Mean Streets at 50: The Start of the Scorsese Revolution

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets at 50: The Start of the Scorsese Revolution

The Martin Scorsese revolution officially began with Mean Streets.

Oh sure, he already had two features under his belt: His indie debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door and the Roger Corman-produced Bonnie and Clyde ripoff Boxcar Bertha (like many of the New Hollywood kids who invaded Tinseltown in the ‘70s, Scorsese got his start working for the B-movie king). But Mean Streets, which came out 50 years ago this weekend, is where it all began. Everything you know, love or despise about Scorsese’s filmmaking style can be found here: Loose, semi-improvised acting, pop-music needle drops, slo-mo shots, male characters behaving badly, moments of startling violence chased with moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, themes of family, loyalty and Catholic guilt—and, of course, New York City. (However, interior scenes were shot in L.A.)

Made for a half-million dollars (it eventually grossed $3 million), Mean Streets is the movie that made people take notice of the asthmatic filmmaker from the East Coast. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called it “a triumph of personal filmmaking.” Roger Ebert, one of Scorsese’s longtime supporters, was wowed by the film’s authenticity: “The whole movie feels like life in New York; there are scenes in a sleazy nightclub, on fire escapes, and in bars, and they all feel as if Scorsese has been there.”

Scorsese had, in fact, been there. He based the film on his experiences growing up in Little Italy in the late 1950s. (This explains why the soundtrack is littered with doo-wop and R&B songs from that era.) Harvey Keitel, who starred in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, plays Scorsese stand-in Charlie. A standard-issue conflicted Catholic (much like his character in Who’s That Knocking at My Door), Charlie is the closest-to-moral member of the gang of hoods who are front-and-center of this story. We are introduced to each one of them during an opening sequence: There’s go-go bar owner Tony (David Proval), inventory-moving hustler Michael (Richard Romanus) and mailbox-exploding loose cannon Johnny Boy (a shaggy-haired Robert De Niro). We meet Charlie at the end of this sequence, praying at a church, having an interior conversation with God which he goes in and out of throughout the film. 

As a sharp-dressed collector for a powerful mafioso (veteran actor Cesare Danova), Charlie tries to keep the peace with everyone around him. He constantly has to clean up the messes made by Johnny Boy, who owes everyone in the neighborhood money—including Michael, who wants him to pay up. Charlie’s also having a secret romance with Johnny Boy’s mouthy, epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson, who would go to produce movies like Scorsese’s ‘80s black comedy After Hours), who wants him to leave the neighborhood with her.

Mean Streets is, to borrow a term from obvious Scorsese disciple Quentin Tarantino, a hangout movie. You spend nearly two hours with these hoodlum homies as they scam naïve buyers for moviegoing money, get blitzed at Tony’s bar (for a memorable shot where Charlie spirals into a drunken stupor, Keitel was strapped to a homemade camera harness) and raise all kinds of loud ruckus, from fighting with trash can lids to popping off gunshots on a rooftop. These man-children don’t incite violence so much as they get swept up into it. A famous scene has Charlie, Tony and Johnny Boy getting into a pool-hall scuffle when the rotund owner calls them mooks, a term that leaves them more befuddled than offended. Another has them fleeing the scene after a drunk (David Carradine?!) gets gunned down—once again at Tony’s bar—by a mysterious hitman (Robert Carradine, David’s baby brother). Eventually, the chaos Charlie spends most of the movie avoiding ends up getting him (thanks to Johnny Boy, of course) in the adrenaline-charged final act.

The streets were just as mean to Scorsese (who also has a brief role as a guy named Johnny Shorts) when he began looking to get Mean Streets made. After mentor and movie maverick John Cassavetes encouraged him to make something personal after Boxcar Bertha (“a piece of shit,” as Cassavetes called it), he wrote Mean Streets—then called Season of the Witch—with NYU classmate (and Raging Bull co-writer) Mardik Martin. 

Getting financing was so tough, Scorsese briefly considered making the film with Corman, who wanted Scorsese to turn it into a Blaxploitation film. Thankfully, Jonathan Taplin, tour manager for The Band, came through with money for the budget when he became the movie’s producer. I guess this is also where Scorsese started his relationship with The Band (whose farewell concert he brilliantly captured in 1978’s The Last Waltz) and late frontman Robbie Robertson (who would score several Scorsese films and have quite the hedonistic, near-fatal friendship with him).

Mean Streets isn’t just a love letter to Scorsese’s Italian-American upbringing. It’s also a valentine to the Italian neorealism films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. As anyone who’s seen his 1999 Giorgio Armani-produced documentary My Voyage to Italy can attest, Scorsese has a deep love and admiration for filmmakers from the old country. From Rossellini to Antonioni to, of course, Fellini (Mean Streets is practically Scorsese’s grimy remake of Fellini’s hangout movie I Vitelloni), their influence is all over Mean Streets.

And just as Italian auteurs have inspired Scorsese, Mean Streets has inspired so many films and filmmakers. You can see it in Barry Levinson’s Diner, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Hype Williams’ Belly. It’s evident that Scorsese’s dolly shot of Keitel, practically gliding in a scene where he dances around Tony’s bar, inspired Spike Lee to famously use dolly shots in his movies. Years and years ago, I attended a presentation given by John Pierson, indie filmmaker and author of the arthouse memoir Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes. He played the opening scene of Mean Streets, where Charlie wakes up from a bad dream, and follows it with a clip from Nick Gomez’s 1992 debut Laws of Gravity, which rips off the exact same scene beat for beat.

Mean Streets was the first collab between Scorsese and De Niro (whose performance got him Best Supporting Actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Critics Circle), a director-star partnership that has spawned many motion-picture masterworks. (We won’t talk about the “musical.”) The partnership continues to this day, with De Niro co-starring in Scorsese’s upcoming epic Killers of the Flower Moon. And with Mean Streets getting a Criterion Collection release next month, people who mostly know Martin Scorsese as the guy who made Taxi Driver or the guy who made Goodfellas or the guy who made a bunch of Marvel fans lose their shit when he criticized their precious MCU movies can watch the film that set everything off. 

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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