Thursday, 10 May 2012

Mean Streets


Generally regarded as Martin Scorsese’s first great film and the third in my Scorsese in Sequence feature, Mean Streets is perhaps Scorsese’s most personal film to date. Centred in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighbourhood that Scorsese grew up, in the film charts the day to day lives of a group of young Italian American men. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a semi connected guy who works for his uncle, a local mafia boss but dreams of running a restaurant. He feels responsible for his no good friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) who owes everyone in the neighbourhood money and has no intention of paying it back. Michael (Richard Romanus) is a loan shark who Johnny Boy owes a huge debt to. Johnny Boy tries to avoid the people he owes but this becomes difficult as both he and Michael frequent Tony’s (David Proval) bar.

The film’s opening titles are shot in the style of a home movie and show Charlie and his friends posing for the camera outside bars and in the street. The camera then appears to zoom into the home video as the film itself begins. This creates an almost documentary realism as you feel that you are watching real people go about their lives. The rest of the film is generally shot from the middle distance, forgoing the close-ups of Who's That Knocking at my Door. In that film it was as though the audience was invited to be a part of the story whereas in Mean Streets we are observing what is happening. We are always close to the action but never close enough to get involved. This I believe is due to Scorsese’s own experiences as a youth in the neighbourhood. He was always on the fringes of these groups, able to observe them but never really able to take part. We see the film through his eyes.

The film is almost autobiographical. Scenes are shot in the building and apartment of one of the director’s friends and other locations around the neighbourhood that Scorsese knew well. Only a few days were actually shot on location though with most of the interiors shot later in Los Angeles. It is perhaps due to Scorsese’s intimate knowledge of the area as well as master film making that it is never apparent when we are in New York or L.A. The film looks at many of the issues that Scorsese and the people like him had to deal with while growing up. A central theme is Catholic guilt. Charlie has immense guilt though for what is never really explored. He almost takes Johnny Boy under his wing as a sort of penance or atonement as a way of absolving his sins. He feels that if he can protect Johnny Boy and set him on the straight and narrow then he is paying for his sins. Other issues central to the film are racism and homophobia. Scorsese has talked in interviews about not being allowed to or wanting to mix with Jews, Irish or black’s as a kid. In the insular Little Italy neighbourhood you just didn’t. In the film, Charlie is drawn to a beautiful black dancer but is torn about whether to ask her out and feel the wrath of the community. In the end he does but isn’t able to go through with the date. In another scene a man is visibly disgusted when he is told that his girl has kissed a black man. These themes are explored in greater detail in De Niro’s directorial debut A Bronx Tale and are obviously close to his heart given his relationship history.

The film uses a subtle voiceover which is often barely noticeable. Charlie talks to himself, the audience and God at the same time, often explaining his decisions and choices. In one telling scene late on, Charlie vocalises this out loud, much to the amusement of Johnny Boy and his girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson). The film is set during a large feast during which time emotions are heightened. This adds to the intensity of the film and the feeling that the characters are trapped. All they know is the ten or so blocks of Little Italy. On one occasion when the guys go for a drive they get lost just a few blocks away from the neighbourhood. It’s as if the world ends where the neighbourhood ends. This is again repeated in the climactic scene in which Charlie and Johnny Boy try to escape Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge.

The tone is set early on for De Niro’s Johnny Boy. We first see him placing a bomb in a mail box and walk away, turning his head in anticipation of it exploding. It is obvious from the outset that Johnny Boy has only two options; death or expulsion. In another scene, my favourite, he is in the back room of a bar explaining why he has no money to pay Michael. He manipulates Charlie to such an extent that Charlie puts his own neck on the line for Johnny. The scene itself was improvised on the spot, a day after shooting was meant to have wrapped. It is an incredibly realistic sounding exchange and adds to the realism of the rest of the film. It sometimes feels as though the whole film was improvised ala Mike Leigh but in fact apart from some improvisation during rehearsal it was all scripted. It is testament to how well Scorsese wrote and knew the characters as well as Keitel and De Niro’s acting abilities that the film feels so free flowing and spontaneous. Mean Streets happens to mark the first occasion at which De Niro and Scorsese worked together, the beginning of one of the most prominent Director/Actor partnerships of the last forty years.

As well as its realism the film is often noted for its music. Mean Streets was one of the first films to forgo a traditional score and instead use Rock & Roll. Scorsese had certain songs in mind when he wrote the film in the mid 1960s and intertwined it with the script. The music is as much a part of the film as is the dialogue. The film is perhaps most famous for its use of songs by The Rolling Stones. Each Stones song set the film back $15,000 which was a large chunk of the film’s $300,000 budget. Scorsese didn’t just rely on Rock & Roll though. He used music from the 50s as well as Italian Opera to create the world of Mean Streets. As he himself walked through the neighbourhood he would he all sorts of music coming from apartments and social clubs and wanted to recreate that for the film.

Mean Streets has gone down in history as Scorsese’s arrival as a Director. The film is personal in the extreme and introduced a lot of people, including myself to the Italian American way of life and along with The Godfather helped to spawn many successful books, films and TV shows. Its hyper realism extends to all quarters including the violence. It isn’t glossy and choreographed but messy and silly as a real fight would be. The dialogue is real and sounds almost alien at times. The characters are talking English but with their own unique pattern, words and inclination. The acting is superb throughout and marked a breakthrough for both Keitel and De Niro. For Scorsese it opened doors to make the films that he wanted to make and gained him a nationwide following. The film is an example of a Director doing what he loves, where he loves and the results are spectacular.  


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