Inducted into the National Film Registry : 1997
Director Martin Scorsese may have made his first feature in 1967, but it wasn’t really until six years later that his filmmaking career kicked off in earnest with the release of his third feature, MEAN STREETS. Fresh of the whirlwind shoot of 1972’s BOXCAR BERTHA for producer Roger Corman, Scorsese was sat down by his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes (a fellow independent filmmaker who resided on the opposite side of the artistic spectrum from Corman) and told that while BOXCAR BERTHA was good, he had “wasted a year of his life making shit”. Cassavetes feared that Scorsese might end up boxed in as an exploitation director, so he challenged Scorsese to tackle something intensely personal as his next project. Scorsese took Cassavetes’ advice to heart, and immediately began writing a feature film inspired by the culture he experienced in his youth in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Scorsese called this script SEASON OF THE WITCH, and it was a story about a young hood rising up the ranks of the Mafia while dealing with his religious beliefs and guilt. Corman offered Scorsese money to make the picture, but true to the producer’s exploitation form, his funding was contingent upon Scorsese assembling a cast comprised entirely of African Americans actors. While this would be great from a diversity standpoint, Corman’s insistence was most likely rooted in making a proft from the “urban”/”blacksploitation” market, and it was ultimately a tone deaf demand that missed the point of Scorsese’s story entirely. Thankfully, Verna Bloom (who Scorsese had worked with previously in his 1970 documentary STREET SCENES) was able to set Scorsese up with Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for The Band and was looking to get into producing. This relationship would prove mutually beneficial in that Scorsese would later direct a documentary on The Band called THE LAST WALTZ (1978), but in 1973 this association was already proving quite fruitful in getting Scorsese’s vision off the ground. The film was released as MEAN STREETS, named after a passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, and it would become instrumental in launching not only Scorsese’s career, but those of his collaborators as well.
MEAN STREETS takes place entirely within the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City (although ironically a great deal of the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Charlie (WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR’s Harvey Keitel) is a small time hood, quickly rising up through the ranks of the Mafia. Far from the elegant, old-world, and moneyed mafia depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER only a year prior, these “made men” are living in slummy, crumbling tenements and are barely eking out the money with which to buy their fine Italian suits. Charlie is still somewhat on the outskirts, not yet a made man himself. He’s held at arms length by his higher-ups, mostly because of his lack of seniority but also because of his jerkoff friends, whose wild ways constantly get him into trouble by virtue of association. His good friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) is the worst of the bunch—an unpredictable loose cannon who owes money to just about everybody in the neighborhood and can’t ever seem to pay anything back. Johnny Boy’s in hot water with Michael (Richard Romanus), a local loan shark whose patience is growing quite thin. Charlie feels responsible for Johnny Boy, partly because of the fact that their circle of friends looks to him as their unofficial leader, but also because he’s romantically involved with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson). As he schmoozes with the sharks in a bid to solve Johnny Boy’s debt problems before they get out of hand, Charlie finds himself dragged into Johnny Boy’s downward spiral, and realizes he has to cut his ties from everything he’s ever known if he’s to make it out of this alive.
Take away all of its technical and aesthetic brilliance or its groundbreaking approach to music, and MEAN STREETS would still be one of the most important films of Scorsese’s career, because Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro are practically joined at the hip as far as cinematic history is concerned, and through the decades both men have continued to collaborate together to make truly incredible, unimpeachable masterworks of cinema. MEAN STREETS was their first time ever working together, and their volatile chemistry literally explodes off the screen from De Niro’s first appearance. De Niro had acted in movies prior to MEAN STREETS, but the role of Johnny Boy—a wild anarchist and financial delinquent—would become his breakout. Keitel’s brilliance remains consistent in his second starring role for Scorsese as a Roman Catholic man who questions his faith and tests himself by seeing how long he can hold his finger to flame, which points to a very Old World, self-flagellating view on religion. As the chief antagonist—the loan shark Michael—Richard Romanus projects an icy, restrained demeanor that’s quite effective. As the sole female presence amidst all this unchecked machismo, Amy Robinson holds her own as a force to be reckoned with as well as Charlie’s refuge from a brutal, cold world. Scorsese also peppers in a few cameos from his BOXCAR BERTHA cast (David Carradine as a drunk and Victor Argo and Harry Northrup as a Mafia underling and returning Vietnam vet, respectively), in addition to making one himself as a gunman for Michael that plays a crucial role in the film’s climax.
Stylistically, MEAN STREETS marks a return to the aesthetic that Scorsese cultivated in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, shooting this time on color 35mm film instead of the mix of 16mm and 35mm black and white film that he shot his debut with. Lensed by cinematographer Kent Wakeford, MEAN STREETS incorporates Scorsese’s affection for the techniques of the French New Wave as well the aesthetic of John Cassavetes’ work, which– combined with the physical limitations of his budget—results in the predominant use of handheld camerawork. The naturalistic immediacy of the handheld camera gives MEAN STREETS a very gritty and tough feel that lends well to fast cuts and bold compositions—the boldest of which is undoubtedly the strapping of a camera onto Keitel’s body and pointed to his face for a woozy, drunken feel that Darren Aronofsky would use even more effectively a generation later in his 1999 film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. The overall effect is a realistic, yet expressionistic aesthetic that would become a flashpoint in the development of the modern crime film.
The experimentation that gives MEAN STREETS its vibrant originality extends to the editing, which was performed by Scorsese himself under the consultation of Sidney Levin (who ended up receiving the onscreen credit because of his membership in the editing guild). Throughout his career, Scorsese would go on to shoot his projects in a variety of different formats, often even mixing them together and embracing the technical incongruities. MEAN STREETS sees the beginning of this aspect of Scorsese’s work in his use of 8mm footage during the opening credits, which results in a “home movie” feel. There’s also Scorsese’s interesting use of voiceover in the film, which he recorded with his own voice—despite it belonging to Charlie’s inner monologue. Apparently, this was done as a way to separate Charlie’s thoughts and his actions, almost like two separate people were living inside his head. A very interesting technique, no doubt—one that Scorsese pulled from a similar conceit of Federico Fellini’s in his 1953 film I VITELLONI. One of MEAN STREETS’ most enduring legacies can also be ascribed to Scorsese’s work as a whole, which is the popularization of the “jukebox” soundtrack, or the wall-to-wall incorporation of prerecorded needledrops—a boon to record labels and a curse to score composers everywhere. MEAN STREETS in particular uses a lot of music from popular acts of the era like The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes, combining it with Italian folk music and opera to give us a sense of history and cultural heritage existing in concert with a fast-paced modern world.
MEAN STREETS marks the first time that Scorsese’s key aesthetic fascinations really come emerge. It’s a New York City-set story about the experience of Italian American immigrants chasing their own version of the American Dream—but as a put-upon, disenfranchised minority, they must cheat if they hope to even play the game. They accumulate money and power through illegitimate means, and hold on to it through the use of violence and intimidation, which Scorsese depicts as messy, chaotic, and unorganized as it is in real life. The Feast of San Gennaro, the world famous festival that unfolds annually in the streets of Little Italy, factors heavily into MEAN STREETS’ plot, a further illustration of Scorsese’s fascination with his Italian heritage as well as a device in which to introduce religious imagery and dogma into a film about amoral, murderous mobsters and imbue his scrappy, low-level protagonists with a great deal of likeability. The burden of religion hangs heavily over the film, looming large in the consciousness of Keitel’s character especially. He’s always testing how long he can hold his finger to an open flame, which calls to mind the fire and brimstone imagery of Roman Catholicism at the time as well as their self-flagellating approach to atoning for one’s sins. Keitel’s character’s motivations are driven out of a fundamental Catholic guilt—from his association with his friends to his courtship with his girlfriend— but his constant doubt about his worthiness in Jesus’ eyes gives MEAN STREETS a rich ideological complexity that feels just as relevant today as it did then.
MEAN STREETS debuted to near-unanimous critical applause, hailed for its boldness in storytelling and technical mastery of craft despite its low budget. And rightly so—MEAN STREETS is essentially a cinematic declaration by Scorsese, announcing his presence to the world and just what he thought of it. It was a career breakout for both the young director and his two leads, and with De Niro in particular it was the blossoming of a long, fruitful working relationship that would last decades. MEAN STREETS plays like Scorsese’s true first feature, wherein his aesthetic was solidified and the potent cocktail of elements that constituted a “Scorsese film” first gained traction as a tangible idea. In the years since its release, Scorsese has gone on to fulfill the initial promise of MEAN STREETS with a string of inarguably classic works, becoming one of America’s most treasured auteurs in the process. It may not have won a great deal of awards in its day, but MEAN STREETShas proved its staying power with its inclusion into the National Film Registry in 1997, ensuring that Scorsese’s groundbreaking breakout will be accessible to film lovers for generations to come.
MEAN STREETS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.
Produced by: Jonathan T. Taplin
Written by: Martin Scorsese
Director of Photography: Kent Wakeford
Edited by: Sidney Levin and Martin Scorsese