Mean Streets wasn’t Martin Scorsese’s first film, nor is it widely considered his best, but it’s the film that set him on the path to become one of the most influential film directors in modern cinema. Scorsese’s passion and knowledge of cinema is evident, and his influences come from a wide variety of films. This film was also the most autobiographical (and most typical) of his films to date, and in order to look at this film it helps to understand something of the director’s background.
Scorsese was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York to Italian-American parents. At the age of six the family moved to Manhattan’s Little Italy on the Lower East Side, only a small quarter that now almost seems engulfed by Chinatown. As a child he was an asthmatic and his father would take him several times a week to the cinema, where his passion for film developed. As a teenager he felt he had two choices: either join a Catholic seminary or hang out with the gangs on the Lower East Side. After dabbling with the former he decided on the latter as like-minded friends, cinema and rock n’ roll drew him away from a life in the priesthood. But in 1963 he enrolled at New York University to study English, finding himself guided towards film studies at the behest of his professors. Here he met and befriended Brian De Palma, cameraman Michael Wadleigh (who would go on to shoot Woodstock (1969)), Mardik Martin (who collaborated as a scriptwriter on many Scorsese films including Mean Streets) and, perhaps most significantly, Robert De Niro. Throughout the 60s, Scorsese directed a number of shorts and less commercial films and received his first break from producer Roger Cormon with the political Boxcar Bertha (1972) before going on to direct Mean Streets.
Mean Streets clearly became a very personal project for Scorsese. It was made with a budget of $550,000 and became an instant hit on the festival circuit winning awards along the way. The film is a noir-ish crime drama about life on the streets of Little Italy and centres around three main characters: Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who is being drawn further into crime despite contemplating a life in the priesthood, his friend Johnny Boy (De Niro), a loose cannon, and Charlie’s other friend and accomplice Michael (Richard Romanus). Charlie is struggling with his present situation and is clearly at pains to change the wild behaviour of his friend Johnny Boy. This might not be so easy while Charlie’s relationship with Theresa, Johnny Boy’s sensible, epileptic cousin, is under threat from mobster Giovanni. The film opens with Charlie praying in church, then cuts to the opening credits (a montage of home movie clips showing Charlie with his friends soundtracked by The Ronettes’ Be My Baby). Within the first half-hour it becomes evident that rock and pop music will play a significant part in the film and this, along with Easy Rider (1969), demonstrates that rock and pop music is now soundtrack of a generation. There’s a curious scene in which a stripper dances to an obscure Rolling Stones number, Tell Me, some very playful Italian tunes, an assortment of Phil Spector-produced numbers and doo-wop classics like The Chips’ Rubber Biscuit. Two tunes which demonstrate how central music is to the film are The Marvelettes’ version of Please, Mr. Postman and another Rolling Stones song, Jumping Jack Flash, which are used to soundtrack the pool room fight sequence. The scene is a clear stylistic forerunner to Scorsese’s later GoodFellas (1990). Indeed there are many similarities between both films, only GoodFellas is clearly a more ambitious, complex and mature work.
Scorsese wrote the film with his friend and collaborator Mardik Martin, who also did his growing up on the streets of the Lower East Side. He would go on to collaborate on many films with Scorsese and the pair are clearly drawing on their own experiences. The scene in which Johnny Boy is shooting from the roof to the sky is directly from Scorsese’s own autobiography (as are many other scenes in the film). Where the director has created some distance is with the locations. Most of the filming was surprisingly done in Los Angeles and not New York, but references places he remembers from his childhood. He also references other films throughout, such as two scenes in the cinema in which the protagonists are watching John Ford’s The Searchers and Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher, as well as mob leader Giovanni watching The Big Heat on TV. Also, in the scene with a naked Charlie and Theresa on Charlie’s bed, there are many references to Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Soufflé in both dialogue and the jump-cuts. In Mean Streets, Scorsese pays tribute to past filmmakers while also establishing himself as one of the elite movie brats of the 70s. But it’s not only Scorsese’s big break, but also De Niro’s and Keitel’s, both of whom forged impressive careers for themselves in that decade – largely thanks to Scorsese.