Retro Cinema | Mean Streets (1973)

MEAN STREETS is one of the greats of Scorcese and in this 40th anniversary year of TAXI DRIVER we have decided to review one or more of his masterpieces. I was one years old when MEAN STREETS released and four when TAXI DRIVER turned on its meter. A little confession, never seen either of them all the way through hahaha – OK – hold on, don’t tell me off, they just held little meaning to me back then and I have never gotten around to it – have put them both on the list to watch soon. One of our lovely overseas correspondents, Maysa Monção wrote to us and asked if we would be interested in posting a review of Scorcese’s 9th and I was most keen. We will call this the debut in our “Retro Cinema Grange Range.” Now without further ado enjoy the thoughts of Maysa on this much applauded movie…….all the best……..JK.


Mean Streets Movie Poster image


When a style becomes popular, people do not pay attention to it anymore. It becomes mainstream, established, conformist. Popularity wipes away any trace of brilliance. This is probably what happened to Martin Scorsese throughout the years. His influence was so broadcasted, that Scorsese himself lost his “aura,” he turned into a copy. Had Walter Benjamin lived in the late 20th century, he would have included Scorsese as an example in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Tarantino, for example, is a sponge of movies, an echo chamber of Scorsese’s techniques. As Oscar Wilde said: “Talent borrows. Genius steals!”

Although it might be tiring to repeat why Scorsese is still a genius, there are plenty of reasons why you should revisit his first works. A prosaic motive is the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of TAXI DRIVER, one of the most famous collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro. This week marks the 40th Anniversary of TAXI DRIVER, following the screening at Beacon Theatre (New York), Scorsese, De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Paul Schrader held a special QnA at Tribeca Film Festival. But you do not have to be in the Big Apple to celebrate it.

But this isn’t about TAXI DRIVER, it is about another of Scorcese’s masterpieces, MEAN STREETS, this one can be easily found on the eBay, the net or suss your streaming provider. In fact in this movie it is possible to see every single one of Scorsese’s stylistic obsessions.


Mean Streets Movie image of Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy


The story is simple. Some guys run a neighbourhood bar and make deals in the mean streets of Little Italy, New York City. The first draft of MEAN STREETS focused on Charlie’s (played by Harvey Keitel) religious conflict and its effect on his worldview. Being part of a violent gang, and having a Catholic faith, Charlie tries to negotiate his sins with the priest: “I do my own penalties for my own sins. What do you say, Father?” The duality criminal life/Catholicism is something typical of Mafia movies, but in early 70s they were fewer: MAFIOSO (Alberto Lattuada, 1962), AL CAPONE, (Richard Wilson, 1959), TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (Jacques Bequer, 1954). They were more gangster films, and less psychologically impressionable.

Apart fromWHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), MEAN STREETS is Scorsese’s first feature of his own design. It follows BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), filmed in Arkansas and considered a big mistake. John Cassavetes, one of Scorsese’s great influences, told him “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” So Scorcese got back to his roots, to what he was familiar with. The events portrayed in his mafia films are what he regularly eyewitnessed growing up in Little Italy. He even brought his mother to it. Catherine Scorsese was uncredited but she is the woman who helps Teresa on the stairs while she is having an epileptic attack. Catherine would re-appear in GOODFELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1995).


Mean Streets movie image of Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy and David Proval as Johnny Boy at a bar


Scorsese cast Harvey Keitel, who brought De Niro to play Johnny Boy. The duo has an incredible charisma in the screen, reproducing funny and convincing dialogues of people from the street. Often music substitutes words and accompanies violence, the soundtrack tells multiple aspects about the characters: mixing Jumping Jack Flash and arias of the opera Dom Giovanni can be futile nowadays. In early Scorsese’s movies it consists of another layer of meaning.

The setting of Little Italy presents other super-explored places, now considered cliches in the genre: churches, cemeteries, San Gennaro parade (repeated in THE GODFATHER), low life scenarios such as strip-tease bars. Lots of red and black in the cinematography. Sin, sin, sin.

At last, in MEAN STREETS Scorsese starts to show off his great ability with the camera movements. From sweeping booms to jarring static lensing and tracking shots. Camera dances when Charlie is dancing; it stops when Johnny Boy is staring at his opponent; it moves with the car to show the decadent New York night scene.

MEAN STREETS is a tribute to the art of cinema. The first little money Charlie and Johnny Boy earn, they spend going to the movies, representing films in films is another way Scorsese found to say how he loves what he does. Guilt, family loyalty, ambition and fatalism are merely stratagems of an extraordinary storyteller.


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