Friday, November 20, 2020

Mean Streets (1973)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Photography: Kent L. Wakeford
Music: Martin Scorsese's vinyl collection
Editor: Sidney Levin
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Cesare Danova, David Carradine, Robert Carradine

Mean Streets is a landmark film in many ways, big and small—a powerful early picture by director and cowriter Martin Scorsese, a tale of New York street life and low-level gangsters, a sneaky coiling script, and a certain model of early jukebox movie, rolling out yet another way to do it, with The Graduate, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti advancing their own theories on the matter. And it may have been harder for me to see earlier through the welter of noise and violence, but Mean Streets is also the work of a self-conscious student of film, with self-conscious inflections as it barrels along toward the work of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut.

Mean Streets opens on a black screen and Harvey Keitel murmuring about sin and salvation (two years later Patti Smith would turn it upside down with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" on her cover of "Gloria"). Then the drum hits and kicks from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" go off and the song blares in all majesty for the titles, playing loud. Turn it up anyway—it's still one of the most inspired and thrilling mashups of song and images ever stitched together, and it's followed not long after with a red-light barroom scene to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" that's not far behind. There are other pop music high points like these (and some opera too)—for me, notably, "Rubber Biscuit"—but within 10 minutes Mean Streets already felt vastly different from anything I'd seen before.

It is bristling with ideas about how to make movies. The various fight scenes, for example, are blocked and shot with the camera in motion, approximately chest-high, following the skittering action the best it can. Note that this is well before the advent of the steadicam. Kudos to DP Kent L. Wakeford for somehow getting a sense of physical desperation into these fights. Or, another point, much of this picture is shot at nighttime and/or in a bar and I swear a third or more of it is in red glow, which suggests we are looking at scenes in hell. There is even an unlikely Hieronymus Bosch-like wild beast that shows up, along with an even more unlikely discussion by these thugs of William Blake. Even so, at the high pitch this movie is set to, we can believe these characters have contemplated "Tyger tyger, burning bright." Why not?

But the main point for me about Mean Streets, always, is the story, which plays like a Shakespeare or Bible story plot with its twists and complexities and certain march to a perfect doom, borne of character flaw. This is old school tragedy. Our main man Charlie (Keitel) spends a lot of time thinking about good and evil. He knows he does evil, in his work as some kind of organized crime gofer in Little Italy being groomed for bigger and better things if he can keep a clean nose. Charlie does it because everybody does or because a guy has to earn, or something like that, but he also seems to be pretty sure he is going to hell, compulsively holding his hand over open flame to simulate the experience, test himself to see if he is up to it. It matters to him. He desperately seeks salvation by trying to do good. His girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson) has epilepsy, which Charlie's friends and peers (and most importantly his mentor, some kind of made man) consider a distasteful mental illness. Charlie seems to genuinely love Teresa but it's possible it is more of his good works and search for salvation.

Certainly his lookout for Teresa's cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is that. I love IMDb's laconic description of Mean Streets, which is perfectly accurate but doesn't tell a tenth of it: "A small-time hood tries to keep the peace between his friend Johnny and Johnny's creditors." Harvey Keitel is a supremely skilled performer and always has been, even as early as this—in fact, this is on the short list of his best. But already De Niro is stealing every scene he is in, with his gum-chewing "What? What? What?" manner and an inclination for munitions and sudden spastic violence. Johnny Boy is the beating self-destructive heart of Mean Streets. Something is wrong with this guy. He's dangerous. He's crackling with menace. You can feel it emanating off the screen.

In the '70s for a brief time (after Mean Streets but before Taxi Driver) I thought of Scorsese as a filmmaker in the mold of Nicolas Roeg. Certainly the first time I saw Mean Streets I felt like I had to work to keep up. There are long and vivid scenes but they don't immediately connect and the red light glow is often murky. The story is obviously about Charlie, but Johnny Boy is always nagging at our attention, and he's scary. In the second half, more and more, he moves into the center of the picture, until you realize the movie is about him as much as anything. And he's more scary than ever. The last 20 minutes are a perfectly calibrated crescendo of tension that I often have to look at through my fingers—well, figuratively speaking. But I mean it is a masterful finish and can leave you stunned, even on subsequent viewings. What's remarkable about Scorsese for me is that he would do it all over again, even more forcefully, with Taxi Driver, and then to a somewhat lesser degree (but not by much) Goodfellas. Mean Streets is essential, not to be missed, and one of the best.

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