One of the best things about watching Mean Streets more than 30 years after its debut is that you know what’s coming after this. And so you look and you watch and you listen for little signs—small scenes that are the roots and the seedlings of the Scorsese/De Niro oeuvre.
This was the first film in which they worked together. Down the road would be Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and GoodFellas and Casino.
Scorsese has gone on to become perhaps the greatest director in American cinema. De Niro is one of its finest actors.
So on one level, watching Mean Streets is like finding some old film of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays during their first seasons in the big leagues. The raw talent is there. There are sparks and smoldering potential. And it’s a pleasure to watch because you know you are looking at the start of greatness.
Mean Streets also broke some interesting ground in the mob movie genre.
It was one of the first to tell the story from street level. This is not about a Mafia don or the capo of a crew. It’s about a bunch of guys from the neighborhood who are “connected,” some directly and some, as is more often the case in real life, through a series of vague relationships.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is connected. His uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) heads a crew that runs part of New York’s Little Italy—where the movie is set. He makes collections for his uncle and is on a career path that could lead to bigger and better things.
On the immediate horizon is a chance to take over a restaurant whose owner, deeply in loan shark debt to Giovanni, is ready to give up the establishment to settle his financial score.
“Honorable men go with honorable men,” Giovanni tells Charlie, who understands the concept but is pulled in other directions by his personal ties. The first is his loyalty to Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a boyhood friend. Johnny Boy isn’t very connected and is hardly honorable. The other is his love interest in Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson). She’s considered “sick in the head” by Giovanni because she suffers from epilepsy.
Scorsese, who cowrote the script, weaves his story about the mob and street life around those characters and those relationships. There’s a lot of Catholicism built in as well, with talk of guilt and redemption and burning in hell—all hallmarks of the Catholic Church in Scorsese’s formative years.
In an interview in London’s Telegraph in 2010, Scorsese described how the story and its conflicts came from his own background.
“The world I came from was very much based on loyalty and trust,” said the director, who grew up on Elizabeth Street in the heart of New York’s Little Italy. “And I think that’s why so many of the stories I’ve done are rooted in a kind of tribal behavior that has to do with betrayal. When a person does ‘betray’ the other—he or she—why does that happen? What puts that person very often in a place where they have no choice, they couldn’t do otherwise—and where the decision is not good either way.”
Charlie has to choose, and in the end he, Johnny Boy and Teresa pay a price.
De Niro’s Johnny Boy, a neighborhood screw-up constantly bobbing and weaving away from loan sharks, is the primary reason Charlie finds himself in that place of conflict that Scorsese described.
Time and again, Charlie sides with his friend, even though he knows it flies in the face of the rules of the street and, more importantly, that it violates the rules of the honored society that his uncle is so much a part of.
Johnny Boy, a free agent and a force of nature who bounces around the neighborhood to the beat of a drummer only he can hear, could care less about the mob. His confrontation with Michael (Richard Romanus), a wiseguy loan shark trying to collect, establishes his character early in the movie.
“Michael, you make me laugh,” says Johnny Boy in a scene that hints at the acting chops we see writ large in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. “You see, I borrow money all over this neighborhood, left and right from everybody. I never pay them back. So I can’t borrow no money from nobody no more, right? So, who would that leave me to borrow money from but you? I borrow money from you because you’re the only jerk-off around here who I can borrow money from without payin’ back, right?”
Somehow, in Johnny Boy’s twisted logic, it’s Michael’s fault that he owes him money.
But that’s life on the streets. It doesn’t have to make sense. Mean Streets captures that rhythm.
So we see the guys hustling a couple of teenagers out of $40 by selling them bogus fireworks. And we follow them to a pool hall where they intend to collect a $235 debt, but instead get into a fight over the meaning of the word “mook.” Or we listen as Charlie and his friend Tony (David Proval) discuss St. Francis of Assisi, a hero in Charlie’s angst-ridden Catholic mind. There is a part of Charlie that wants to do good. And a part of him that wants to be a gangster.
“Francis of Assisi had it all down,” Charlie says.
“St. Francis didn’t run numbers,” Tony replies.
All of this comes from the neighborhoods where Scorsese and De Niro grew up. Mean Streets brings it to life.
A soundtrack that includes classics like “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes, “Please Mister Postman” by the Marvelettes, and a pulsating “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones (the topic of a recent Scorsese documentary) goes a long way in helping set the mood.
But it’s the acting in the film’s series of character studies and small dramas that drives the story.
Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, praised Scorsese for creating a script that “faces its characters and their world head-on.
“It never looks over their shoulder or takes a position above their heads in order to impose a self-conscious relevance on them. There is no need to.”
That, Canby wrote, is what filmmaking is all about.
Mean Streets helped define a genre. But more important, it marked the start of something extraordinary in the American cinema.
HIT: Pick almost any scene and there’s something worth watching. Scorsese made slicker, better-crafted movies as his career progressed, but the nuts and bolts of who he is and what he’s about are here.
MISS: In that same vein, some of the camera action is disconcerting. This film was made on a limited budget—about $600,000—and primarily shot with hand-held cameras. This added to its almost documentary feel at times. But at other times, it was both dizzying and off-putting, like a home movie. A small nit to pick, but there none the less.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Instead of developing these characters and their complex interactions, [Mean Streets] remains content to sketch in their day-to-day happenings. But Scorsese is exceptionally good at guiding his largely unknown cast to near-flawless recreations of types. Outstanding in this regard is De Niro.”—Variety
BEST LINE: “You don’t make up for your sins in the Church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it,” muses Charlie in a voice-over of his thoughts as the movie opens. The comments set the tone for what’s to come. (Scorsese, rather than Keitel, did the lines.)
CASTING CALL: Scorsese’s mentor, independent filmmaker Roger Corman, was willing to finance the film but wanted Scorsese to change the story and use an all-black cast. Scorsese turned down the offer.
“I KNOW THAT GAL”: Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, has a cameo as the apartment neighbor who comes to Teresa’s aid when she has an epileptic fit. She is also the woman seen closing the window at the end of the film. Scorsese has used his mother in several of his films. She was, for example, cast as Joe Pesci’s mother in GoodFellas, playing the classic kitchen scene in which her son asked to borrow a knife.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Scorsese and Mardik Martin wrote the script while driving around New York’s Little Italy, stopping to write and absorb scenes and settings. The screenplay was originally called Season of the Witch, but was changed to Mean Streets, a title taken from a line in a Raymond Chandler essay called “The Simple Art of Murder.”
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: A classic that the Library of Congress has included among films worth preserving in the National Film Registry, Mean Streets is worth a second, third and fourth look. Once a year, at least.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Lots of shouting. Plenty of cursing. Not much shooting,
BODY COUNT: Three.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Scorsese’s first full-length film, Who’s That Knocking on My Door (1967), is another story about life in Little Italy. Keitel also plays a major role in this one, again portraying a young Italian-American trying to figure out life.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”