Made Man: Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS (Warner Brothers 1973)

Let’s talk about Martin Scorsese a bit, shall we? The much-lauded, Oscar-winning director/producer/film historian has rightly been recognized as one of out greatest living filmmakers, with classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED on his resume. Yet Scorsese started small, directing shorts and the low-budget WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? as a film student. He got work as an editor (UNHOLY ROLLERS) and assistant director (WOODSTOCK) before directing a feature for Roger Corman called BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. When Scorsese and Mardik Martin cowrote a screenplay based on Martin’s experiences growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Corman wanted to produce, but only if the film could be turned into a Blaxploitation movie! Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked it up, and the result was MEAN STREETS, which put Scorsese on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

MEAN STREETS follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), a young man with ambitions to move up in his insular neighborhood. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is a loan shark, a ‘man of respect’, and Charlie works for him as a debt collector. His uncle wants to grace him with the ownership of a restaurant currently in dire financial straights, but Charlie’s got problems. One of those problems is his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a loose cannon who owes money to everybody. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy with their pal, fellow shark Michael (Richard Romanus), but the wild child hasn’t paid up.

Charlie’s also hampered by his Catholic guilt, torn between religious convictions and life on the streets. He’s got another issue: he’s been having an affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whose epilepsy makes her a neighborhood pariah. All this spells trouble for Charlie’s ambitions on these mean streets, where everybody’s on the hustle, respect is valued above all, and violence is a way of life…

This is the film where Scorsese first developed his distinctive style, freed from the constraints of working for someone else’s vision, albeit on a much smaller scale and budget than in films to come. First, there’s the violence; it comes swiftly, without warning, and is brutal and uncompromising. Scorsese brought screen violence to new artistic heights, aided here by the lightning-quick editing of Sidney Levin, who like Scorsese had cut his teeth on AIP Exploitation fare (THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE YOUNG ANIMALS), and would later edit more mainstream films (NORMA RAE, MURPHY’S ROMANCE).

Being an unrepentant film buff, Scorsese peppers his film with homages to some of his favorites. Most noticeable is when his characters go to the movies, and scenes from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA play onscreen; posters and marquees from other movies dot the landscape. The characters of MEAN STREETS are constantly at war, with themselves as well as those who dwell in their world, and Scorsese references several war films during the course of the action. There are plenty of other examples, but I’ll leave that for you to discover… Happy Hunting!

Most importantly is the way Scorsese incorporates contemporary rock music into MEAN STREETS; the soundtrack of the character’s lives almost becomes a character itself. The film uses songs by The Rolling Stones (‘Tell Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘I Looked Away’), Smokey Robinson (‘Mickey’s Monkey’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), Cream (‘Steppin’/Out’), Betty Everett (‘It’s in His Kiss’), Johnny Ace (‘Pledging My Love’), and others, as well as traditional Italian tunes from his childhood. All these musical cues have meaning to the scene at hand, and Scorsese was one of the first to utilize pop music as a film score, a device that’s de rigueur in films today.

Martin Scorsese would go on to further explore crime and it’s consequences, but MEAN STREETS was his first attempt at making a personal statement, and it holds up well today. When his newest film THE IRISHMAN is released later this year, a direct lineage to MEAN STREETS can be traced – both DeNiro and Keitel will appear in the film. Scorsese is still going strong at age 76, one of The Greatest Living American Filmmakers, and MEAN STREETS remains essential viewing for all film buffs.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 3: Those Swingin’ Sixties!

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The 1960s were turbulent times, and nowhere was that more evident than in the decade’s pop culture. Hair was longer, skirts were shorter, music was louder, and The Silent Majority was pissed! Rock and roll, superspies, and sexual swingers ruled the screen. Here are five short looks at five films from The Swingin’ Sixties:

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VIVA LAS VEGAS! (MGM 1964; director George Sidney)

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sing and dance their way through this romp set in America’s gambling capital. Elvis is a race car driver, Ann’s an aspiring singer, and Cesare Danova plays Elvis’s rival on the race track and in Ann’s heart. Veteran musical director Sidney helps make this one of Presley’s better vehicles. Lightweight fluff for sure, but damn entertaining! Fun Fact: Danova was MGM’s first choice to play the title role in their 1959 epic BEN-HUR.

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WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (United Artists 1965; director Clive Donner)

Peter Sellers is a lecherous German psychiatrist, Peter O’Toole a fashion magazine editor who’s irresistible to women, and Romy Schneider is the one girl O’Toole’s in love with in this zany sex farce written by Woody Allen. Woody also makes his screen debut as O’Toole’s pal who also loves Romy. Woody’s his usual neurotic self, and his screenplay skewers his usual targets (relationships, sexual mores, therapy). Still fresh and funny, with songs by Dionne Warwick, Manfred Mann, and that great Tom Jones title tune. Fun Fact: Watch for Richard Burton in a quick cameo at a strip club!

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MODESTY BLAISE (20th Century-Fox 1966; director Joseph Losey)

A colorful but minor spy spoof based on the British comic strip. Thief turned adventuress Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) and her partner Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) are hired by the British Crown to stop a diamond heist by archvillain Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde). Rossella Falk and Clive Reville add to the fun as Gabriel’s criminal cohorts. Campy piece of pop art from overrated director Losey. Bogarde does make a marvelous bad guy, though. Fun Fact: One of only two English speaking films for Italian icon Vitti (the other being 1979’s AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR)

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IN LIKE FLINT (20th Century-Fox 1967; director Gordon Douglas)

More spy camp with supercool James Coburn as superspy Derek Flint. This sequel to OUR MAN FLINT finds our hero battling an organization of females bent on world domination. Lee J. Cobb is back as Lloyd Kramden, head of intelligence agency ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage), and a chance to see him in a comedic role…not to mention in drag! Full of gadgets, girls, and improbable situations, IN LIKE FLINT is okay, but not as good as its predecessor. Fun Fact: The late Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig has a small role as a Russian ballerina/spy.

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THE SWEET RIDE (20th Century-Fox 1968; director Harvey Hart)

THE SWEET RIDE tries to be too many things – a surf movie, a biker flick, a mystery, a love story, a comedy – and fails on all counts. I liked it when I first saw it years ago, but on rewatching, it just didn’t click with me. It does have some good points: Jacqueline Bisset’s hot, Bob Denver’s pretty cool, and psychedelic rockers Moby Grape make an appearance. But Tony Franciosa is just annoying in his role as an overaged tennis bum, and the rest of the cast is so-so, except for the great character actor Charles Dierkop as biker ‘Mr. Clean’. Fun Fact: Dierkop also played the Killer Santa in the exploitation classic SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Now here’s a link to  the bombastic Tom Jones singing his hit, the theme from WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?:

https://youtu.be/VBdSqk78nHw

More in the series:

  1. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 1
  2. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 2