Cinematic Pleasures: Mean Streets
by j.d. lafrance
Martin Scorsese's truly great films have all had a personal touch to them. One only has to look at films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) to see a real vitality and energy to the action on-screen. It is these early films that convey a real sense of someone intensely in love with film - which may be due in part to the fact that Scorsese and his cast and crew were just starting out. Mean Streets, in particular, is a visceral, intimate experience that is just potent today as it was when it first came out.
Mean Streets takes the notion of the American success story and reduces it to almost nothing. The characters that inhabit this film are small-time hustlers and punks with no real direction in life and no future. Set in the "Little Italy" neighbourhood of New York City, we are introduced to most of the main characters in the opening moments of the film. Each one is given his own little scene in order to showcase his distinct character-defining obsession. We first meet Tony (David Proval), the order-obsessed owner of a local bar, as he throws out a junkie and then chastises his bouncer for his lack of initiative. Next, is Michael (Richard Romanus), a serious looking loan shark who ineptly tries to sell a man a shipment of German lenses only to be told by the customer that they are actually Japanese adapters. This is followed by the explosive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a happy-go-lucky punk who gleefully blows up a mailbox and then runs off. Finally, we meet the film's protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young man who is embroiled in conflict - both personal and external.
Charlie is torn between two worlds: the static isolation of his uncle's environment and the constricting chaos of Johnny Boy's lifestyle. He must make a choice between the two, while trying to exist in both. Conflict occurs when these two worlds inevitably collide and Charlie is left to pick up the pieces. This revisionist approach is in stark contrast to the traditional gangster film which almost always follows a curve that traces the criminal's rise and eventual fall. However, Scorsese disrupts this notion by having no rise and leaving the fall unresolved. The only thing that is truly alive and vital in the film is Scorsese's camera which dollies and tracks all over the place with incredible energy and enthusiasm that is truly infectious.
The source of this intensity stems from Scorsese's personal identification with the material. At the time, the young filmmaker was writing the screenplay for Mean Streets (then known as Season of the Witch) and he had just finished wrapping up Boxcar Bertha (1972) for B-Movie guru Roger Corman. Scorsese showed the rough cut of the latter to famous actor/director John Cassavetes, who told him, "you just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit. You're better than that stuff, you don't do that again." Cassavetes asked Scorsese if he was working on something that he really wanted to do. He showed him the Season of the Witch script and Cassavetes urged Scorsese to work on his own material and not on others.
So the aspiring auteur began to seek financial backing for his script, which initially began as a continuation of the characters in his first film, Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1968). Scorsese changed the title to Mean Streets, a reference to famous pulp writer Raymond Chandler, and sent the script to Corman, who agreed to back the film if all the characters were black. Scorsese was so anxious to make the film that he actually considered this option, but fortunately actress Verna Bloom arranged a meeting with potential financial backer, Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the musical group, The Band. Taplin liked the script and was willing to raise the $300,000 budget that Scorsese wanted if Corman promised, in writing, to distribute the film.
According to Scorsese, the first draft of Mean Streets focused on the religious conflict within Charlie and how it affected his worldview. "See, the whole idea was to make a story of a modern saint, a saint in his own society, but his society happens to be gangsters." Along with fellow writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese wrote the whole script while driving around "Little Italy" in Martin's car. They would find a spot in the neighbourhood to park and begin writing, all the while immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of what would eventually appear on-screen. Mean Streets for them was a response to the epic grandeur of The Godfather novel. "To us, it was bullshit," Martin remembers, "It didn't seem to be about the gangsters we knew, the petty ones you see around. We wanted to tell the story about real gangsters." It is this rejection of the often pretentious and operatic approach of The Godfather films that really makes Mean Streets distinctive. It was one of the few gangster films, at the time, to use a personal, almost home-movie view of its subjects. The settings and situations are so intimate and personal that you almost feel embarrassed, as if you are intruding on someone's actual life.
Once the financing was in place, Scorsese began to recruit his cast. Robert De Niro had met the director in 1972 and liked what he had seen in Who's That Knocking. De Niro was impressed with how the film had so accurately captured life in "Little Italy" where he had also grown up. Scorsese offered the actor four different roles, but he could not decide which one he wanted to portray - they all had interesting aspects to them.
After another actor dropped out of the project, Scorsese cast Harvey Keitel in the pivotal role of Charlie. Keitel's first film was also Scorsese's debut with Who's That Knocking, and as a result, the two already had a rapport. This may explain why the director ignored the fact that the actor had little experience, and instead opted for a certain amount of rawness and a familiarity with the subject matter that Keitel possessed. Scorsese's gamble paid off and Keitel's strong performance is one of the many highlights of Mean Streets. He manages to convey the inner turmoil that threatens to consume Charlie's character as he struggles to save everyone around him and ends up saving no one.
Keitel was also responsible for convincing De Niro to play Johnny Boy. "I didn't see myself as Johnny Boy as written, but we improvised in rehearsal and the part evolved." This improvisation also resulted in some of the most memorable scenes in the film, including the back room conversation between their two characters where Johnny Boy explains to Charlie, in a rather humourous fashion, why he has no money to pay off his debt to Michael. It is also incredible to see how much energy De Niro instills in Johnny Boy - the embodiment of the film's frenetic force. He is the unpredictable element in Charlie's otherwise, structured world. Whenever Johnny Boy is on-screen the camera mimics his furious pace that absolutely bristles with intensity. Scorsese reinforces this energy in an early scene where Johnny Boy enters Tony's bar to the strains of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones. Even though the entrance is captured in a slow motion tracking shot, DeNiro's character is so energetic that not even this technique can slow him down.
The whole cast was prone to improvising dialogue and Scorsese only encouraged them more by creating a very collaborative atmosphere to the whole shoot. This provided actors like Keitel room to grow and learn their craft. "Mine was a gut, root, raw experience of trying to express myself, and express the character of Charlie in Mean Streets, and trying to discover what it meant to express yourself in a character. I was learning my technique, learning how to apply it. Marty and I always discussed a scene, and usually he trusted me to do what I had in my mind to do." This trust resulted in a great performance from not only Keitel but the whole cast who transformed into their characters effortlessly.
Keitel was not the only actor who felt like he could make his character his own; the whole cast was encouraged to personalize their roles. Richard Romanus, who played Michael in the film, remembers that Scorsese "allowed you to flesh out the character. Even if you were in the middle of a scene and something came up that was organic, he wouldn't dismiss it. He would respond to it, and he would probably include it. To me, that is his great gift. He's an actor's director." This approach created a fun environment for the cast and crew to work in and allowed them more opportunity to be creative. As a result, Scorsese, as he put it, "kept pushing the limits of the budget and drove everybody crazy. But that was the only thing we could do because the more we got down there, the more fun we had and the more we realized the atmosphere we wanted to get." To his credit, Scorsese and his crew achieve this effect with smoky, dimly-lit bars for his characters to inhabit and an amazing classic rock soundtrack to compliment the proceedings. There are several moments in the film where the actors are laughing at something and it seems like they are genuinely enjoying the moment and the experience of making this film which only enhances the enjoyment of watching it.
One of the real joys of Mean Streets is the way Scorsese's camera captures the action. The camera is restless and frantic as it moves in tight, narrow spaces that lead to dead ends. This is done to convey the destiny of the characters. They are full of energy, but are going nowhere in life. In Mean Streets, Scorsese also used a hand-held camera to create a jerky, off-balance effect that conveys the sensation of disorientation. There is no centre of power. No other scene demonstrates this effect more than the famous pool hall brawl where Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Tony go to collect some money from the owner. A fight breaks out when Johnny Boy's bravado insults the owner. Scorsese uses a hand-held camera to convey the constant confusion of the fight. The camera darts and weaves all over the place, following one fight for a while before shifting to another brawl in an indiscriminate fashion. This effect raises the fight to a frightening level as the audience is drawn right into the middle of the pool hall melee. We are in as much danger as the characters, which adds an element of realism not seen in traditional gangster films. The combatants in Mean Streets are not easily identified and separated, but instead everything is mixed up and obscured to duplicate the spontaneity of the ensuing chaos that constitutes a real brawl. The violence has no meaning or nobility and no one becomes a hero or succeeds as a result of using excessive force. After the pool hall fight is broken up, the conversation continues as if it never happened. The fight served no purpose and achieved no real end, except to enliven the characters' mundane existence for a few minutes. Mean Streets excels in its realistic portrayal of violence that goes so far as to implicate the viewer in the spectacle, as the pool hall fight scene illustrates. The camera, and by extension, the viewer enters the fracas, which creates a sense of danger not only for the characters but for the audience as well.
Mean Streets opened at the New York Film Festival to good reviews and good business. It did so well that Scorsese wanted to show it in Los Angeles where, despite favourable reviews, it promptly flopped. However, Mean Streets began to gradually find an audience and has since become an influential and much imitated film amongst up-and-coming independent filmmakers who identify with the low-budget exuberance of Scorsese's film. Even Scorsese himself returned to the same neighbourhood, only with greater command of his craft and on a bigger scale with GoodFellas (1990). One only has to look at indie films like Laws of Gravity (1992), A Bronx Tale (1993), and Federal Hill (1995) to see that Mean Streets still continues to inspire filmmakers more than twenty years after its release.