Mean Streets (1973): Scorsese’s Third Film, Starring Harvey Keitel and DeNiro, Announced the Arrival of a Major Talent, with David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova, Most Influential (if not Commercial) Film of the 1970s

A devoted cineaste and cinephile, and artistically uncompromising, Martin Scorsese (born in 1942), is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker of his generation working in American cinema today.

Over the past 50 years, Scorsese has directed an impressive cannon of thematically and stylistically innovative features and documentaries, some f which quite controversial films.

Scorsese combines a cineaste’s passion for film noir with appreciation for rich characterization and evocation of precise sense of time and place.

Scorsese’s brilliant, if also erratic career has been emulated by many young indie directors. His intoxicating belief in the infinite possibilities of the film medium is most apparent in the work of Abel Ferrara, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, among others.

Scorsese’s films have displayed such bravura with their dazzling camera, jump cuts, and vivid frames that the filmmaking itself becomes a subject of his movies. Even his weaker movies have boasted stylistic audacity, self-reflexivity and rich commentary on narrativity.

Few observers could have predicted that Mean Streets, Scorsese’s first significant work, made in 1973, would become the most influential film of the 1970s.

Interestingly, despite ecstatic reviews from major critics, such as Pauline Kael, Mean Streets was initially a box-office flop, a movie that didn’t even recoup its low budget. A second release (after N.Y. Film Fest premiere) was more successful, earning about $3 million at the bx office.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Mean Streets

Theatrical release poster

Still, it’s hard to think of an American film that had greater impact–in the 1990s alone, there have been at least half a dozen offshoots, including Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity, Rob Weiss’ Amongst Friends, Michael Corrente’s Federal Hill, John Shea’s Southie, Ted Demme’s Monument Avenue.

A sort of Little Italy version of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mean Streets explored male camaraderie, which became a perennial theme in the new American cinema, with young directors embracing Scorsese’s tough turf–macho rivalries and betrayals, brutal violence–alongside Catholic guilt and need for atonement.

Set where Scorsese grew up, Mean Streets is the story of two Italian-American hoodlums at odds with their seedy environment. Charlie (Keitel) has to juggle concerns for his crazy friend Johnny Boy (De Niro), a secret romance with Johnny’s cousin, and an ambition to run an uptown restaurant.

The visual style was marked by a restless, jittery camera that reflected the tension of city life, a topic that would find a more elaborate expression in Taxi Driver (1976), based on Paul Schrader’s script.

Scorsese’s First Film, Grade: C+

Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968): Scorsese’s Feature Directing Debut, Starring Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Catherine Scorsese (his Mother), and Scorsese Himself in Cameo – Emanuel Levy

Scorsese’s Second Film, Sophomore Jinx, Grade: C

Edit Post “Boxcar Bertha (1972) Scorsese’s Sophomore Jinx, Trashy Exploitation Flick, Starring Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey” ‹ Emanuel Levy — WordPress

Taxi Driver: Scorsese’s Masterpiece–Collector’s Edition

Emphasizing characterization over story or plot, Mean Streets assured Scorsese a central role in contemporary film history. Densely rich and angst-ridden, his films are rooted in his Italian-American-Catholic experience, confronting themes of sin, guilt and redemption in a fiercely contemporary yet universal fashion. His explorations of male camaraderie, violent behavior, and men’s deep fear of women have left a significant imprint on the work of numerous directors, both American and foreign.

Scorsese should also be credited with inventing a new street language–his hoodlums in this (and other films) talk in a fresh, deliriously spontaneous, horrifyingly funny, which often ead to horrific violent.

In Scorsese’s world, violence is usually expressed in sudden eruptions of male aggression that is seemingly manifest in otherwise peaceful surroundings.

In Mean Streets, Charlie starts a fight with a girl’s boyfriend simply because there’s nothing better to do. Later on, Johnny Boy throws a bomb into a mailbox, slugs a stranger in the street, picks a fight with Charlie, badgers another man with a gun. Scorsese portrays violence with shocking sadism–his men use primitive tools like hammers and baseball bats rather than guns.

Scorsese’s problematic treatment of women, often depicted as victims of abuse, has also influenced the work of younger directors.

He places certain women (usually mothers, per has a tribute to admiring his very own) on a pedestal to be revered, but most women in his films are depicted as deceitful whores.

In Mean Streets, Charlie loves Teresa and wants to marry her, but calls her a cunt because they have slept together. Prostitutes abound in Who’s That Knocking, Big Bertha, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver. In Raging Bull, La Motta asks his brother to keep an eye on his wife Vickie, implying that given the chance all women cheat on their husbands.

Mean Streets marked the beginning of one of the most creative pairings in American cinema. De Niro would loom prominently in future films as an embodiment of Scorsese’s vision of urban society’s anxieties neuroses, in such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bulls, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, King of Comedy, The Irishman (and this year in the upcoming thriller Killers of the Flower Moon)

This kind of intimate director-actor collaboration would influence other indie directors: Tarantino and Uma Thurman, Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, Linklater and Ethan Hawke, Abel Ferrara and Christopher Walken, Alan Rudolph and Keith Carradine, Whit Stillman and Chris Eigeman.

Scorsese has attained the desirable goal of authorship more fully than his peers by maintaining high artistic quality. He may be one of the few–and certainly, the major, director of the film school generation, who still passionately cares about film as an art form (not as “content,” to use contemporary Hollywood Jargon)

However, this artistic freedom and bold experimentation have come with a price: Despite prestige and critical kudos (e.g., the various critics and festival awards, AFI Life Achievement Award), it took Scorsese numerous Oscar nominations to finally win the Best Director Oscar, in 2006 for The Departed, which also win the Best Picture.

Harvey Keitel as Charlie Cappa
Robert De Niro as John “Johnny Boy” Civello
David Proval as Tony DeVienazo
Amy Robinson as Teresa Ronchelli
Victor Argo as Mario
Richard Romanus as Michael Longo
Cesare Danova as Giovanni Cappa
George Memmoli as Joey
Jeannie Bell as Diane
Harry Northup as Soldier
David Carradine as Drunk
Martin Scorsese as Jimmy Shorts


Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, Story by Scorsese
Produced by Jonathan T. Taplin
Cinematography Kent L. Wakeford
Edited by Sidney Levin

Production company: Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: October 14, 1973

Running time: 112 minutes
Budget $650,000
Box office $3 million

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