Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? An invigorating portrait of young toughs in New York
What did I get? Mean Streets is about as near to legendary as movies get. It was made with no profile and opened to no fanfare; it heralded the arrival of one of our country’s great popular artists; it served both as a repository of previous filmic history and as a pointer for the way forward; it deals with a setting, Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, that the intervening time has rendered magical, alluring, forever lost; and it provided a working template for American filmmakers for decades to come (for some reason, 1998’s Rounders sticks in my mind as the most obvious benefactor). That the legend exists, there can be no doubt. How accurate is it? We shall see.
Scorsese turned out to be the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was supposed to be but wasn’t, quite. Where Bogdanovich was studied and cerebral, Scorsese was vital and emotional. Scorsese was more at home with his passions, more willing to deviate from a schema, combine genre elements and the most personal impressions, to the point that you couldn’t distinguish them. Scorsese lived in genre elements, it seemed. Scorsese is like Bogdanovich a storehouse of cinema history, but he manages to live fully in the present.
Mean Streets is primarily about Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young man with a future in organized crime. He’s fundamentally “well-behaved” but has his moments of slippage as well, most memorably in the long single take in which he staggers through a bar in a moment of crisis, finally ending up with his face on the floor (all executed with a camera strapped to his chest). Charlie’s concern in the movie is to safeguard his advances through the family business while also looking out for his irresponsible friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is in the process of squandering his place in this system. Concerned over the state of his Catholic soul, Charlie sees in Johnny Boy an opportunity to appease his own Catholic guilt.
Part of what makes Mean Streets work is, oddly, its lack of pretension. Charlie’s religious concerns, for instance, seem potentially showy or high-flown but are actually a perfectly valid topic of concern, and Scorsese gives it its due weight but not a jot more. We get a glimpse of The Searchers and The Tomb of Ligeia, but, to Scorsese’s credit, Mean Streets does not overweeningly resemble the work of an obvious cinéaste (as Bogdanovich’s movies do). Scorsese has a tight handle on who these people are and is interested in not much more than presenting that — he’s not “saying” anything big, he’s showing us something.
Johnny Boy is the most maddening and therefore engrossing character in the movie. Introduced blowing a mailbox to smithereens, he never gets much less memorable than that. The casting of De Niro to play Johnny Boy is very interesting: Johnny Boy is dumb, but De Niro makes him somehow quick too. He’s lively and creative in his bullshit, not just some ordinary dumb guy; we would not be interested in that. He’s a dumb guy with a lot of spark, one who can’t get involved in his own long-term goals, like the vig he’ll owe two weeks hence. The story of getting in too deep in the old neighborhood is a familiar one, but the idea of pal Michael actually having Johnny Boy killed doesn’t quite ring true. Maybe I’m wrong about this.
The resonances between Lucas’s American Graffiti and Mean Streets are striking. Not only were Graffiti and Mean Streets released within a couple months of each other, but due to Graffiti‘s long run at the top of the box office charts, they are separated in the Boffo list by a single movie, Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. Graffiti and Mean Streets share a lot — and the differences are telling. Both focus on the heady, impetuous adventures of a quartet of young friends, both have only the most glancing relationship to what would traditionally be called plot, and both rely heavily on the jukebox hits of the 1950s.
Why does Mean Streets cut so much deeper? (One might equally well ask, Why was Graffiti such an instantaneous sensation? The answers to the two questions are the same.) Whereas Graffiti is set in spacious, relaxed Modesto, California, Mean Streets is set in cramped, dingy, vital New York City, which automatically lends more “realism” to the proceedings. Unlike the callow foursome in Graffiti, the protagonists in Mean Streets are already on their primary life path; they are already immersed in the complications of life. And while the nostalgic pull of Mean Streets is similar to that of Graffiti, it’s set in the present day of 1973 instead of far-off, idealized 1962. (That very difference in time allows Scorsese to broaden the musical palette to include his beloved Stones and Clapton.) Finally, Lucas’s protagonists are somewhat generic; Scorsese’s quicker sense of psychology ensures that his characters are better individuated.
It must also be said that Graffiti is decidedly more polished and more immediately entertaining, more legible for the uninitated. Mean Streets is raw, blurry, violent, and experimental; it’s not surprising that it had to wait a while to find its cult. Mean Streets is set up as a series of set pieces, and the loose structure works because each individual sequence works perfectly well on its own terms and never feels anything less than fresh. The pleasures of Mean Streets are those of watching a sensibility be captured, vivid and inexact, and the movie is a triumph because Scorsese, even as he blends genre points of betrayal and loyalty among the Italian famiglia, is fundamentally honest about his outsize emotions he was feeling and the wild scenes he must have witnessed. Was asthmatic little Marty projecting a touch with all the barroom fights and even casting himself as an assassin? It seems possible.
You routinely hear Mean Streets called a masterpiece. I’m more comfortable calling it a prelude to the masterpieces to come, but it’s a hell of a movie.
What here smacks of 1973? The images of a low-rent (literally) downtown Manhattan.
IMDB score: 7.5
My score: 9
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova, Victor Argo, George Memmoli, Lenny Scaletta, Jeannie Bell, Murray Moston, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Lois Walden, Harry Northup
IMDB synopsis: The future is set for Tony and Michael – owning a neighbour- hood bar and making deals in the mean streets of New York city’s Little Italy. For Charlie, the future is less clearly defined. A small-time hood, he works for his uncle, making collections and reclaiming bad debts. He’s probably too nice to succeed. In love with a woman his uncle disapproves of (because of her epilepsy) and a friend of her cousin, Johnny Boy, a near psychotic whose trouble-making threatens them all – he can’t reconcile opposing values. A failed attempt to escape (to Brooklyn) moves them all a step closer to a bitter, almost preordained future.