Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom G Film Review: Mean Streets

I've seen a lot of movies in my time... A LOT of movies. Some good, most awful, but a few have been real gems. True pieces of art; accomplishments in the medium of film. Along with being one of my all time favorite films, Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973) is a much overlooked film that changed the way films are conceived and produced.

Originally titled "Season of the Witch", Mean Streets was written by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin over the course of several years. Like it's precursor film, "Who's that knocking at my Door", Means Streets is somewhat of a documentary of a young Scorsese, the Lower Manhattan he grew-up in, and ultimately Italian-American neighborhoods throughout the North East.

After making "Boxcar Bertha" (1971) for B-Movie Producer, Roger Corman,  Scorsese was encouraged to make a film close to his heart, a labor of love. Corman originally offer to finance the film with the condition that the cast be entirely black. Scorsese turn-down the offer. Mean Streets was made on a budget of roughly $500,000, a paltry sum, even in 1972.

The plot of Mean Streets revolved around Charlie Cappa, played brilliantly by Harvey Keitel, a Little Italy local and protege of his Mafia Capo Uncle, Giovanni, played by Cesare Danova. Charlie's life revolves around collecting debts for his uncle, hanging-out at Volpe's, a Gin mill owned by his friend, Tony (played by David Proval), keeping his friend "Johnny Boy" Civello (played by a young Robert DeNiro) out of trouble, obsessing over a black stripper (Jeannie Bell), and having a clandestine affair with Johnny Boy's cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson).

The conflict in the story is within Charlie himself. A devout Roman Catholic, he is fearful of the hell that he knows awaits him, even to the point of masochistic self-infliction of pain. He is also a collector for his Uncle who promises Charlie ownership of a restaurant. The only problem, Charlie's gain will come at the cost of another man's debt to Giovanni. Charlie's Catholic guilt creates the compulsion in him to "save" others. One of those Charlie dedicates himself to "saving" is the volatile and possibly unhinged Johnny Boy who owes money all around, but most importantly to the wolfish and stone-like loan shark, Michael (played by Richard Romanus). Along with his taboo love affair with the epileptic Teresa, Charlie finds himself torn between loyalty to his friend, his lover, his career, and his faith.

Mean Streets is not a simple story; it is reflective, gritty, uncompromising, dark, touching, and heartbreaking. From the beginning, the audience is immersed in these characters, this story, this time, this place, and it's emotion. Scorsese, showing the colors of an early master, introduces us to the time, place, and characters using quick vignettes and rolling fake Super 8 home movies over the opening credits. It feels authentic, it sounds authentic, it looks authentic. Scorsese creates a reality. Of course it helps that it's based in a certain level of reality.

Scorsese's mobsters may be dressed nice, and perhaps a bit fun, but they are fundamentally petty, volatile, and bleak. They are everything that movie mobsters aren't supposed to be...they're real. Scorsese's New York City isn't the romantic wonderland of "Manhattan", or the shiny Oz of many films. The New York City in Mean Streets is the NYC of the 1970's, the real deal. Grimy, graffitied, garish, and garbage-strewn. Sex in Mean Streets, is not romantic or lofty; it's funky, awkward, and beautifully human. Violence in Mean Streets is not dramatic or epic, it's split-second and unsettling. No Sinatra, it's pure Rolling Stones. Mean Streets is the reaction to the Godfather.

The film also deals, although passingly, with issues that are relevant even today; drug use, racism, homophobia, moral decay, and the effects of war.

Even the costumes play a part in this film. Charlie, dressed like a gentleman gangster in his pinstripe three-piece suit, a possible ode to the Pre-Code gangster films. Johnny Boy dressed in his leather coat, mismatched get-ups and fedora; the image of chaos. Tony in red, always red, even his bar; the color of danger, or possible sleaze. Michael in black, grey, and white. Like a wolf, like stone, ice cold. Richard Romanus seemed born to play that role, his face looked almost carved from granite; threatening even when splattered with cake.

Somehow, in all this sleaze, violence, and urban disorder Scorsese makes the audience feel right at home. It seems normal enough, even mundane. From the crowded mayhem of the San Gennaro Feast, to the crimson-soaked Saturday night at the bar, to the Italian eateries, the tenement apartments, the air shafts of the buildings, the dark streets of the Lower East Side, the sub-level pool hall, the Churchyard, even the rooftops; none of it feels like a movie. The dialogue is so real, so hard, so fast, so natural that it's hard to believe that any of it was ever scripted. The characters so natural, so unbalanced, and so organic that the viewer gets almost fooled into believing that they're real people. The conflict and the tension so palpable and relate-able that the viewer finds him or her self invested emotionally at times. The brawls, the arguments, the profanity-laced conversations are all a given. They fail to shock an audience that develops a relationship and a normalcy with the story and its players.

To be fair, and I will be, Mean Streets was made on a budget of $500,000, and it shows. The look of the film is somewhat grainy, half the film (the interiors) were shot in Los Angeles, and by today's standards the production values were primitive. But that said, Scorsese utilized, in full, what he had to work with. The actors were second to none, the writing immense, the spectacular visuals and the full "Pop" soundtrack, much of it from Scorsese's own record case, were fresh, and remain so even today.

For those who fancy themselves as true cinemaphiles, Means Streets is a must see. It was a landmark film for Independent Film, and it changed film making and how film is viewed forever. It will change your point of view, just the way it did for yours truly.