Double Take: Mean Streets (1973)

Starting today at PopMatters, "Double Take" does for film what "Counterbalance" does for music. Film geeks Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick regularly examine the "500 Greatest Films Ever Made".

The pain in hell has two sides: The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart. For Double Take No. 1, we go into Scorsese’s urban Inferno. Right where you breathe.

Leftridge: So, Mr. Pick, you and I have agreed to watch and discuss the 500 Greatest Films Ever Made. And we’re kicking off the whole shebang, thanks to our big randomizer, with a consideration of Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets, the director’s second feature and one that helped establish several stylistic and thematic elements that would go on to define the Scorsese brand for many years to come: a gritty urban setting, violence, Catholic guilt, noirish realism, racial tension, rock and roll, Robert De Niro, etc. Finding its place in the overall film canon, Mean Streets is a film that enjoys nearly universal admiration among the critical community, or at least it did when it first appeared, but it has, I’ve found, become fairly polarizing among those who watch it for the first time today. I’ll put it to you: As someone revisiting the film after a few years, how do you think it holds up?

Pick: Steve, it’s interesting that you asked me my thoughts in the way you did, as I never saw Mean Streets when it was new, or at all until a year or two ago. In the ‘70s, I barely noticed movies — I saw Billy Jack, a bunch of Marx Brothers classics, and The Fury when I was a teenager, and that’s about it. So Mean Streets to me looks clearly like Scorsese doing what he does on a lower budget, and on a smaller scale. Which is still pretty freaking cool — the shots from behind Harvey Keitel, when he’s dancing, when he’s walking down the endless hall with Teresa, when he’s in the church — are all stunning visuals. The fight scene in the poolroom is intoxicating — at the same time an echo of the western fight the guys saw in the movie theater and an incredible dance sequence with all those really long tracking shots (again from behind the action). And of course, the use of classic rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, and girl group music.

The film is close to a classic tragedy, but I love that it is from such a low-level gangster point of view. All the action takes place because of a lack of money, and not all that much money in the grand scheme of things. Keitel’s Charlie, like Hamlet, can’t make up his mind, torn between his love for his long-time pal Johnny Boy, his lust and (sort of) love for Teresa, and his desire to move up in his uncle’s criminal organization, albeit in the legitimate restaurant part of the action. But I really want to talk about De Niro — how did seeing this film affect your understanding of De Niro as an actor given how he approached the character of Johnny Boy?

Leftridge: Well, the thing I treasure most about Mean Streets is just watching De Niro work. The way De Niro jumps off the screen in Mean Streets makes clear why he usurped Keitel as Scorsese’s go-to guy. When you compare De Niro in Scorsese’s run of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy, it’s an extraordinary transformation from role to role. Everyone talks about the weight gain in Raging Bull as evidence of De Niro’s commitment and excellence, but gaining 40 pounds is getting less impressive to me the older I get, sadly. It’s De Niro’s ability to portray psychological complexity, his range, and his improvisational skill that stand out as historically great.

In De Niro’s hands, Johnny Boy gives the film its sociopathic heartbeat, the counterpoint to Charlie’s search for meaning in the church and the streets. We see Johnny Boy’s nihilistic streak most clearly as he shoots his .38 Special and shouts incoherent apologies from the roof of the nightclub to an unidentified woman whom we briefly see running for cover (“I hate that lady”), offering an explicit window into his soul (or lack thereof); these behaviors create a joy in him reserved for only the darkest of individuals, and it’s De Niro’s intuitive skill as an improvisational actor that makes it all work.

Moreover, De Niro brings an exuberance, humor, and appeal to Johnny Boy at odds with his reckless violent streak: Yes, he’s a sociopath, but he’s a charming sociopath. I mean it’s impossible to imagine Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver strutting along to “Jumping Jack Flash” with a girl on each arm. That’s the Johnny Boy scene for me — when De Niro riffs in the backroom about Joey Clams/Joey Scallops, wanting to kill that kid, etc. Even at Johnny Boy’s most deplorable — as when he seals his fate during his pistol-brandishing tirade toward Michael — De Niro is electric enough to make me root for him, a reaction in line with the film’s pervasive moral ambiguities.

Pick: Yes, yes, yes — De Niro is the lifeblood of this movie, the heart and the soul, the figure who makes things happen (albeit through his own inability to give a shit about making things happen properly). I don’t think charming is the right word, though — he’s compulsively watchable, and funny, but never somebody you could actually like. Keitel’s Charlie seems like a decent guy in a lot of ways, or at least a man carefully trying to figure out his own place in a crooked environment. He is brought down by his unwillingness to abandon his trickster friend despite the obvious path he walks through his devotion to Johnny Boy.

It’s interesting you mention the film’s moral ambiguities, because I think Scorsese is more moralistic than he is often given credit for. At any rate, all bad decisions large and small are punished to a certain degree within the film, most obviously in the final fate of Johnny Boy, but also in the final fate of Charlie. Though the story ends without knowing what happens next, it’s pretty unlikely Charlie’s uncle will let him carry on with the life he had planned. That restaurant is never going to be Charlie’s. I forget the exact line in the opening scene about Charlie deciding his own perdition, but in a sense, that’s what happens through his inability to let go of Johnny.

Leftridge: I agree with you that Charlie’s religious struggle is key, even if it comes across as obvious and clumsy at times. The fire motif doesn’t ring all that true, for instance, with Charlie holding a burning match to his finger while the strippers shimmy on stage a few feet from him. On the other hand, the internal struggle between the sacred and the profane is one that the director clearly felt compelled to express on the screen — it’s a theme central to Who’s That Knockin’, as well, and Charlie’s compulsion for religious penance is the only way the audience can rectify why Charlie would allow himself to be destroyed by Johnny Boy against all logic and the other characters’ demands.

Scorsese apparently looks at Mean Streets as his most personal film, something of an autobiographical snapshot (right down to doing his own voiceovers for Charlie’s inner dialogue), and he’s clearly borrowing liberally here from Elia Kazan and On the Waterfront for this film’s graphic verisimilitude and the central conflict that you’re describing. Even all of the Catholic imagery and scrupulosity in Mean Streets lines up with Karl Malden’s Christ-is-in-the-Shape-Up speech in Waterfront and the attendant guilt that weighs on Brando’s and Keitel’s characters, respectively.

Pick: Changing subjects, I want to circle back to your point in the opening about how Mean Streets is controversial to audiences today. In 1973, there was no queer film theory or feminist film studies as of yet. But once you’ve read Vito Russo or Laura Mulvey (or any of a thousand writers in their wake), you can’t just let be the stereotypical gay character or the objectified figure of Teresa. Four years after Stonewall (and admittedly in a parallel to a gay bar raid with the bar patrons trying desperately to flee the police), Scorsese gives us a gay man who can’t control his erotic id, who simply has to make a pass at every man he sees. It’s a disturbing scene, and not for the reason it was probably put in the film. Scorsese obviously intended to expand upon the underworld nature of the film’s milieu, but instead of sharing the discomfort of the characters we already know, we are left uncomfortable at the belief that such a being represented homosexuality.

Teresa is a complete surprise when she first appears halfway through Mean Streets. Other than Charlie negotiating with Johnny Boy as to which woman will sleep with whom, and of course his flirting with the African-American dancer, Keitel’s character does not seem like he’s interested in any woman at all. Until he’s suddenly in bed with Johnny Boy’s cousin, and it’s clearly not the first time. Teresa gives him something that he wants, and it’s fascinating to watch him wrestle with that desire to be close and the conviction that he doesn’t want to be hurt — it’s kind of like the way he keeps putting his finger in the flame and pulling back. But Scorsese doesn’t let Teresa convince us of her own desires, and he provides textbook examples of the Male Gaze in action with the way he shows us her nude body in that first scene. She’s beautiful, to be sure, and she looks great naked, but I’ve seen that scene twice now, and I can’t remember any of the dialogue despite searing images of the visuals.

Is that what you meant by controversy today, Steve? Or are there other things that throw people? I didn’t go into the questions of race, which all seem to be taken from the viewpoints of whites, and are clearly shown to be irrational in context.

Leftridge: You’ve provided some keen analysis here, and I’m sure the scene with the gay characters plays as embarrassingly outdated to anyone looking at the film today. It isn’t the last time that Scorsese would attempt to have a little fun with homosexuality, as in the scene of the two leather-clad men making out at the café in After Hours. My sense is that much of Mean Streets is meant to feel spontaneous, just part of the urban inferno of downtown Manhattan, the city of endless night in the ‘70s. Scorsese makes it clear that we’re on his turf, which he attempts to capture authentically, and, unfortunately, the director throws the insatiable-gay-man stereotype into the underbelly of the city along with the hookers, pimps, drug pushers, etc.

Your feminist reading is also interesting, but I had none of this — his treatment of sexuality or gender or race — in mind when I called the film “polarizing” to new audiences. I just meant that I’ve found that people who watch Mean Streets for the first time today don’t seem to find the film all that good. You touch on the main reason for these lukewarm reactions in your comment that you can’t remember what Charlie and Teresa talk about, and audiences likewise complain about the film’s lack of a compelling or structurally cohesive plot.

However, what I’ve always found compelling about Mean Streets is more or less the same aspect of the film that I most often hear people complain about: the film’s meandering observational style. Scorsese allows the camera to linger on these shiftless dudes just drifting around (going to movies, play-fighting with trashcan lids, enduring a boring evening at the bar), scenes that serve as necessary juxtapositions to the moments of violence. Scorsese’s later films — Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street — play like three-hour movie trailers, nothing but quick-cutting highlights. But on Mean Streets, Scorsese more patiently provides, along with the grainy, shuddery, noir-ish character of the film, a more authentic reality that is deliberately paced and unaffected enough to avoid (overly) romanticizing the lives of its characters.