Mean Streets (1973): Scorsese’s First Masterpiece

A Warner release of:

“Who’s That Knocking at My Door” 1968 B
“Mean Streets” 1973 A
“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” 1974 A-
“After Hours” 1985 A-
“GoodFellas” 1990 A

Some of Scorsese’s best and most important films were made at Warner. This five-film collection, covering the years of 1973 to 1990, includes the film that put Scorsese on the map, “Mean Streets,” as well as one of his most acclaimed, “GoodFellas.” The impressive set is a must-have for viewers interested in the evolution of the New American Cinema and in the career of the most brilliant director working in Hollywood today.

“Mean Streets”

Hailed by most critics as a dazzling work at its world premiere in the 1973 New York Film Festival, “Mean Streets” is the film that established Scorsese as the foremost director of the New American Cinema. The film chronicles the friendship of two small-time hoods, Johnny Boy and Charlie (Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel) in Little Italy. “Mean Streets” provides a perceptive, sympathetic, and tragic view of daily survival in a gangster environment. Scorsese places his anti-heroes in a context of sudden violent bursts, death threats, boredom, and the fear of mediocrity.

Charlie is torn between his desire to be a saint and to save the two people he’s close to–his epileptic girlfriend and crazy cousin Johnny Boy–and his desire to please his wiseguy uncle and find a place for himself in the mob hierarchy. Charlie’s inner conflict is indicative of the schizophrenic culture in which he’s trapped, a reflection of the incompatible values of the Catholic Church and the mob.

“Mean Streets” is indebted to gangster movies, the work of Sam Fuller, and especially John Cassavetes. Scorsese credits Cassavetes’ fluid, handheld camera in “Shadows” as revelatory and inspirational for his own work. “We could shoot anywhere!” he says, “It gave us the ability to be insane.” The film depicts an urban subculture seldom seen in such depth on the American screen. In one of his less aesthetically distanced films, Scorsese implicates himself in the guilt and paranoia, racism and sexism that prevailed in the milieu in which he lived.

It’s a highly personal film, as Scorsese notes: “It was a declaration, a statement of who I was, with dilemmas and conflicts that couldn’t be expressed in any other way.” Indeed, Charlie serves as Scorsese’s alter-ego, and Scorsese himself dubs one of the voices inside Charlie’s head. The casting of De Niro as Johnny Boy began a fruitfully professional association between actor and director that would continue throughout Scorsese’s subsequent career.

Produced for $300,000, “Mean Streets” benefited from the exploitation methods Scorsese had learned from directing “Boxcar Bertha” (his second and weakest film) for Roger Corman. Because of the tight budget, most of the film was shot place in Los Angeles, but despite these restrictions, Scorsese was able to convey vividly the unique ambience of Little Italy. “Mean Streets” boasts dazzling set pieces. The film’s raw energy is most impressive: The breathtaking opening sequence has been imitated by many directors. The verbal exchanges between Keitel and De Niro sound spontaneous, as if they were made up on the spot; some of the dialogue was improvised.

Though a commercial flop in 1973, “Mean Streets” is one of the most influential films of the past generation, inspiring numerous directors to make more personal and edgy films.