BFI Scorsese Season – Mean Streets (1973)
‘It goes back to that question I had in ‘Mean Streets’, how do you live a good life? A life which is good, meaning compassion, and respect for others, in a world like today or in a world where I grew up, quite honestly’. I think I’m safe in claiming this as the first essential Scorsese film in the canon, the one that he was inspired to make by his mentor John Cassavettes who gave him what we Brits would describe as ruddy good talking to after Marty was bitching about not really finding his muse and expressing himself honestly in the early, atypically difficult phase of any filmmakers career. It’s the usual story of shooting his semi-professional debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door over a period of years as the money was hustled from various vendors, struggling actors falling into and out of the film due to their shifting availability and commitment, begging borrowing or stealing expensive film stock and then being obliterated by ruinous lab processing costs, although he did forge a career long friendship with his initial screen avatar Harvey Keitel. Like all obsessive artists he tenaciously got the film made, and the final piece aroused legendary career shepherd Roger Corman who always had a keen eye for upcoming, hungry talent that he could exploit. Provided he could deliver the requisite level of nudity and violence to satisfy the drive-in circuit Corman offered Scorsese his somophore assignment Boxcar Bertha, providing him with a minuscule budget and the use of a professional crew, fulfilling the next logical step on that long road to becoming an established name in the industry. Although the film was lukewarmly received it made a return on its investment, so an emboldened Scorsese and his writing partner Mardik Martin dusted off their dormant script for a project called Season Of The Witch, a semi-autobiographical narrative inspired by their adolescence and experiences growing up in the rough, seething cauldron of the Lower West Side. Using the same crew as Bertha they embarked on an extremely swift, six figure budgetary shoot, the results of which has been accepted into the Library of Congress as a work of ‘significant cultural, historic or aesthetic significance’, the first Scorsese film proper that brims with queries on faith and moral turbulence in an environment of frequent violence and pea cocking male machismo, and a sly critique on the all-pervasive ideology of the American dream.
Although I am a worshipper at the church of Scorsese I hadn’t seen Mean Streets for years, even though a recent excavation of my streamlined DVD collection unearthed some special edition DVD published in the early noughties. Sure, I’ve always liked the film but it never really gripped me like some of his other cinematic sermons, but as usual a big-screen revisit regenerated my rapture, especially as an initial supporting strut to this two month season. Like his subsequent gangster films Scorsese is more interested in the low-level enforcers, the scuttling con-men and scumbags who operate at the margins of serious organised crime, those who rub shoulders with the strippers and dope-fiends rather than the Machiavellian consigliere’s or ruthless capos. There is a dramatic triangle at the heart of the film, with the ambitious and well connected Charlie (Harvey Keitel) operating as a racketeer with a sense of compassion and patience with his clients, sympathetically listening to their tales of woe while quoting St. Francis of Assisi as he grapples with his spiritual demons. He’s conducting a secret affair with his cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) who wants to move away with him to a safer part of town, but Charlie’s community spirit runs deep and he’s committed to protect his reckless childhood friend Johnny-Boy (De Niro), a degenerate gambler wiseass who owes money to every loan-shark in the district. Charlie is trying his best to be a good man in a bad milieu, boxed in by the traditions and definitions of his social and psychic environment, a theme that runs throughout Scorsese canon. Mean Streets also embedded some of the more recognisable aesthetics of the work, from the vigorous use of boomer era popular music as sly commentary on the motivations and machinations of the characters and plot, to the very first deployment of that trademark slow-motion soundtrack shot;
Proving that the entire so called 1970’s ‘golden age’ of Holllywood owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the nouvelle vague Scorsese has cited that when he saw this (9:53) sequence in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie it was an eureka moment, a stylistic revelation, unchaining the camera from its static observation of the space and instead gliding in long takes through space, incrementally pulling the audience into the fictional world and provoking a sense of energy, of restless kinetics, of moving pictures as a shattering of the usual Hollywood master-shot, shot/reverse-shot syntax. This is signature Scorsese, flexing his cinematic muscles for the first time and finding his aesthetic feet, its overused now of course although we’ve seen deployed to repeated brilliance since.
In terms of cinema history Mean Streets is an important picture, the first collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro which produced such highlights over the intervening decades, those first scenes together always prompting a wry style even as it has slipped into mild cliche. We’re talking spectacular swearing, the slightly off-kilter cadence of dialogue repetition, the immediacy of improvisation which breaks with that forced fiction formalism of most screen performances. De Niro plays the irritating Johnny quite brilliantly as one of those character types we all loathe, the selfish yet somehow cheekily charming self-destructive fuck-up who drags the main protagonist down – think Bernie in Millers Crossing, Ziggy in Season Two of The Wire, or just about any Sam Rockwell performance of the last twenty years. The real character brought so vividly to life though is New York itself, the restless city that never sleeps, teeming and churning with a volatile social energy. Commentators often cite Woody Allen as the ultimate cinematic chronicler of the Big Apple and to be sure he’s had his moments, but just as his international efforts set in London or Milan his camera never strays from the immensely privileged upper class locales, whereas in Mean Streets we are plunged into the cultural stew, the bubbling cauldron of the five boroughs, the spics, wops, niggers and kikes all striving for a score to get through another day, against the incessant distant cries of car horns and mournful emergency service sirens. Oh, I also have to applaud some of the innovations in the film, specifically the drunken Charlie scene which was achieved by strapping an arriflex body brace to Keitel and unleashing the rest of the cast on him, a fine mirror to the films overall hand-held aesthetics which Scorsese embraced as there was little space or time to construct complex camera arrangements on location, the economics and environment demanding a vérité approach which maps perfectly to films urban immediacy.
So finally to see ephemera – surprisingly, through the magic of the movies the film was primarily shot in Los Angeles with only eight days lensed in New York, to give some authenticity to locale and to enable the capture of the context setting San Gennaro religious festival. The crew averaged a remarkable twenty-four set ups a day which belies the urgent energy which bleeds onto the screen, it might be scrappy and you can see some of the rough edges but it all adds to the films asperous credibility. Although his third credit Scorsese has cited this as the first film where he truly learnt to direct a movie, not just mustering the technical aspects to completion but also the mastering the personal themes and injecting them into the material. He also learnt how to conduct and guide rehearsals, the importance of keeping a crew fed, watered and inspired even with mediocre resources, and how you find the story through the shoot and its environmental restrictions, the unpredictable weather, through illness, and the covenants of locations, all inspiring and obstructing in equal measure. Naturally there are a few movie references, the most overt being footage of Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeria in the cinema visit scene and a glimpse pf Lang’s The Big Heat seen on the TV, and you also you might recognise a youthful David Proval who most memorably went on to portray the terrifying Richie Aprile in the middle seasons of The Sopranos. This was a high quality 35mm print that the BFI projected which aided my enjoyment, it was an exceptionally preserved reel which could have passed for an analogue projection except for the usual distress around the reel changes. When Scorsese showed a rough cut of the movie to Coppola he instantly cast De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, accelerating a soaring career which resulted in an Academy Award for Supporting Actor a couple of years later. Scorsese and De Niro were now considered hot properties, and when ambitious husband/wife producers Julia and Michael Philips were considering some key creative posts for their controversial new project they knew that they wanted Scorsese to helm, provided he could also provide his friend in the leading role as a lonely, unhinged Vietnam veteran traversing the sordid streets of New York – I won’t insult you with the movie title but that masterpiece begin its long and hellish journey here;