Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) awakens in the night, sweating, wracked by pain of the spirit. Is this before or after the action of this film? Mean Streets concludes with its characters torn up; its lovers left as mangled messes, one man probably dead, another having sacrificed friendship and humanity for respect. Charlie, waking from a bad dream, premonition, or memory, is right to sweat. “The flame of a candle by a thousand times,” is how Charlie conceives the fires of Hell, adding, with piquant theology, “You don’t fuck around with the infinite.” Charlie sets out to make up for his sins, as the famed quote goes, in the streets. For Charlie, religion, love, and action are a texture of being.
Scorsese’s breakthrough film was adapted from a screenplay Scorsese wrote with Mardik Martin in the late ’60s called “Season of the Witch.” The redrafted screenplay gained its title at the suggestion of film critic and future screenwriter Jay Cocks, from Raymond Chandler’s prose treatise on crime fiction. Scorsese initially found it a tad pretentious. Indeed, the film has little to do with Chandler’s aestheticized pulp. Rather, it is more in the mould of such litterateurs as J.T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and early Hemingway, as well as Italian filmmakers Visconti, Rossellini, and the other Neorealists (the film borrows much from Visconti’s mighty Rocco and His Brothers especially). It’s easy to imagine the characters of Mean Streets as the boys of Who’s That Knocking On My Door? six years older and at the age where things start going seriously right or seriously wrong. Scorsese’s technique has now reached a point where he can use his eruptive, self-announcing style to deliver narrative in new forms; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the drum beats that announce “Be My Baby” at the start.
The opening sequences are now quoted endlessly, as the lead characters are given introductory epigrams showing us in a stroke their essential nature, capped by their names flashing on screen. Tony (David Proval), who runs a popular bar, is seen ejecting a junkie and pusher from his joint and berating his useless bouncer. Tony is a no-nonsense guy, who loves people, but who will never be a sucker. Michael Longo (Richard Romenek) is a low-level mafioso supervising cigarette robberies and trying to sell German camera lenses to a connection who instantly identifies them as Japanese-made lens adapters, virtually worthless. Michael is thick, shifty, and mindful of his overblown image. Johnny Boy Civello (Robert De Niro) is a grown man who likes blowing up mail boxes with firecrackers. And Charlie’s in church, trying not to fuck with the infinite. The opening credits show all these guys when they were younger, fooling about with a Super 8 camera (Scorsese would later use the ghostly, nostalgic texture of such films to even more powerful effect in Raging Bull). They were young and friends then. They still are, but the types of men they choose to be are the subject of Mean Streets, and how making the wrong choices can put you in the shit.
Second cousin to Who’s That Knocking‘s JR, Charlie is wrestling with identities that don’t fit anymore. He is fed up with the Hail Marys his priest hands out. He wants to sleep with the cute black dancer who works at Tony’s, but he’s too nervous about the color line. He has overcome the hang-ups that crippled JR enough to have a happily sexual affair with Johnny’s cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson), but can’t take their relationship anywhere because he knows not many others have. Johnny Boy is Charlie’s albatross.
De Niro became an instant star on the back of this performance; his Johnny Boy is a playful, reckless, cheeky brat who cuts through the nightlife and girls like an aftershave-reeking Moses of cool. One of the great musical moments in cinema is “Jumping Jack Flash” blaring as Charlie watches Johnny enter Tony’s place, two girls in arm, a spectacle of delight in life, both awesome and dread-provoking. Trouble is, Johnny’s an irresponsible flake whose tendencies to push situations too far ignites them again and again. An incessant gambler heavily in debt to many loan sharks including Michael, Johnny parades carelessly through life expecting to be yanked out of any jam by the grace of God, pals, and sheer nerve. When the pressure cranks up, Johnny unravels. He assaults random men on the street, insults lifeline Charlie, and dissolves in blubbering nobody-loves-me tirades. Early on, when Charlie, Johnny and others go to extract a debt out of a pool room owner, Johnny’s mouthing off (“A mook?…What’s a mook?”), his tinny truculence and adolescent attitude, precipitates an all-in brawl that sees our lads careening off walls, dancing on pool tables, swinging broken pool cues, fighting three-to-one, until the clash is busted up by cops who accept taxi fare to Philadelphia to go away. Johnny even blows the resulting truce, and he and his pals flee in a flurry of index fingers and insults.
It’s a hilarious and invigorating scene, justly famous, that perfectly captures a common brand of macho confrontation, surreal violence, and urban incident. It also refers to the opening street fight of Who’s That Knocking…, and reveals how Scorsese nurtured his style. Instead of the gifted-child impressionism that breaks up his first film’s texture into fetishized pieces (the ghost of film theory and experimental ethic in Who’s That Knocking…, which favor the shot over the scene, the dominion of narrative and Hollywood), Marty constructs well-contoured scenes whilst still delivering punchy, innovative filming, a form of cinematic prose that communicates in sensation. He uses wide-angle lenses, especially in the fight scenes and moments of physical motion, to give the vertigo-drag of deep space to match the urgency of the action. When Charlie gets drunk, the camera is strapped to Keitel’s chest and lurches drunkenly with him. Instead of merely watching, Scorsese makes his camera and editing an organ of the action and thematic communication.
Scorsese wasn’t the first director to do such things, but he systematized the approach to form a new lexicon. For the rest of his career, most importantly in The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese links image, idea, and theme with his camera, rather than just show off (though he’ll do that, too). The keynote of Scorsese’s career was his uncommon devotion to individual artistic expression through the potential of film as a form of composition rather than mere photography; thus, despite his essentially social-realist ethos he was never tempted to become Ken Loach.
Sociologically, Mean Streets is the first of Scorsese’s films to follow Abraham Polonsky’s strategy of expostulating a view of capitalist extremity through the vicissitudes of gangland. The nexus of blood, cash, and machismo is irresistible film material and a fine conduit for studying how commitment to money and material things erodes the true values of human beings. Importantly, it’s practically Scorsese’s first “gangster” film (though only Michael counts as one proper) .and sets a pattern admirably fulfilled by Goodfellas and Casino. Scorsese’s fondness for his own ethnic background meshed neatly with the post-Godfather romance of the cinema for goombahs and wiseguys. But Marty’s approach is subtly, but relentlessly opposed to The Godfather‘s epic infatuation. Coppola’s inspiration was to graft an operatic vision of Italian familial tradition and Shakespearean drama onto the seamy milieu that Scorsese analyses more honestly. Mean Streets’ tragic study of the ingrained clash between the finer and the least fine American values will eventually be recast, especially in the course of Raging Bull, The Color of Money, and reach götterdamerung in Casino.
Mean Streets is most forcibly a character study; character is fate just as relentlessly in Scorsese’s best work as in Thomas Hardy. Charlie, for his ambitions to play savior, is termite-riddled with his sycophancy to his quasi-Cosa Nostra uncle Giovanni Cappa (Cesare Danova). The Cappas play a faux-civilised version of the game that the Michaels of the realm enforce more ruggedly. Charlie is indecisive in almost every aspect of his life, perhaps most tartly signaled when he arranges a date with the dancer, and then stands her up.
Theresa, one of Scorsese’s many Mary Magdalenes endangered by her lover’s Christ fixations, is an epileptic but far from fragile; her hale, husky-voiced persona and lucid sexuality are admirable counterpoints to the sweaty, vaguely sex-panicked men who surround her. Entrapped by the subtle clash between Johnny Boy and Charlie, Theresa is first driven to a fit and then almost dies in the finale. Johnny reveals, in time, his enraged contempt for Charlie’s posturing that lacks concrete salvation. Charlie gives Johnny talkings-to, admonitions, even slaps, but no decent sums of cash, no offers of a job to help him pay his debts. Nonetheless, Johnny, Charlie, and Theresa all love each other; before being collectively crucified for loving too much, the trio find a fraternity and catharsis for themselves. Mean Streets is a film about love, and Marty will never, after virtually eviscerating the emotion at the end of the film, be so loving again.
Michael, defending his tinny authority, casually unleashes a mini-apocalypse when his hired gun shoots at Johnny behind the wheel while Charlie and Theresa are riding with him. Shot in the neck, Johnny crashes the car, sending Theresa through the windscreen, screaming for Charlie, who lurching around in a bloody daze; we last see Johnny stumbling away, probably dying. It’s a breathtakingly cruel and dynamic scene that is both chaotically real and tragically perfect, and it’s also the strongest of the three fractured finales Scorsese has essayed to this point; Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Boxcar Bertha, and Mean Streets all conclude with their crises unresolved and their characters dangling over the void. Later Scorsese heroes will pass through such orgies of riot and violence and emerge cleansed, purified.
Beyond the central story, Mean Streets is a landscape of vignettes and character haikus dotted with such lovingly weird moments as Tony hugging a lion cub; Michael putting on a pair of Joisey longhairs trying to buy fireworks; the assassin casually walking up behind a drunk in Tony’s joint’s toilet and shooting him the back to avenge a petty insult (the two played by Keith and David Carradine); returning veteran Jerry the Soldier (Harry Northup) cracking up at his homecoming party. A little too long, and populated by less than inspiring men, Mean Streets still stands as one of the great American films. It’s the last time Harvey Keitel plays centerstage with Scorsese, as De Niro established his capacity to shift with protean skill from role to role. Keitel had proven perfect for playing Scorsese’s alter ego. De Niro would prove the necessary catalyst for moving into a bigger world. l