|Mean Streets (Directed by Martin Scorsese)|
‘You don’t make up for your sins in church – you do it in the streets.’
Inspired by Scorsese’s own experiences of growing up in Little Italy around small-time mobsters and young hoods, Mean Streets tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his gangster uncle. His ambitions to rise in the family business are hampered by his friendship with the self-destructive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and his relationship with his cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) who rejects his background of Catholic guilt and street machismo.
Less a crime film than a character study and homage to the streets of New York’s Little Italy, Mean Streets is not strictly autobiographical but in Scorsese’s 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.’
After his feature debut with Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) – originally a film-school project inspired by John Cassavetes’ Shadows – Scorsese found work in Hollywood as an editor before being hired by Roger Corman to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972), a low budget genre picture set during the American depression.
Corman then offered Scorsese another low-budget exploitation project when Scorsese’s mentor John Cassavetes urged the young director to make something more personal instead. Scorsese mentioned a script he was working on titled Season of the Witch, a sequel to Who’s That Knocking at My Door, that needed a rewrite.
The script developed into Mean Streets and was eventually filmed in 27 days mostly in Los Angeles, where it was easier to get permits and shoot with a non-unionized crew. Energetic, inventive and deeply personal, it is the first recognisably mature Martin Scorsese film. It opened to critical acclaim and established the careers of De Niro and Keitel and brought Scorsese to the attention of Hollywood.
In the following extract from his book Conversations with Scorsese, Richard Schickel discusses with Scorsese the events behind the making of Mean Streets:
RS: I have to tell you: Of all your movies Mean Streets remains the hardest one for me to come to grips with.
MS: It’s an aggressive film. I didn’t think anybody was really going to see the film. Jonathan Taplin produced it. A young man named E. Lee Perry gave us the money, and I just thought it was going to be a film that ultimately might be on a shelf. But we thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal of that way of life—not on the upper levels, like The Godfather, but on the street level, what I knew and how I lived.
But it’s tough: People would get up in the middle, saying of it, ‘Please stop the screening.’ And walk out. ‘I hate pictures like this,’ they would say.
RS: Harvey, on the one hand, seems to want to be with these tough guys, he wants to be as tough as they are. He is as tough as they are, in a way. At the same time, he’s always going back to the church—there are those wonderful shots of him in the church. And the church is so beautiful and, as you said before, peaceful. It seems to me he’s projecting the conflict you felt.
MS: After about six years of working on the script and story, that’s what I channeled into it. I had three different groups of friends. One group went to Fordham, and are now lawyers and bank presidents—good guys who made good lives for themselves. I had another friend who was more the intellectual of the group, and a loner, and I’d go with him to see Broadway plays. And then I had another couple of guys who were more street toughs. I was split among the three. When I went to NYU, in 1960, when I walked six blocks down Houston Street, it was like going to Mars. I had seen movies like Twelve Angry Men, showing the American process, and I was living with people who were not part of that.
People complain about my depiction of Italian Americans. But I can’t help them with that. I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s my perception of what I know. There are guys, as I say, who are upstanding members of the community. They’re doing fine. There are guys who are out of town, who can’t come back. There are guys who are dead. I was in the middle of it. In a way, I was trying to understand how one should behave in life. What is the moral code? What is right, and what’s wrong?
RS: Harvey’s character has a little bit of you and a little bit of your father in him, doesn’t he?
MS: Well, Harvey’s character is named after my father, Charlie, who is trying to live morally in a world that’s not moral, in a world that’s primal. But there are two things going on. There’s his relationship with his uncle, in which he can be elevated to a certain extent in that community. And I had him going to college at the same time, though he doesn’t have enough in him yet to utilize the American opportunity education provides to get the hell out of there. But he can, because he is generally a decent guy, work with his uncle and make a good living, and have a sense of dignity in that world.
He’s not a street tough. I mean, he hangs with them. But he tries to bring reason to all of this. And, ultimately, because of his relationship with Johnny and his girlfriend, Teresa [who is an epileptic], his chances are destroyed completely. He should have been killed, because he has nowhere to go. There’s no way his uncle could work with him now.
He’s messed up because he has this sense of love for the both of them. And he has to leave town and go to Texas or Florida or somewhere.
His love for the both of them, for Johnny and Teresa, is interesting, because for me it has religious implications, in that, for whatever reasons, this guy is just filled with guilt. Why he’s filled with guilt, that’s something else. There’s a kind of deep curiosity in him. He’s not part of a world in which he can go off into the desert, let’s say, and be a monk and a hermit: he’s got to deal in a rough world, a primitive world, a savage world. Can you still be a good person? Can good still happen? I know there’s no justice, but can it be worked out? And so that, along with his own feelings about leading a spiritual life, he calls down upon himself a kind of suffering.
RS: Is that what the girl represents—loss as a form of...
MS: To a certain extent. But mainly it’s Johnny. Because he says in the bar, Here comes my penance. Ultimately, I think Johnny senses something. Because at the end of the picture he says to Harvey, You’re doing it for you, not for me. So that you can feel better spiritually.
But he’s caught. He’s caught. In that world, they’re not dealing on the spiritual level. It’s fate. He has transgressed, and he’s going to have to pay for it.
RS: I don’t understand why the uncle is so dead set against the girl, who’s perfectly nice—
MS: She wants to move out. She wants to move out of the neighborhood. She’s different. She’s a troublemaker. She threatens the value of the family: to stay together and support each other.
RS: Let’s talk about De Niro. He comes on—
MS: —and he just inhabits the role.
RS: It is certainly the beginning of the Jake LaMotta...
MS: Yeah, it is. It’s the same picture, really.
RS: The main thing, I think, is that Johnny has no sense of consequence. He has no sense of being able to look ahead.
MS: Why should he look ahead? He’s got no place to go. He doesn’t have the education. He doesn’t have the temperament. And he acts out against these people, knowing to a certain extent that his youth will help him. He is all anarchy at that point.
He says, You want to stick with me, you’re coming down with me. It’s not just about how much you love me, and how much you want to take care of me. There’s a lot going on with you. You don’t even know what the hell you want out of life, he tells Harvey, in effect.
I thought what was going on between Harvey and Bob was great in those three and a half weeks of shooting. They understood that, ultimately, the relationship is based on loving each other, but that one was getting more out of it than the other. It was something that, in Charlie’s mind, was a more spiritual thing. But they’re all of them damned at the end. None of them die, which is worse, because they might as well die. The worst thing that could be—and it happens to all the characters at the end of Mean Streets—is that they wind up humiliated, not killed. Humiliated.
And so it was very real. In Mean Streets, the shooting in the car at the end was based on something I experienced. I was at NYU when it happened. I got out of a car with a friend of mine only a half hour before a shooting like that occurred. On the weekends I’d hang out with my friends—at after-hours clubs, the backs of tenements, that sort of stuff. This kid had a car, and he was going around for a ride. He was a part-time cop, had a gun. And so we went with him in the car a few times.
And then on Elizabeth Street one night at about two in the morning, we realized he was acting with bravado, in a way that we pulled back from. So we told him we were going to go home. So, all right, he drops us off. On Elizabeth Street you had cars parked on both sides. And he’s driving down the block. And there’s a red light, and there’s a car in front of him. And the red light changes to green, and the car doesn’t move. A guy comes over and starts talking with the driver in the first car. Our friend blows his horn. The car in front of him doesn’t move. The guys are talking. He blows his horn again. The guys continue talking. He gets out, walks up to them, he takes his gun out or his badge. He says, ‘I’m a cop. Move this car.’ The guy says, ‘All right.’ He moves the car.
The next morning, we heard our guy was driving on Astor Place. He looked over at a car next to him and the people in that car started firing shots into his car. There was another kid in the car who got shot in the eye. And it was because he talked to the wrong people the wrong way.
And that became something that was very important to me and my friend, who had left the car an hour or two earlier. Because we could have been killed. Mean Streets had to be made because I was in the car that night. I went backwards from that. How the hell did he get into a situation like that? We didn’t even know the guys. And I said to myself, That’s the story to tell.
It made you stop and think—the kind of world we’re in, the society we’re in. So, anyway, that was a major moment in my life, and that’s what Mean Streets comes out of. And it has to explode like that. I’ve seen it happen, a lot of times. It’s just the way things work. So that’s why the chaos is there. I was almost a victim of it. Another friend of mine was killed, taken out because he was a wild cannon. But by that point, I was moving to California, you know.
You get a touch of that sort of thing in Goodfellas—the poor kid who gets shot first in the foot and then in the chest. When the kid is shot in the foot, why the hell does he come back the next week? Why? Because he has no place to go. Can’t get on a plane. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t have the education. And it was just one of those things. He came back. He came back and he said one word too many. You know? And that was it. It happens.
RS: One other thing: Right here at the beginning of your career the violence seems to me so characteristic of what we’d see later. It just occurs. There’s not a lot of motivation. It almost comes out of nowhere.
MS: Well, that’s the way it was. That’s the world I was in. The violence is always in the background. I’d go into a place, even in a movie theater, I always had my antennae out all the way, because I had to watch if somebody said something wrong to somebody else. Some complain that the films denigrate Italian Americans. But I’m just telling it from my perspective. That doesn’t mean that other friends of mine see it that way. But my experience is that there are certain groups of people who are aligned with certain families. I didn’t know they were called families at the time, but there were certain people with power, and if somebody hits somebody, or does something, not just on the street level, not just kids, the settling up is done, usually, in the old way, between the different groups. Lives were run that way. It’s a very tough way of living.
RS: Is that violence explicable if you really, really connect it to the Mob? And it’s only to somebody like me that the violence seems almost totally inexplicable?
MS: I don’t want to seem to contradict what I said before. But, no, at least in this world, it’s always explicable. People criticized the film for pointless violence. I said, No, there’s no such thing as pointless violence. It comes from something. In that world we have to be very careful as to who insulted whom, who brushed by another, who said something a little in a nasty way. In Goodfellas, where Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta are playing a game, and joking around, and all of a sudden Pesci is saying, Why do you say I’m funny? Well, says Ray, because you tell a funny story. Do you think I’m a clown? No, I didn’t say you’re a clown. What did you mean then? And somebody starts to speak—No, he’s a big boy, he can talk for himself. And it changes on a dime. You could be killed. You could get into a fight, not be killed, but get beaten up pretty badly if you didn’t know how to handle yourself.
I mean, there was always tension. None of this business of the happy immigrants jumping and dancing and doing tarantellas. It’s Los Olvidados. It’s Journey to the End of the Night by Céline. That is the closest of anything I ever read to the reality of the people in those Lower East Side buildings.
RS: So all of that fed into Mean Streets?
MS: Mean Streets was based on myself and a couple of friends I had, but particularly two guys. One of them thinks the Johnny Boy character is really about him, and in a way it was, but not fully. He no longer lives in New York, but he always felt angry about that.
After my father died, I realized what the hell the picture really was about: my father and that brother of his who we’ve talked about; a lot of money that was owed, a lot of sit-downs. Every night I’d hear the drama. For twenty, twenty-five years, that’s all I heard. About what’s right and wrong and you’re in a jungle. It had to do with the dignity of the name, and respect—walking a tightrope of respect, not being a wiseguy. Mean Streets was about him and my uncle, but I couldn’t verbalize it until after ’93 or ’94, when it really hit home.
- Extracted from ‘Richard Schickel: Conversations with Scorsese’ Alfred Knopf, New York, 2011.