Before there was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas there was Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese's breakthrough film and his first collaboration with Robert De Niro. What significance does this 38-year-old drama about Little Italy thugs have for movies today? Let's investigate.
The praise: Time Out magazine called it "one of the best American films of the decade." The New York Times called it an "unequivocally first-class film." Robert De Niro won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best supporting actor. In 1997, the Library of Congress selected Mean Streets for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The context: Martin Scorsese was born in New York City in 1942 and grew up watching movies because his asthma and general sickliness prevented him from playing sports with the other kids. His family was devoutly Catholic, and he considered joining the priesthood before turning to moviemaking. He graduated from New York University's film school in 1966, when the very idea of "film school" was still new.
Though Scorsese has the honor of being one of the first major directors to have gone to film school (and he started his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door, while he was there), it was afterward, when he worked for B-movie king Roger Corman, that he says he really learned how to make a movie. Say what you will about Corman -- that most of his productions were cheap schlock, for example -- the guy knew how to make something fast and under budget. Under Corman's tutelage, Scorsese directed Boxcar Bertha (1972), an exploitation flick about 1930s outlaws. With that experience under his belt, and encouraged by friends to make a personal movie, he went to work on something called Season of the Witch. That title was eventually changed to Mean Streets, borrowing a phrase from a Raymond Chandler essay.
Mean Streets was a spiritual sequel to Who's That Knocking at My Door and starred the same actor, Harvey Keitel, whom Scorsese had met while in college. Co-writing the screenplay with his friend Mardik Martin, Scorsese drew from his life in Little Italy to paint an authentic picture of the neighborhood at that time. He hadn't just grown up there; he had lived with his parents there until just a few years earlier. He was still a local boy.
Scorsese took the finished screenplay to Corman, who said he'd finance it if Scorsese rewrote it for an all-black cast. (The ever-pragmatic Corman wanted to cash in on the new blaxploitation sub-genre.) Scorsese, who was writing about the world he grew up in and was eager to tell a personal story, passed. The movie was financed through other means, and a cast was assembled.
It was to be the first collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who met through mutual friends. The two had actually grown up in the same general neighborhood but didn't know each other, coming from very different family backgrounds and traveling in different social circles. They hit it off immediately, though, and would go on to make seven movies together (so far), three of which earned De Niro Oscar nominations.
Ironically, Mean Streets -- a film meant to capture the flavor of Little Italy -- was primarily shot in Los Angeles. It was cheaper to shoot interior scenes there and use New York only for the exterior ones. Scorsese wasn't welcomed with open arms by his old neighbors, either, an insular Sicilian community who were skeptical that one of their own could be up to any good. He filmed the Little Italy scenes with a local crew consisting mostly of NYU students, who worked cheap but weren't necessarily always reliable.
The movie was shot in the fall of 1972, edited, and then, in summer 1973, shopped around to the studios to see who might distribute it. Peter Bart, an executive at Paramount -- which had just been saved from financial ruin by another Italian-Americans-with-guns drama called The Godfather -- watched about 10 minutes of Mean Streets before making up his mind: he wanted nothing to do with it. Luckily, the execs at Warner Bros. had a different opinion and picked up the film. It premiered at the New York Film Festival to ecstatic reviews and audience acclaim, and opened theatrically shortly thereafter.
The movie: Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie, a young man in New York's Little Italy who hopes to inherit his uncle's low-level connections in organized crime. But Charlie is conflicted by his friendship with a reckless gambler named Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and his secret relationship with Johnny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), while his Catholic upbringing hovers over everything else.
What it influenced: There have been a few direct homages to Mean Streets (Wong Kar-wai's As Tears Go By  was an unofficial remake of it), but most of the movie's influence has been indirect. That doesn't make it any less significant, however.
Prior to Mean Streets, Paul Schrader, who'd written the Taxi Driver screenplay and was looking to get it produced, had rejected Scorsese's offer to direct it. His reluctance was understandable: All he knew of Scorsese's work was Boxcar Bertha. Seeing Mean Streets made him change his mind. His producers, the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Julia Phillips, were likewise sold on Scorsese after Mean Streets.
De Niro had appeared in a handful of films before this but was basically an unknown. Mean Streets, while not a box-office success, was seen by people who recognized De Niro's talent and helped get his career going. It was upon seeing a rough cut of Mean Streets that Scorsese's friend Francis Ford Coppola decided he wanted De Niro to play the young Marlon Brando in The Godfather Part II (a role for which De Niro won an Oscar). Mean Streets also got De Niro the lead in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900.
Roger Ebert writes that the movie's influence can be felt in small ways in numerous subsequent movies dealing with low-level gangsters:
"In the way it sees and hears its characters, who are based on the people Scorsese knew and grew up with in Little Italy, it was an astonishingly influential film. If Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather fixed an image of the Mafia as a shadow government, Scorsese's Mean Streets inspired the other main line in modern gangster movies, the film of everyday reality. The Godfather was about careers. Mean Streets was about jobs. In it you can find the origins of all those other films about the criminal working class, like King of the Gypsies, Goodfellas, City of Industry, Sleepers, State of Grace, Federal Hill, Gridlock'd, and Donnie Brasco. Great films leave their mark not only on their audiences, but on films that follow. In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies."
The film doesn't feel as plot-driven, either, as it paints a tableau of a subsection of society rather than emphasizing a particular story line. Scorsese's aim is to help you feel like you're there in the barrooms and alleys and apartments with these people.
But you can also see the beginnings of the Scorsese you know and love. Most of his favorite themes are present: Catholic guilt, Italian-Americans, organized crime, New York City, Rolling Stones songs, guns, and violence.
What's the big deal: No one claims that Mean Streets is Scorsese's best movie, and it wasn't his first movie, either. But its repercussions have been felt ever since it premiered. It got Scorsese's and De Niro's careers off the ground, separately and as collaborators, and established a realistic way for movies to look at working-class criminals: sympathetically, from the men's point of view, and not from a moralistic high ground.
Further reading: Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about American moviemaking in the 1970s, offers plenty of enlightenment about Mean Streets and Scorsese's career in general.
Also of note: Vincent Canby's rave review in The New York Times, which has at least two significant errors in it. Canby says Johnny is Teresa's brother (they're cousins), and he says the film was shot entirely in Little Italy (as noted, it wasn't).