The screen is black. A voiceover intones: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”A young man wakes from his bed with a start. It’s Harvey Keitel, future icon of screen cool, but in 1973 just a struggling thirty something actor getting dangerously close to being passed by. He gets up and examines his face in the mirror while we hear the sounds of the street coming through his bedroom window. He returns to bed. As he reclines, his head hits the pillow in slow motion. The big, echoing beat of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” – one of pop music’s most magnificent soul symphonies – kicks in as the credits roll, superimposed over a scratchy Super-8 home video reel of the characters we will soon become intimately familiar with. As the song hits its crescendo: Ronnie Spector’s impossibly plaintive chorus of “be my, be my baby” – the film’s title is unveiled in stark, typewritten letters. Mean Streets. That’s one hell of a way to launch a movie. And what a movie. The movie that launched the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro – the most iconic director / actor combination in the history of American cinema – and practically defined the template for gritty realism in film for the decade to come.
Not that you’ll find many people ready and willing to worship at the altar of Scorsese’s breakthrough classic these days. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas all have legions of admirers, but Mean Streets goes curiously unloved, seemingly less and less so as the years slip by. The problem is y’see, that folks are working their way into Scorsese from Goodfellas backwards these days, and by the time they get to Mean Streets they’re carrying a whole baggage load of expectation with them that the film was never equipped to satisfy. Mean Streets is an entirely different beast to the slick, kinetic, tightly constructed crime epic that constituted Goodfellas. It’s Scorsese’s ultra personal examination of catholic guilt, as expressed in the inconsequential day to day lives of a bunch of hoods so minor they barely scrape above the level of street trash. It’s a loose, roughed up and intimate affair that owes more to the improvised narrative structure and raw, live-on-the-street feel of the French New Wave than to anything in Classical Hollywood. It’s a movie that takes an interest in the little details, as opposed to the “big” story. It’s a slice of gritty street life in New York’s Little Italy circa the late 60’s / early 70’s. The characters are people you might well bump into if you hung around there for a while.
Mean Streets is one of those movies that introduces its main characters in a series of brief vignettes, after which their name comes up on the screen on a title card. Sergio Leone did the same thing a few years earlier with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And the same technique would be used again in such later films as Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting. It’s one of those little stylistic touches that never seems to get old. We’re introduced to Michael (Richard Romanus), a low level wheeler-dealer on the make. He’s got pretensions to rise above the gutter level his friends find themselves at. It’s in the imperious manner he has when he holds a cigarette. But he’s held down by the same hustlers’ tribulations afflicting everybody else in this environment. At the start of the film he’s stuck trying to offload a bunch of dodgy camera lenses – “We can’t use these. They’re Jap adaptors” – in a scene that typifies Mean Street’s tone of deadbeat, understated humour. We’re introduced to Tony, played by David Proval, who many years later would later go on to play a much more menacing role as Richie Aprile in The Sopranos. But here he’s the rather cynical and perpetually put-upon manager of the scuzzy strip bar his friends hang out in.
And then there’s Johnny Boy. Has there ever been a movie debut that just galvanises the screen with a searing presence like Robert De Niro’s in Mean Streets? OK, so technically speaking, this wasn’t really De Niro’s debut. He’d been in a few films before. But this was the one that made people really sit up and take notice. From the first moment he appears on the screen, De Niro makes Johnny Boy sing to his tune. We instantly discern what this character is all about. He’s an inveterate delinquent. And he just couldn’t give a fuck about it. Everything in his body language – in the slouching Bronx street cool of his walk – lets you know that this guy is breezily tripping down a road to self destruction, and he’ll blithely take everybody around him down with the ship. Johnny, with his insouciant charm, is probably the most magnetic character in the movie. But at the same time, you realise he’s dimwit and an asshole and you’d probably want to kill him after 15 minutes spent in his company. He’s a natural fuck-up, but he has a sympathetic vulnerability that seems to be endemic to the type. Credit De Niro for bringing such conflicting qualities to the character. I won’t say it’s his best performance – after all, De Niro’s haunting portrayal of Travis Bickle’s descent into delusion and violence in Taxi Driver was still to come – but damn, it does come pretty close to it.
It’s no slight against anybody involved to suggest that De Niro ends up overshadowing the performance of leading man, Harvey Keitel. Not that Keitel’s performance here is problematic. In fact it’s entirely creditable. But you get the impression that Keitel is still feeling his way into his characterisation here. What happened after Mean Streets is now part of movie lore. Robert De Niro would forever replace Keitel as Scorsese’s leading man, while Keitel would go on to get shit-canned from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and have his voice dubbed over in the science fiction stinker, Saturn 3. Happily, Keitel’s career was revived a couple of decades later, when he became the elder statesman of cool in 90’s indie cinema, appearing in a series of powerful performances (Reservoir Dogs, The Bad Lieutenant and The Piano) that forever cemented his status as one of the screen greats of his generation.
In Mean Streets, Keitel plays Charlie, the emotional centre of the movie, and Scorsese’s on-screen alter-ego. Charlie is a guy trapped between his Catholic spiritual longings and the reality of survival on the street. That Charlie tries, and fails, to reconcile these two worlds is essentially what Mean Streets is all about. This is a guy that takes his Catholicism as something far more serious than just going to church and its attendant rituals. In the film’s recurring motif, Charlie holds his hand into a flame, as if reminding himself of hell’s immediacy. He perennially feels guilty, to an almost pathological degree.
Charlie works as a debt collection man for his uncle and local mafia boss, Giovanni. But in reality, he’s just too nice a guy to be effective in the job. He has a modest ticket to the future – a restauranteur has failed to keep up with his debts and must cede ownership to Giovanni – but in order to get the restaurant, Charlie has to keep his uncle happy. Which involves staying away from his clingy, epileptic girlfriend, Teresa, and her cousin Johnny Boy, to whom Charlie appoints himself as guardian and saviour. Charlie wants to please everybody, and of course, ends up pleasing nobody. To some degree, his friends are all contemptuous of his faith and naivety. Johnny Boy is contemptuous of Charlie’s attempts to help him out, Teresa is contemptuous of his reluctance to commit to their relationship and Giovanni is contemptuous of his seeming inability to extricate himself from all of these distractions. Whichever way Charlie turns, he screws himself over.
It’s Johnny Boy’s inexorable sense of feckless self destruction that will be the instrument of Charlie’s downfall. Johnny Boy has been borrowing money from all around town, with no real intention of honouring the debts. Most pointedly from Michael, who repeatedly puts off exacting retribution out of consideration for Charlie. But there’s only so long he will be prepared to swallow Johnny Boy’s brazen disrespect. Charlie, who sees himself as a latter day St. Francis of Assisi, views Johnny Boy as a cause. Saving Johnny is his way of atoning for the sins he commits on the streets. As Johnny Boy points out to Charlie after their world comes crashing down around them – in a throwaway line which also happens to be the most insightful in the movie – “Hey, you wanted this.”
But apart from Scorsese’s heavyweight obsessions with Catholic guilt, redemption and retribution, Mean Streets is also just a movie about guys hanging out. Guys shootin’ the shit and getting into trouble. And this constitutes much of the movie’s charm. It’s an affectionate, funny and compassionate look at the down-and-outers that populated the world of Scorsese’s formative years in Little Italy. These are just hoi polloi street guys trying to make their way in an unforgiving environment. This aspect of the film strongly echoes Federico Fellini’s early classic I vitelloni, which deals with the comic misadventures of a group of young men doing their level best to stave off encroaching responsibility in a dead-end Italian coastal town. Scorsese even cops Fellini’s device of using a separate voice (Scorcese’s own in fact) to differentiate Charlie’s internal thoughts from his speech.
These themes are developed over a series of what are surely some of the best scenes ever committed to celluloid. What about De Niro’s maniacally grinning slow-mo entrance into Tony’s bar with a girl on each arm, accompanied by the driving soundtrack of the Rolling Stone’s low down n’ dirty “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”? The subsequent (totally improvised) conversation between De Niro and Keitel, in which Johnny Boy attempts to explain through some cock and bull story precisely why he’s late for his payments to Michael once again, is worth the price of admission alone. These two actors always had a great connection, working off each others’ energy to create fireworks. The exchanges between Travis Bickle and Sport the Pimp in Taxi Driver would later provide further evidence of their telepathic chemistry together.
Or how about the hilarious “Mook? I’m a Mook? What’s a Mook?” conversation in the basement pool hall, precipitating the funniest, messiest mass brawl in the movies, with Scorsese’s camera gleefully following the action in one long, glorious take while the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” plays on the jukebox. Then there’s De Niro’s funky little dance around Charlie’s car to the tune of the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” on the radio. Johnny Boy has pretty much just signed his own death warrant, and here he is clowning around with a big grin on his face while Charlie exhorts him to get himself into gear. That’s the entire character of Johnny Boy, and his dynamic with Charlie, summed up right there. I could keep on talking about all the great scenes in Mean Streets until I’ve pretty much described the whole movie.
You might notice I keep on mentioning the use of pop music in Mean Streets. That’s because it’s impossible to overstate how much energy these songs bring to the film. Using pre-existing pop music on a soundtrack is commonplace these days – hell, Quentin Tarantino has practically made an art form out of it – but back in 1973 this was simply unheard of. Before Mean Streets, pretty much every film had its own original symphonic score. But Scorsese just took songs directly from his own record collection. Nobody realised that you could just put a bunch of your favourite songs together and make that the soundtrack to your movie. Apparently, over half of Mean Street’s meagre $500,000 budget was taken up by clearing the rights to use these songs. It’s just a great soundtrack.
But Mean Streets is as much a delight to your eyes as it is to your ears. I wouldn’t say its beautiful to look at in the same sense that movies like Chinatown or 2001: A Space Odyssey are beautiful to look at. It’s actually kind of gritty, roughed up and ugly looking. As if somebody had rubbed the print over with sandpaper. And that’s precisely the perfect look for this film. Scorsese uses the full array of stylistic devices he picked up from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard – jump cuts, abrupt cuts and long takes, with plenty of shaky, handheld camera shots and incidental street details creeping into the frame. In some sense Scorsese goes even further than Godard in creating a raw, realistic, almost amateur feel. You could get the sense that the whole thing is some home made documentary shot among friends and cut in somebody’s bedroom. A good deal of attention is paid to the use of colour, with some scenes drained into a stark, moody, sepia tint, and others bathed in a warm red light, like the scenes in Tony’s Bar, as if the place represented a forbidden temptation to Charlie: the dangerous allure of the street.
As if to confirm the whole improvised, slice of life spontaneity of Mean Streets, there’s the impromptu, anti-climatic ending, which on the surface doesn’t appear to explain anything. The very abruptness of Mean Street’sconclusion appears to be one of the biggest issues people have with the film upon their first viewing. I recently screened Mean Streets for my wife – and isn’t that a litmus test of a relationship for a movie fan: how your partner reacts to your favourite movies? – And while she really liked the movie, she hated the ending. Maybe we’ve become too accustomed to the big send-off as an integral part of the whole movie experience. Sometimes we get recent movies that subvert this kind of expectation – check out the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men as an example – but most movies these days like to go out with a bang. We don’t actually get to find out the fates of the characters in Mean Streets – the movie finishes in media res, if you like. I would draw a parallel with the TV show The Sopranos, which concluded on a similar note. But we were also left with some sort of impression as to what the futures of these characters might be like. Same deal in Mean Streets. Everybody survives (most likely) but their immediate fates are nonetheless grim. They can no longer go back to the streets that made them, even if this is all that they really know. What else is there?
Mean Streets – is it Scorsese’s best work? It would take a bold man to make that kind of claim, given what was coming up in the man’s career. At least three other films could make a bid for that title. You couldn’t really call Mean Streets a perfect film; it’s too rough around the edges for that. But like a good punk rock record, the lack of polish only serves to accentuate the movie’s exhilarating, elemental vitality. This was Scorsese in full discovery mode, suddenly filled with the thrill of finding his own, personal cinematic voice. That’s enough to make Mean Streets unmissable. Let’s just say it’s my favourite Scorsese movie, and it has my favourite Robert De Niro performance. Given the flat out iconic brilliance that’s characterised the careers of both of these guys, what more can I really tell you than that? “What’s the matter with you?” “Wha?”