well-contoured scenes whilst still delivering punchy, innovative filming, a form of cinematic prose that communicates in sensation. He uses wide-angle lenses, especially in the fight scenes and moments of physical motion, to give the vertigo-drag of deep space to match the urgency of the action. When Charlie gets drunk, the camera is strapped to Keitel’s chest and lurches drunkenly with him. Instead of merely watching, Scorsese makes his camera and editing an organ of the action and thematic communication.


Mean Streets is most forcibly a character study; character is fate just as relentlessly in Scorsese’s best work as in Thomas Hardy. Charlie, for his ambitions to play savior, is termite-riddled with his sycophancy to his quasi-Cosa Nostra uncle Giovanni Cappa (Cesare Danova). The Cappas play a faux-civilised version of the game that the Michaels of the realm enforce more ruggedly. Charlie is indecisive in almost every aspect of his life, perhaps most tartly signaled when he arranges a date with the dancer, and then stands her up.


Beyond the central story, Mean Streets is a landscape of vignettes and character haikus dotted with such lovingly weird moments as Tony hugging a lion cub; Michael putting on a pair of Joisey longhairs trying to buy fireworks; the assassin casually walking up behind a drunk in Tony’s joint’s toilet and shooting him the back to avenge a petty insult (the two played by Keith and David Carradine); returning veteran Jerry the Soldier (Harry Northup) cracking up at his homecoming party. A little too long, and populated by less than inspiring men, Mean Streets still stands as one of the great American films. It’s the last time Harvey Keitel plays centerstage with Scorsese, as De Niro established his capacity to shift with protean skill from role to role. Keitel had proven perfect for playing Scorsese’s alter ego. De Niro would prove the necessary catalyst for moving into a bigger world.


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