|Director: Martin Scorsese
|Screenplay: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin (story by Martin Scorsese)
|Stars: Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy), Harvey Keitel (Charlie), David Proval (Tony), Amy Robinson (Teresa), Richard Romanus (Michael), Cesare Danova (Giovanni), Victor Argo (Mario), George Memmoli (Joey), Lenny Scaletta (Jimmy), Jeannie Bell (Diane), Murray Moston (Oscar), David Carradine (Drunk)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 1973
Martin Scorsese directed three features before Mean Streets—the semi-autobiographical Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), which was an expansion of a short film he made as a student at NYU; Street Scenes (1970), a documentary about student protestors; and Boxcar Bertha (1972), a low-budget Bonnie and Clyde knock-off he made for Roger Corman—but I think we can agree that Mean Streets is where it really starts. Mean Streets is the film where Scorsese truly became Scorsese, the point where his style and substance first fully came together in a way that felt remarkably unique, compelling, compulsive. It is a film of great, raw energy, and even where it is rough around the edges it feels like the work of an old master who knows all the gears and levers and just how to pull them and when and isn’t afraid to buck tradition.
A slice-of-urban-life tale about small-time hoods operating just on the edge of the Mafia in New York’s Little Italy, Mean Streets was a personal film for Scorsese, as it took place in the neighborhood where he grew up and many of the characters were based on people he knew. The protagonist, Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), is a Scorsese surrogate, a man torn between his human desires and his religious convictions. Charlie works for his uncle, a powerful mafioso named Giovanni (Cesare Danova), which gives him a certain amount of clout in the neighborhood. He is friends with Michael (Richard Romanus), a loan shark, and Tony (David Proval), who runs the bar where they all hang out and make deals.
Charlie’s problems, though, stem primarily from the responsibility he feels toward Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), the cousin of his girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is brash and charismatic and fearless, and he owes money to virtually everyone in the neighborhood, including Michael, who is becoming increasing agitated about Johnny Boy’s brash unwillingness to pay up. Charlie is caught in the middle, torn between protecting Johnny Boy despite his indefensible behavior and upholding the realities of the business in which he operates, where debtors aren’t just charged interest, but possibly lose their lives. Charlie’s Catholic convictions cast a long shadow over his life, as well, inflicting a layer of guilt that he can’t quite shake.
Scorsese, working with first-time cinematographer Kent L. Wakeford, who would also shoot his next film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), gives Mean Streets a propulsive drive and unique look and feel. With exteriors shot in and around Little Italy (most of the interiors were shot in Los Angeles to save money), Mean Streets often has a documentary feel, as the texture of the streets and alleys and tenement stairwells attest to the veracity of Scorsese’s narrative about small men striving for something bigger in a hard world that leaves little room for error. Scorsese vacillates wildly, but confidently, among styles: He employs a faux home-movie look for the opening credits, captures a rowdy fistfight among a dozen characters in a pool hall in a single take, and uses slow motion and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to firmly establish Johnny Boy’s captivating presence, which is either that of idiot-fool or a cunning shark. Scorsese bathes Ray’s bar in a hellish red light and doesn’t shy away from crushing darkness in the nighttime exteriors. The film is at times raw and real, and at other times it is dreamlike and uncanny. But, no matter what the scene, there is always the sense that Scorsese is in firm control. Even in the parts that don’t work as well dramatically, which include Charlie’s vexed relationship with Teresa, who he sees in secret, Mean Streets is never anything less than compelling.
Of course, it is something of a miracle that it got made at all. Scorsese had originally penned the script back in the mid-1960s with Mardik Martin under the title Season of the Witch. Jay Cocks, who would go on to co-write Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), and Silence (2016), suggested the title Mean Streets, which he borrowed from Raymond Chandler. Scorsese’s best chance to get it produced was through Roger Corman, who insisted that it be rewritten as a blaxpolitation film to take advantage of the new trend inspired by the success of Shaft (1971). Scorsese toyed with the idea, but rightly rejected it. He finally found financing with Jonathan Taplin, a road manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, both of whom would eventually become subjects for Scorsese documentaries (2019’s Rolling Thunder Revue and 1978’s The Last Waltz, respectively).
Produced independently, it was picked up for distribution by Warner Bros., although its release was largely overshadowed by two other Warner films that season, the Robert Redford-Barbara Streisand romance The Way We Were and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Nevertheless, the film got enough exposure—including a slot in the 1973 New York Film Festival—to give Scorsese the exposure he needed to move on to other projects, including his next film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar, and, of course, his Palm d’Or-winning Taxi Driver (1976). Even more importantly, though, Mean Streets would ultimately become an inspiration to future independent filmmakers, a shining example of how a deeply personal film, yet highly entertaining, film could be made with both virtuosity and conviction.
|Mean Streets Criterion Collection Director-Approved 4K UHD + Blu-ray
|English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
|Excerpted conversation between director Martin Scorsese and filmmaker Richard Linklater from a 2011 Directors Guild of America eventSelected-scene audio commentary by Scorsese and actor Amy RobinsonVideo essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith about the film’s physicality and its portrayal of brotherhoodInterview with director of photography Kent WakefordExcerpt from the documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood (2008) Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block (1973), a promotional video from the film’s original theatrical releaseTrailerEssay by critic Lucy Sante
|The Criterion Collection
|November 21, 2023
|Criterion’s edition of Mean Streets features an absolutely fantastic new 4K transfer from the original 35mm camera negative that was approved by director Martin Scorsese and collaborator (and frequent editor) Thelma Schoonmaker. The 4K/Dolby Vision HDR image is a genuine revelation, providing levels of depth, depth, and color saturation not seen on previous discs. We really see this in the darker scenes, where we can discern new details that had previously been lost in the murk. Given Scorsese’s love of celluloid and commitment to film restoration, one shouldn’t be surprised that the image retains a strong presence of grain, which gives it a robust, filmlike presentation that does not at all compromise fine detail. And, while I know there was some early griping about the color grading and the fear that the image would lean too heavily in the green-teal direction, I found those fears to be groundless, as the image has clearly been graded with the specifics of each scene in mind, rather than a blanket grading that homogenizes the look of the entire film. The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix, having been transferred from the 35mm DME magnetic track. The result sounds excellent, with clear dialogue and some decent heft in the sound effects and music track.
As for supplements, there are quite a few—a mix of the old and the new. The one new supplements is “A Body Among Other Bodies,” an incisive and informative 30-minute video essay in which critic Imogen Sara Smith analyzes the film from various perspectives. From 2004, we have a selected-scene audio commentary by Scorsese and actor-turned-producer Amy Robinson, who discuss their experiences working on the film and its genesis. There are two supplements from 2011: a 30-minute video conversation between Scorsese and filmmaker Richard Linklater after a screening for the Directors Guild of America (it has some good material, but Linklater appears quite nervous talking with Scorsese) and a 20-minute featurette in which cinematographer Kent Wakeford discusses his collaborations with Scorsese. From deeper in the archives we have two excerpts from the 2011 documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood, directed by Ramy Katrib and Evan York, which features screen time with co-writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese, journalist and film historian Peter Biskind, and filmmaker Amy Heckerling. Finally, the disc includes 10 minutes of footage from Scorsese’s 1974 documentary Italianamerican (which is included in its entirety on Criterion’s Scorsese Shorts Blu-ray set) and a 7-minute featurette “Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block,” which was produced by Warners in 1973 to promote the film’s theatrical release.
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