By Dan Schneider
There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1973 film, Mean Streets, that is key to understanding not only the characters that inhabit that film, but also many of the characters that populated his later films, including even some of his polished but bloated, lifeless garbage with Leonardo DiCaprio. In it, the thugs ,played by stars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, go along with a couple of other pals to shake down a pool hall owner who is behind on a protection or loan payment. They insult the owner, who says he is not gonna pay them because he is offended. He calls one of the punks (not Keitel nor De Niro) a mook. The punk famously rejoinders, ‘A mook. What’s a mook?’
The reason this scene is so important is because it bears one of the key factors of the characters portrayed, in this film and Scorsese’s others—who is genuine and who is a phony; or, who is a real man, and what does it take to be a real man. For Mean Streets is a film about testosterone, not honour nor sin, nor many of the other things it has been labelled as representing. And the question of who is a real man, who is genuine, is amply displayed in this scene, almost as an inside joke for those in the know about the lives of low-level gangsters in the late 20th century. A mook is a slang term for a guy who is basically a brainless ass; someone with all brawn, but no smarts. These characteristics were well known in men whose identities were tied up in being ‘muscle’, or foot soldiers for mob bosses. The fact that the fellow called a mook, as well as the characters portrayed by Keitel and De Niro, is clueless as to what the term means, shows to the viewer, and to the pool hall owner, that they are not as tough and connected as they think they are. Any real mook would know what he was being called, and why. The pool hall owner has thus called their bluff, and is emboldened enough to even punch the one punk, thus ensuring a melee ensues. That the guy called a mook lacks both brains, and as shown subsequently, brawn, makes the scene doubly funny—and disturbingly real. It is a realism that, in recent films, Scorsese has been almost oblivious in recognising the absence of.
It also evinces the terrific screenplay written by Scorsese and Mardick Martin. Yet, when critics write of great screenplays, a film like Mean Streets is never even remotely thought of because most of its characters speak monosyllabically. Yet, it is scenes like the one described above, which so thoroughly and perfectly capture and embody the film’s and director’s ‘message,’ if you will, that make it a great piece of writing. And this film was amongst the first independent films that followed characters in a non-conventional plot. There is no ‘grand event’ that occurs in the film, like the explosion of the bridge in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Instead, it is a film that uses moments in the lives of its characters as character exposition, from the opening credit sequence (set to the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, and flashing up the names of the main characters as they first appear), to its closing montage, and even in a scene where one of the thugs cuddles up with a pet baby tiger.
The main characters are Charlie (Keitel), a guilty Roman Catholic, whose guilt seems to stem from nothing and everything, and seems to lodged in images of pain through fire, and whose uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is the local capo. His de facto brother is Johnny Boy (De Niro), a slightly demented no-account, who is into a local loan shark for over two thousand clams. That loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), spends most of the film trying to collect from Johnny Boy. The other thug of note is Tony (David Procal), the guy who owns the tiger. The final main character of the film is Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), who is also Charlie’s girlfriend. Much of the film consists of Charlie’s divided loyalty between his love of Teresa and his big brother instincts toward Johnny Boy, whose character ranges from demented and vicious, firing a gun from rooftops, to the childish (verbal sparring with Charlie and use of fireworks). He also develops a possibly dangerous sexual fantasy over a black stripper who works at one of the clubs on his protection racket.
Charlie simply wants to run his own legitimate business, yet seems to not be able to get away from working as a protection racket thug for his uncle. Johnny Boy, meanwhile, keeps sliding further out of control. At one point, he even pulls a gun on Michael, after dicking him over by making him wait for a mere $30 payment on his overdue debt. This brings about the film’s denouement, wherein Charlie and Johnny Boy borrow Tony’s car, and pick up Teresa, in order to flee. Michael pulls up beside them, and his shooter plugs Johnny Boy in the side of the neck (prefiguring a later wound De Niro’s character Travis Bickle would suffer in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), wounds Charlie’s hand, and causes Teresa’s fist to fly through the front windshield. Yet, life goes on. Cops and an ambulance rescue the trio, Michael and his shooter watch the carnage from afar, and the other characters in the film go on doing what they do. And this is in perfect keeping with the film’s narrative structure. It does not move relentlessly toward a fixed end point, for how rarely does life do that? It stops and starts, meanders and careers, then comes to a climax, and continues on, even as the San Gennaro festival in its background, ends. Likewise, the film ends, but the universe it shows goes on.
This is what a good screenplay does; it resists formula, and treats its viewers as adults, even when the characters it exposes are not that adult. And, in this film, Scorsese developed the template of his style that would exist in all of his great earlier films, and even up through his last work of real substance, Kundun. After that, his films became not only bloated and lifeless, but utterly mechanistic. Scorsese, as an artist, needs to go back to working with low budgets, so that his creativity is hungry, not sated. Mean Streets is an example of an artist with a growling belly. His last decade of DiCaprio-starred films, by contrast, is a surfeited maw.
The DVD, by Warner Brothers, is a solid one. The film is well transferred, and looks great. There is the original theatrical trailer, and a vintage 1970s small film featurette called Back on the Block. It briefly shows some of Scorsese’s old pals, on whom he based the film. Then there is a audio commentary with Scorsese and Amy Robinson. It is a good one, but the two commentators were recorded separately, and the comments are scene specific, meaning that when a scene without commentary comes on, the disk forwards to the next commented upon scene. The result is that the film, which runs an hour and fifty two minutes, only shows scenes totaling an hour twenty. That said, Scorsese’s comments are good, although he rambles a bit too much. Robinson gives insight into her character and the making of the film, especially scenes shot on Los Angeles studio sets. Definitely worth it, but, for a lousy extra half hour of commentary, could not they have had Scorsese do a little more? The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The acting in the film is terrific. Keitel and De Niro are standouts, and their verbal interplay takes on almost Abbott And Costello-like humor. Robinson, Romanus, Proval, and Danova are also quite solid. Romanus nails the wannabe who is not as tough nor smart as he thinks he is—just look at the scene where he stoops to ripping off two suburban burnouts out of $20 for fireworks. The film evinces a cinema verité aesthetic, so the cinematography by Kent L Wakefield is not as important as the superlative editing by Sidney Levin. But, the most important aspect of the film was how it brought already popular music into modern filmmaking, and wove it in seamlessly, as if it had been composed specifically for the film. Scorsese’s always been one of the best directors in the world at effectively deploying music.
It is the overall style Scorsese created that is truly important, because, whereas poseurs like Jean-Luc Godard merely aped Hollywood noir, and tried to use their low budgets to claim novelty, Scorsese really does do something without precedent—in noir, in John Cassavetes films, or in gangster films. He creates a stylised realism that was absent in noir, affected in Godard, formative in early Cassavetes, and unreal in gangster films. Only Cassavetes’ later The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, are as effective in realistically portraying most mobsters—as often inept bumblers whose idiocy, even more than their ethical corruption, leads to their downfall.
There are, of course, aside from the classic scenes mentioned, some interesting cameos, such as Jeannie Bell, as Diane, the black stripper Charlie lusts for. Her prior claim to fame was as the second Playboy magazine centerfold Playmate, and the first black cover model. Then there is the bizarre scene with the Carradine brothers, wherein Robert shoots and kills a drunken David in Tony’s bar. It is funny, but pointless, except that it is the sort of pointless violence that happens in that sort of world. There is also a classic scene, after the killing, where Michael, Charlie, and Johnny Boy end up in a car with two queers who flame. It is a hilarious sequence. There is also a possible cameo by Scorsese as Michael’s shooter, in the car, in the final scenes. Scorsese did this in some of his early films, but never followed in Alfred Hitchcock’s tradition.
Mean Streets is not as polished a film as Scorsese’s later great films, like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours, nor Goodfellas, but it is every bit as good in its raw sensibilities. One only hopes that, now that he got his ‘Honorary’ Oscar for the merely solid The Departed, Marty from the nabe will return to his roots, and make some films where he cannot have every whim indulged. It worked once. It can work again. If not, then American cinema lovers will be left with a tarnished legacy for one of its most original and brilliant filmmakers. Mean Streets is proof of that claim. Here is to hoping Scorsese can finally find his way home.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/