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Mean Streets Retrospective: The Movie That Made Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets


Mean Streets wasn’t Martin Scorsese’s first film, but it certainly feels like it was. After making his debut with Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and taking a detour into B-movie territory with the Roger Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha (1972), the young director was at a crossroads. His first two films had received decent notices but there wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about them, apart from the former was also the screen debut of Harvey Keitel.

Scorsese wanted to emulate his filmmaking idols like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, but it was indie maverick John Cassavetes who set him right. Scorsese recalled those harsh but fair words:


“He took me to his office… and he grabbed me and embraced me, and then he pulled me aside, he said: ‘You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of junk.’”


Cassavetes encouraged Scorsese to follow more personal projects and dust off an old script he had been working on for five years. It was Mean Streets, based on his own experiences growing up as an Italian-American kid in New York’s Little Italy.

Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a small-time hoodlum and debt collector who is troubled by the tug-of-war between his devout Catholicism and his work for the mob, including his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). Charlie is well-liked in the neighbourhood and is seen as reliable by the higher-ups. His competence stands him in line to run a swanky restaurant for his uncle.


Harvey Keitel as Charlie in the film Mean Streets


He’s all set to move up in the world, but he has problems that threaten to derail his promotion. His reputation suffers from his connection to Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a troublemaking childhood friend who owes money to everyone in town. He is also having a secret love affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), a match Giovanni disapproves of because she suffers from epilepsy.

The pressure mounts on Charlie as he attempts to reconcile his faith with his illicit activities and bring Johnny Boy into line. There is the small matter of the $3000 Johnny owes to loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus), a suave underworld character who initially seems a little too lenient for this racket. But when Johnny Boy welshes on his repayments and insults his creditor yet again, it is clear that Michael won’t be made a fool of forever.


“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”


Right from the outset, Mean Streets establishes many of the beats we recognise when we think of a Martin Scorsese picture. It begins in much the same way that Goodfellas would 17 years later: a cold-open introduction to our protagonist, a voice-over hook, and a 24-carat golden oldie over the credits.

It’s worth talking about the connection with Goodfellas because we perhaps most associate Scorsese with crime dramas, although he has made relatively few over a career spanning more than half a century. Out of his 26 feature films to date, only six of them have been about mobsters. That basically shakes out to one great gangster classic for every decade: Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), and The Irishman (2019), plus the ambitious but frustratingly flawed Gangs of New York (2002). His style may have matured over the years, but all his subsequent mob pictures bear the DNA of his low-budget calling card.

In between, Scorsese has made movies in many other genres: Romantic musicals (New York, New York), period drama (The Age of Innocence), biopic (Kundun), and family adventure (Hugo). Yet it is his gangster flicks that provide the framework for his whole filmography.

That is to say, while all of Scorsese’s pictures are standalone ventures, the films set in a contemporary period feel like they could be part of a larger Scorsese-verse. It is his mob epics that provide the boundaries to that world, even if the story isn’t directly related to organised crime. For instance, can’t you just imagine Charlie and Johnny Boy from Mean Streets running into Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, perhaps arguing in the back of his cab while he drives them across town at night? 


Charlie and Johnny from Mean Streets


Mean Streets was released a year after Francis Ford Coppola’s stately The Godfather (1972) and Scorsese’s approach couldn’t have been more different. Using handheld cameras and fast-paced editing, he put us right there on the streets with his low-end crooks. Instead of a traditional orchestral score like Nino Rota’s work on Coppola’s Best Picture winner, Scorsese’s film was one of the first to use pop hits to accompany the story: “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes over the opening credits and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones are two particular highlights. It suited the movie perfectly, feeling like the characters picked the tunes themselves on the jukebox in a bar.

Scorsese’s attitude to his characters also differed from Coppola’s. While The Godfather essentially mythologises Marlon Brando’s old-school mafia boss and his family, Scorsese treats Charlie and his pals to a fly-on-the-wall approach. He presents them as a bunch of small-timers and screw-ups fighting over scraps around the table of the big boys like Charlie’s uncle. Even Michael, initially presented as a slightly more classy character than his rough-and-ready pals, isn’t above ripping off a couple of kids in a firework scam.

Mean Streets certainly wasn’t the first American movie that focused on the lives and schemes of criminal lowlifes from street level - there was the whole film noir movement for that. What made Scorsese’s movie so different was that it had a semi-autobiographical feel. While he never shies away from the more reprehensible behaviour of his characters, he observes them with a sense of understanding and affection. The loose and rambling structure lets us tag along with the group as they squabble and goof around, making it almost as much of a hangout movie as it is a crime drama. In short, it’s a movie that is clearly made by someone who knows these guys in his soul.

Scorsese has sometimes been criticised over the years for glorifying violence and glamorising the criminal lifestyle. There is certainly an element of that in his pictures, but it always serves a greater purpose within the morality of the film. In Mean Streets, he doesn’t glorify his characters, but he does give Johnny Boy a moment of glory: His famous entrance to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” 60 seconds of cinema that perhaps encapsulates that distinctive Scorsese style better than any other.

It is the film’s most famous scene and everyone refers to it as Johnny Boy’s entrance, although it’s easy to forget that we’ve already met the character in a few previous scenes. This is the moment that really sticks because Scorsese gives it the works: the voice-over, the slow motion, the tracking shot, and the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack. It began Scorsese’s long association with the band’s music and all we needed was the freeze frame to complete the set.

While the scene is Johnny Boy’s moment, the focus is still on Charlie. The camera zooms in on him as Johnny swaggers in with a girl on each arm. As much of an unreliable pain in the butt as his friend is to him, there is still a sense that Charlie feels almost envious of Johnny.. Charlie might be the brains of the outfit and seen as a safe pair of hands by the higher-ups, but he’s also a square in comparison to his troublesome pal. Johnny Boy has all the charisma, which also partially explains why Charlie forgives him so often. Even as the law of the street closes in on both of them.


Johnny Boy's Entrance to Jumping Jack Flash in Mean Streets


The streets and the soul are very personal to Martin Scorsese, who grew up in Little Italy in a strongly Catholic environment. He based the Mean Streets screenplay on the people and stories he knew. His inspiration for De Niro’s character was Scorsese’s uncle, nicknamed Joe the Bug, and the final act of violence mirrored a real-life shooting in his neighbourhood.

It is almost as if Scorsese was imagining the path he might have ended up taking if he’d stayed home and hadn’t gotten into making movies instead. Fittingly, it is the director himself who plays Jimmy Shorts, Michael’s goon who pulls the trigger on Johnny Boy in the sobering final scene… What does that say about his feelings about his old ‘hood?

Charlie’s Catholicism (and perhaps Scorsese’s) is more front-and-centre than it is in any of the director’s other mob films, and the director would tackle his religion more directly with two historical epics: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a controversial adaptation of the novel from Nikos Kazantzakis; and Silence (2016), his labour of love that took over 25 years to come to fruition.

Charlie wrestles with guilt throughout the movie, and he significantly tells Teresa that he’s a big fan of Saint Francis of Assisi. Perhaps it is his desire to emulate his hero that keeps him going to bat for Johnny Boy after most people would have given him up as a lost cause. The push-and-pull between the tenets of Charlie’s religion and the rough justice that is constantly looming over him and his friends is what gives the film its tension. Ultimately, it isn’t God who decides their fate, but Michael, who eventually snaps and decides to recall Johnny Boy’s debt in blood.

This is why I don’t agree with critics of Scorsese who say he glorifies violence and his criminal characters. While he has often shown the allure of the underworld - most notably in the opening hour of Goodfellas - he repeatedly emphasises that the riches and excitement of the mob lifestyle is destined for a brutal and bloody end. Even when our protagonists survive, like Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Teresa, they are chastened; in the case of Henry Hill in Goodfellas and Ace Rothstein in Casino, they are alive and well but are emasculated by severance from the life that made them very wealthy and powerful men. As for Joe Pesci’s characters in both those movies… Well, we all know how they turn out. 

In that sense, Scorsese is always the judge and moral arbiter of his mob films, making sure that his characters either pay for their sins by the law of the streets or dooming them to a kind of purgatory. For the latter, think Henry Hill getting to live the rest of his life like a schnook, or Frank Sheeran (De Niro) sitting alone in a retirement home in The Irishman. It is a theme he has returned to repeatedly over the course of his six crime dramas, but none have made the point as succinctly as Mean Streets.


An original movie poster for the Martin Scorsese film Mean Streets


So there you have it, our retrospective on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. What is your take on the film, and how does it compare to his other classics? Let us know!


Fantastic original movie posters from Art of the Movies

1 comment

  • Thank you. Most enlightening.

    Richard Watson

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