I was ten years old when Mean Streets came out and I saw it with my parents. It opened with what looked like home movies and in the background I saw the familiar landscape of lower Manhattan, where my father took me when he worked construction. Because there were no special effects or fancy edits, the image of home movies stayed with me throughout the film and I identified with the people and the neighborhood I was watching. This was the first time I had really seen people I knew on a big screen. I didn’t know them specifically, but they reminded me of my family and my family’s friends. They talked like we did. They acted like we did. I recognized the restaurants and streets. They dressed in suits and ties on a daily basis, while I was used to seeing adults in jeans and work boots, but other than that, I recognized every one of them. I figured the guy who made the movie must have had a blast making it, because he probably only had to go down a couple flights of stairs to go to work. And what work. He showed the two main characters in the middle of the night, in the middle of the street, play-fighting with garbage can lids, making “beezh beezh” sounds like kids do when they pretend punch. It reminded me mostly of my favorite film, when I was ten (and to this day), Dead End. I’ve stayed familiar with the man behind the movie, seeing the world I knew through his lens over and over. I sat two tables over from him once in an Italian restaurant and it was all I could do not to walk over and start talking to him. We call him “Cousin Marty” in my house.
Mean Streets first flickered past Martin Scorsese through the big screen of his bedroom window when he was a kid, holed up in his apartment because of asthma. The small-time neighborhood crooks like the film’s Charlie, Johnny Boy, Tony and Michael exerted as much influence on the director who almost became a priest as did the church or the cinema. He would return to these gangster roots many times, in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, with greater and greater authority. The Jake LaMotta biopic Raging Bull is set in the mob-connected world of boxing. Jake “the fake” took a dive in a bout against Billy Fox on orders from Frank Carbo, the most powerful behind-the-scenes force in boxing at the time, for his boss, Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese. Scorsese made his bones in film behind the lens in the rock world, as a cameraman at the Rolling Stones’ free outdoor concert at Altamont that became “Gimme Shelter,” assistant directing and editing Woodstock and editing Elvis tour footage. Mean Streets moves with the rhythms of rock and roll. We hear doo-wop harmonies, girl-group oldies, Italian pop favorites and contemporary Rolling Stones hits blasting from the jukeboxes. Salsa blares from the windows. Italian marches blow on the streets. Motown hits scream from car radios.
Mean Streets doesn’t play out on the manicured Long Island lawns of The Godfather, where elite dons live like kings and commute for crime. These are the day-job enforcers. These are Goodfellas on a $500,000 budget. John Cassavetes urged Scorsese to take a chance on making a personal film after spending a year on the “piece of shit” Roger Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Mardik Martin, while driving around Little Italy. Interiors may have been shot in Los Angeles, but the film lives and breathes on location, fed on the feast of San Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples. The Roman Catholic faithful gather at Naples Cathedral three times a year to witness the martyred Bishop’s blood liquefy. Mean Streets was intended to be the last part of the unrealized “J.R. trilogy” of autobiographical Catholic-guilt films that he began with Who’s That Knocking on My Door, which was also set in Manhattan’s Little Italy and which also starred Harvey Keitel.
In Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, who collects protection money for his uncle Giovanni (played by Cesare Danova who lost Ann Margaret to Elvis in Viva Las Vegas). Charlie is slated to take over a bankrupt restaurant if he can get away from his “sick in the head” girlfriend (Amy Robinson, who went on to produce Scorsese’s After Hours, among other films) and dead end friends, like Johnny Boy. Charlie feels responsible, his Catholic guilt doesn’t square with his day job (St. Francis didn’t run numbers), for the sins and transgressions of his friend Johnny Boy. He sees his friend’s spiraling self-destruction as penance. Everybody’s got a crazy friend or uncle; one of my uncles stole a Jersey City cop car and abandoned it on the Brooklyn Bridge. Robert De Niro plays Johnny Boy with a reckless “I don’t give a shit” attitude that steals the film with the same ease Johnny Boy ducks his own debts. Until Martin Scorsese, pulling an Alfred Hitchcock turn as a goon hired by the loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus), shoots him. Not to death, though. Johnny Boy is condemned to live. To go back to the neighborhood. As a kid, my favorite character was Tony, the wise guy who loved William Blake and cuddled up with a caged wildcat in the basement of his bar, Volpe’s Topless. Tony was played by the magnificent David Proval, best known as the quintessential “Manson Lamps” character Richie Aprile on The Sopranos, but who’s been in everything, including the animated cult classic Wizards as the robot hitman Necron 99.
Any mook can start trouble on Scorsese’s Mean Streets. One bad word can get punches flying. Tony rakes a junkie from the bathroom through the bar and out into the street, dragging his dealer with him, a soldier celebrating his return from Vietnam breaks up his own party, a drinker jumps over a table to lay into a guy without warning. Violence erupts without warning and gets spent just as quickly, so as not to ruin the tough guys’ nicer shoes. Johnny Boy antagonizes the bookie Joey (George Memmoli) while Charlie is brokering pay for a winning bet for a friend. This results in a bar fight that plays out with only-almost-reckless abandon until Joey takes a break to pay off a beat cop (“Lemme give you car fare, how far you going?” “Jersey … Philadelphia”). The brothers Carradine, David and Robert, share a great scene as a hit plays itself out drunkenly at the urinal at Tony’s place and spills out into the bar. The neighborhood padrone, Giovanni, is past his time of violence. He counsels Charlie to be patient and honorable, giving the same advice he gave Charlie’s father. Reminding them that all Charlie Lucky had to do was “be there” to help the ball-busting government keep peace on the docks during wartime.
Charlie doesn’t straighten himself out with the church or the streets. He can’t save his friend from himself and he can’t make him see reason and pay off Michael. Charlie doesn’t get made, but Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel all got their buttons from this film. Mean Streets is one of cinema’s most influential films because it is one of the most personal. It is so much a home movie that it could pair Martin with Catherine Scorsese for a third, but hardly last, time. The director and the actors are at home and unselfconscious. Every scene feels improvised and spontaneous. The landscape of New York City has gone through a lot of changes since 1973, but there are sections of Manhattan’s Little Italy that haven’t changed. Some of the buildings have new stores or restaurants and the street signs have changed color and design, but parts are still frozen in time, like a home movie. Ultimately Mean Streets is a story about redemption denied. No matter how long you hold your hands in the flame you can’t burn away the sins you earn on the street because you don’t “fuck with the ultimate.”
Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
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