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"You don't pay for your sins in church. You pay for them on the street. All the rest is bullshit." Mean Streets (1973) is not Martin Scorsese's first film, but it is the film in which he came into his own. Passionate, energetic, stylistically inventive and personally driven, it is the first mature, full blooded "Martin Scorsese Film." Inspired by the stories of friends and his own experiences from stories of growing up in Little Italy around small time mobsters and young toughs and would-be operators, it tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his mobster uncle. His ambitions to rise in the family business are complicated by his friendship with an unpredictable, self-destructive childhood buddy, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakthrough performance), and a secret affair with a cousin (Amy Robinson) who rejects his culture of Catholic guilt and male machismo.
For all the violence of the streets, Mean Streets is less a crime film than a character piece, a love letter to the streets of New York's Little Italy and the young men rattling around like tough guys and fantasizing about becoming the real thing. No street thug, the young, asthmatic Scorsese was considering the priesthood when he became gripped with what was then the completely unrealistic dream of making films. Mean Streets is not autobiographical in any narrative sense but in Scorsese's own words, "was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract."
Scorsese had made his feature debut with Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), a film school thesis film expanded to feature length, and found work in Hollywood as an editor of rock movies such as Woodstock (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972). Roger Corman gave him his first break as a director-for-hire on Boxcar Bertha (1972), a low budget genre film/exploitation picture set during the American depression, and had offered Scorsese another low-budget exploitation project when John Cassavetes staged a kind of intervention. In a story Scorsese is fond of repeating, Cassavetes told him not to waste his talent and energy on another genre assignment and instead make something that mattered. Scorsese told him about a script he was working on called Season of the Witch, a follow-up to Who's That Knocking at My Door, but it needed a rewrite. "So, rewrite it then," Cassavetes responded.
The script developed into Mean Streets (titled after a line by Raymond Chandler: "Down these mean streets a man must go"). Jay Cocks, a film critic for Time magazine at the time (and future screenwriter of The King of Comedy  and 1993's The Age of Innocence), was a fan of Who's That Knocking at My Door, and introduced Scorsese to someone who wanted to get into movies - Jonathan Taplin, a former road manager for Bob Dylan and The Band (both of whom would become the subject of future Scorsese documentaries). Taplin signed on as producer and drummed up the independent financing.
Jon Voight was originally cast in the lead as Charlie, Scorsese's alter-ego, but dropped out at the last minute and Scorsese turned to Harvey Keitel, a young Brooklyn actor who had starred in Who's That Knocking at My Door. Though not Italian himself, Robert De Niro, who had grown up near Scorsese but never officially met him, had made a couple of films for Brian De Palma when Jay Cocks officially introduced them. Scorsese offered him his pick of supporting roles, but according to De Niro it was Keitel who talked him into the role of Johnny Boy, a part De Niro had not really considered. "When you play a role you don't see yourself doing at first, you can get things from yourself that ordinarily [you] wouldn't get," De Niro reflected years later over the role that launched his career. Co-stars Richard Romanus and David Proval, who filled out the quartet of buddies, were cast from an actor's group in Los Angeles.
Scorsese reunited much of the crew from Boxcar Bertha, who were veterans of budget-minded filmmaking, and shot most of Mean Streets in Los Angeles, where it was easier to get the permits and shoot with a non-union crew. The film was shot in twenty-seven days at a rapid pace. "We were doing 24 set-ups a day," Scorsese recalled. "Because we were shooting so quickly and cheaply, I couldn't let the actors go crazy and improvise." Like Cassavetes, Scorsese worked out most of the improvisations in rehearsal and rewrote the script to accommodate the amended scenes. According to Scorsese, De Niro and Romanus clashed during the production and Scorsese played on their mutual animosity for the key scene where De Niro's character pulls a gun on Romanus. "I kept shooting take after take of Bobby yelling these insults, while the crew was getting very upset," he explained. "The animosity between them in that scene was real, and I played on it." Scorsese squeezed a few days of location-shooting in New York, including the beach scene, "because the water looks different at Staten Island than it does in L.A.," and all the hallway scenes between Charlie and Johnny Boy, because he couldn't find the right look in Los Angeles. Atmosphere and detail was important and his style added to the authenticity and immediacy of the world. "I used a lot of hand-held camera for the sense of anxiety and urgency, to have that surreptitious camera sliding around the corners."
Rock and roll music was nothing new to movie soundtracks - Richard Brooks used "Rock Around the Clock" back in 1955 for the opening titles of The Blackboard Jungle - but mostly to promote popular songs or artists (as in all those Beach movies and, of course, the Beatles films and their clones) or simply play in the background to set the mood or the era (as in George Lucas' American Graffiti, 1973). Scorsese brought a whole new approach to scoring films with popular music with Mean Streets, using songs to establish tone ("Be My Baby," which opens the film, offers a nostalgic innocence that contrasts with Charlie's world of guilt and violence), suggest character (Charlie enters the strip club to the song "Jumpin' Jack Flash"), describe the culture, pace the editing and, in general, create an aural personality and energy. It's a culture where doo-wop and rock are as present as opera arias. "Mean Streets featured the music I grew up with and that music gave me images," he explained in the interview book Scorsese on Scorsese. "For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby'."
Mean Streets opened at the New York Film Festival to excellent reviews. "(S)ome films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter," wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times, while Pauline Kael, in the New Yorker, described it as "a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking." It opened theatrically in New York a week later to solid business and subsequently across the country, where it received good reviews and short runs. It established De Niro as a hot young actor (Francis Ford Coppola cast him in The Godfather: Part II  on the strength of his performance in Mean Streets) and brought Scorsese to the attention of Hollywood. His career had begun.
Producer: Jonathan T. Taplin
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese (screenplay and story), Martin Mardik (screenplay)
Cinematography: Kent Wakeford
Film Editing: Sid Levin
Cast: Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy), Harvey Keitel (Charlie), David Proval (Tony), Amy Robinson (Teresa), Richard Romanus (Michael), Cesare Danova (Giovanni), Vic Argo (Mario), George Memmoli (Joey), Lenny Scaletta (Jimmy), Jeannie Bell (Diane), Murray Mosten (Oscar), David Carradine (Drunk), Robert Carradine (Boy with Gun).
by Sean Axmaker