by Pauline Kael
Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking. It has its own hallucinatory look; the characters live in the darkness of bars, with lighting and color just this side of lurid. It has its own unsettling, episodic rhythm and a high-charged emotional range that is dizzyingly sensual. At the beginning, there’s a long, fluid sequence as the central character, Charlie, comes into a bar and greets his friends; there’s the laying on of hands, and we know that he is doing what he always does. And when the camera glides along with him as he’s drawn toward the topless dancers on the barroom stage, we share his trance. At the end of the scene, when he’s up on the stage, entering into the dance, he’s not some guy who’s taken leave of his senses but a man going through his nightly ritual. Movies generally work you up to expect the sensual intensities, but here you may be pulled into high without warning. Violence erupts crazily, too, the way it does in life—so unexpectedly fast that you can’t believe it, and over before you’ve been able to take it in. The whole movie has this effect; it psychs you up to accept everything it shows you. And since the story deepens as it goes along, by the end you’re likely to be openmouthed, trying to rethink what you’ve seen. Though the street language and the operatic style may be too much for those with conventional tastes, if this picture isn’t a runaway success the reason could be that it’s so original that some people will be dumbfounded—too struck to respond. It’s about American life here and now, and it doesn’t look like an American movie, or feel like one. If it were subtitled, we could hail a new European or South American talent—a new Buñuel steeped in Verdi, perhaps—and go home easier at heart. Because what Scorsese, who is thirty, has done with the experience of growing up in New York’s Little Italy has a thicker-textured rot and violence than we have ever had in an American movie, and a riper sense of evil.
The zinger in the movie—and its this, I think, that begins to come together in one s head when the picture is over—is the way it gets at the psychological connections between Italian Catholicism and crime, between sin and crime. Some editorial writers like to pretend this is all a matter of prejudice; they try to tell us that there is no basis for the popular ethnic stereotypes—as if crime among Italians didn’t have a different tone from crime among Irish or Jews or blacks. Editorial writers think they’re serving the interests of democracy when they ask us to deny the evidence of our senses. But all crime is not alike, and different ethnic groups have different styles of lawlessness. These Mafiosi loafers hang around differently from loafing blacks; in some ways, the small-time hoods of Mean Streets (good Catholics who live at home with their parents) have more in common with the provincial wolf pack of Fellini’s I Vitelloni (cadging, indulged sons of middle-class families) than with the other ethnic groups in New York City. And these hoods live in such an insulated world that anyone outside it—the stray Jew or black they encounter—is as foreign and funny to them as a little man from Mars.
Many people interpreted the success of The Godfather to mean that the film glorified the gangsters’ lives. During the Second World War, a documentary showing the noise and congestion of New York City was cheered by nostalgic American soldiers overseas; if audiences were indeed attracted to the life of the Corleone family (and I think some probably were), the reaction may be just as aberrant to the intentions of The Godfather, the best gangster film ever made in this country. It’s likely that Italian, or Sicilian, Catholicism has a special, somewhat romantic appeal to Americans at this time. Italians appear to others to accept the fact that they’re doomed; they learn to be comfortable with it—it’s what gives them that warm, almost tactile glow. Their voluptuous, vacant-eyed smiles tell us that they want to get the best out of this life: they know they’re going to burn in eternity, so why- should they think about things that are depressing? It’s as if they were totally carnal: everything is for their pleasure. Maybe it is this relaxed attitude that gave the Mafiosi of The Godfather their charm for the American audience. Was the audience envying them their close family ties and the vitality of their lawlessness? Was it envying their having got used to a sense of sin? It’s almost as if the non-Catholic part of America wanted to say that men culpa is nostra culpa.
Before Mean Streets is over, that glow’ gets very hot and any glamour is sweated off. The clearest fact about Charlie (Harvey Keitel), junior member of a Mafia family—and, in a non-literal sense, the autobiographical central figure—is that whatever he does in his life, lie’s a sinner. Behind the titles you see him smiling his edgy, jocular smile and shaking hands with a priest, as if sealing a pact, while the words appear: “Directed by Martin Scorsese.” Charlie, you can see in his tense ferret’s face, feels he was born to be punished. Like his friends, round-faced, jovial Tony the barkeep (David Proval) and pompous Michael (Richard Romanus), a chiseling dude, he basks in the life. Running numbers, gambling, two-bit swindles: they grew up in this squalor and it’s all they’ve ever known or wanted. To them, this is living it up. But Charlie isn’t a relaxed sinner; he torments himself, like a fanatic seminarian. He’s so frightened of burning he’s burning already. Afraid of everything, he’s everybody’s friend, always trying to keep the peace. He’s a dutiful toady to his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the big man in the Mafia, and he fails those he really cares about: his girl, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a compulsive gambler — more than compulsive, irrational, a gambler with no sense of money. Charlie is too vain and sycophantic not to give in to social pressure. Teresa isn’t rated high enough by his uncle; and his uncle, his king, the source of the restaurant he hopes to get, has told him not to be involved with Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy was named after Giovanni, but the family protects you only if you truckle to the elder statesmen and behave yourself — if you’re a good timeserver.
Johnny Boy isn’t; he flouts all the rules, he just won’t “behave.” He’s fearless, gleefully self-destructive, cracked — moonstruck but not really crazy. His madness isn’t explained (fortunately, since explaining madness is the most limiting and generally least convincing thing a movie can do). When you’re growing up, if you know someone crazydaring and half-admirable (and maybe most of us do), you don’t wonder how the beautiful nut got that way; he seems to spring up full-blown and whirling, and you watch the fireworks and feel crummily cautious in your sanity. That’s how it is here. Charlie digs Johnny Boy’s recklessness. De Niro’s Johnny Boy is the only one of the group of grifters and scummy racketeers who is his own man; he is the true hero, while Charlie, through whose mind we see the action, is the director’s worst vision of himself.
The story emerges from the incidents without dominating them; it’s more like a thread running through. The audience isn’t propelled by suspense devices, nor is the cataclysmic finish really an end — it’s only a stop. Johnny Boy needs help. He owes Michael, the dude, a lot of money, and it hurts Michael’s self-esteem that he can’t collect; nagging and spiteful, he threatens violence. But Charlie doesn’t save Johnny Boy by going to his big-shot uncle for help, because he just can’t risk taking a problem to his uncle. A good Mafia boy is not only subservient; unless something important is happening to him, he maintains his visibility as near to invisibility as possible. Uncle Giovanni, a dignified, dull, dull man, doesn’t really see Charlie — doesn’t register his existence — and that’s what keeps Charlie in his good graces. But if Charlie asks for help for a crazy friend in trouble, he loses his low visibility. So Charlie talks a lot to Johnny Boy about friendship and does nothing. He’s Judas the betrayer because of his careful angling to move up the next rung of the ladder. How can a man show his soul to be pettier than that? Charlie, the surrogate for the director, is nobody’s friend, and — as the movie itself proves—least of all his own. Charlie knows from the beginning that he pays for everything. Scorsese isn’t asking for expiation of Charlie’s sins in the movie; sins aren’t expiated in this movie. (The director has cast himself in the bit part of Michael’s helper; when Johnny Boy makes Michael look so bad that Michael decides to get satisfaction, it is Scorsese who, as the gunman, pulls the trigger.)
It’s twenty years since Fellini’s I Vitelloni planted the autobiographical hero on the screen. Fellini did it in a fairly conventional way: his Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) was the sensitive, handsome observer who looked at the limitations of small-town life and, at the end, said goodbye to all that. In La Dolce Vita, the Fellini figure was the seduced, disillusioned journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) to whom everything happened, and in 8½ Mastroianni, again standing in for Fellini, was the movie director at the center of a multi-ring circus, the man sought after by everyone. In Roma, Fellini threw in new versions of several of his earlier representatives, and himself to boot. No other movie director, except among the “underground” filmmakers, has been so explicitly autobiographical. But in I Vitelloni we never caught a glimpse of the actual Fellini who emerged later; we never saw the fantasist as a young man, or the energy and will that drove him on. Movie directors have not yet learned the novelists’ trick of throwing themselves into the third person, into the action, as Norman Mailer does even in his reporting; directors tend to make their own representatives passive, reflective figures, with things happening to them and around them, like Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) in George Lucas’s nice (though overrated) little picture American Graffiti. Scorsese does something far more complex, because Charlie’s wormy, guilt-ridden consciousness is made abhorrent to us at the same time that we re seeing life through it. Charlie is so agitated because he is aware of his smallness.
Scorsese’s method is more like that of the Montreal filmmaker Claude Jutra, who, playing himself in A Tout Prendre, masochistically made himself weak, like those chinless self-portraits with traumatic stares which painters put at the edges of their canvases. Jutra left out the mind and energies that made him a movie director, and apparently put on the screen everything in himself he loathed, and this is what Scorsese does, but Scorsese also puts in the tensions of a man in conflict, and a harlequin externalization of those tensions. He’s got that dervish Johnny Boy dancing around Charlie’s fears, needling Charlie and exposing him to danger despite all his conciliatory nice-guyism. Johnny Boy’s careless, contemptuous explosions seem a direct response to Charlie’s trying to keep the lid on everything—it’s as if Charlie’s id were throwing bombs and laughing at him. When Johnny Boy has finally loused everything up, he can say to Charlie, “You got what you wanted.”
While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Hang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does something like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act—he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration. Keitel, cramped in his stiff clothes (these Mafiosi dress respectable—in the long, dark overcoats of businessmen of an earlier era), looks like a more compact Richard Conte or Dane Clark, and speaks in the rhythms of a lighter-voiced John Garfield, Charlie’s idol; it’s his control that holds the story together. The whole world of the movie—Catholicism as it’s actually practiced among these people, what it means on the street—is in Charlie’s mingy-minded face.
The picture is stylized without seeming in any way artificial; it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that achieves the effects of Expressionism without the use of distortion. Mean Streets never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with common experience; rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them. The ethnic material is comparable to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy and to what minor novelists like Louis Golding did in the street-and-tenement novels of the thirties, but when this material is written on the screen the result is infinitely more powerful. (In a film review in 1935, Graham Greene—a Catholic—said that “the camera . . . can note with more exactitude and vividness than the prose of most living playwrights the atmosphere of mean streets and cheap lodgings.”) And though Mean Streets has links to all those Richard Conte Italian-family movies, like House of Strangers, and to the urban-feudal life of The Godfather, the incidents and details are far more personal. Scorsese, who did the writing with Mardik Martin, knows the scene and knows how it all fits together; it’s his, and he has the ability to put his feelings about it on the screen. All this is what the Boston Irish world of The Friends of Eddie Coyle lacked; the picture was shallow and tedious, because although we could see how the gangsters victimized each other, the police and the gangsters had no roots—and intertwined roots were what it was meant to be about. It was a milieu picture without milieu. In Mean Streets, every character, every sound is rooted in those streets. The back-and-forth talk of Charlie and Johnny Boy isn’t little-people empty-funny (as it was in Marty); it’s a tangle of jeering and joshing, of mutual goading and nerves getting frayed. These boys understand each other too well. Charlie’s love for Johnny Boy is his hate for himself, and Johnny Boy knows Charlie’s flaw. No other American gangster-milieu film has had this element of personal obsession; there has never before been a gangster film in which you felt that the director himself was saying, “This is my story.” Not that we come away thinking that Martin Scorsese is or ever was a gangster, but we’re so affected because we know in our bones that he has walked these streets and has felt what his characters feel. He knows how natural crime is to them.
There is something of the Carol Reed film The Third Man in the way the atmosphere imposes itself, and, like Reed, Scorsese was best known as an editor (on Woodstock, Medicine Ball Caravan, Elvis on Tour C.B.S. documentaries, etc.) before he became a director (Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Boxcar Bertha). Graham Greene, the screenwriter of The Third Man, wrote a prescription for movies that fits this one almost perfectly. “The cinema,” Greene said, “has always developed by means of a certain low cunning.. . . We are driven back to the ‘blood,’ the thriller.. .. We have to . . . dive below the polite level, to something hearer to the common life. . .. And when we have attained to a more popular drama, even if it is in the simplest terms of blood on a garage floor (‘There lay Duncan laced in his golden blood’), the scream of cars in flight, all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire, then we can begin—secretly, with low cunning—to develop our poetic drama.” And, again, “If you excite your audience first, you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth.” However, Scorsese’s atmosphere is without the baroque glamour of evil that makes The Third Man so ambiguous in its appeal. There’s nothing hokey here; it is a low, malign world Scorsese sees. But it s seen to the beat of an exuberant, satiric score. Scorsese has an operatic visual style (the swarthy, imaginative cinematography is by Kent Wakeford), and, with Jonathan T. Taplin, the twenty-six-year-old rock-record impresario, as producer, he has used a mixture of records to more duplicit effect than anyone since Kenneth Anger in Scorpio Rising. It’s similar to Bertolucci’s use of a motley score in Before the Revolution and The Conformist and to the score in parts of The Godfather, but here the music is a more active participant. The score is the background music of the characters’ lives—and not only the background, because it enters in. It’s as if these characters were just naturally part of an opera with pop themes. The music is the electricity in the air of this movie; the music is like an engine that the characters move to. Johnny Boy, the most susceptible, half dances through the movie, and when he’s trying to escape from Michael he does a jerky frug before hopping into the getaway car. He enjoys being out of control—he revels in it—and we can feel the music turning him on. But Mean Streets doesn’t use music, as Easy Rider sometimes did, to do the movie’s work for it. (In American Graffiti, the old-rock nostalgia catches the audience up before the movie even gets going.) The music here isn’t our music, meant to put us in the mood of the movie, but the characters’ music. And bits of old movies become part of the opera, too, because what the characters know of passion and death, and even of big-time gangsterism, comes from the movies. In Scorsese’s vision, music and the movies work within us and set the terms in which we perceive ourselves. Music and the movies and the Church. A witches’ brew.
Scorsese could make poetic drama, rather than melodrama laced with decadence, out of the schlock of shabby experience because he didn’t have to “dive below the polite level, to something nearer to the common life” but had to do something much tougher—descend into himself and bring up what neither he nor anyone else could have known was there. Though he must have suspected. This is a blood thriller in the truest sense.
The New Yorker, October 8, 1973
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Martin Scorsese on the Impact of Mean Streets March 2, 2011 – A DGA 75th Anniversary Event