Writing in 2003, while inducting Martin Scorsese's “Mean Streets” into his Great Movies list, Roger Ebert deemed the film as possessing “an elemental power, a sense of spiraling doom, that a more polished film might have lacked.” Wise words from the man who counts the 69-year-old director as a friend and was the first to review Scorsese's debut “Who's That Knocking On My Door.” Ebert wasn't in the audience two nights ago, when Lincoln Center featured a screening of Scorsese's breakout third feature, 1973's “Mean Streets,” a volcanic eruption of young talent that announced to the world a soon-to-be-lauded filmmaker and a cast that would go on to have versatile careers in acting and beyond.
A surface reading reveals a simple story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a low-level numbers runner for his in-the-know uncle. Charlie harbors a deep sense of guilt that colors his every action, in particular the martydom he undertakes in an effort to keep Johnny Boy (a young and wiry Robert De Niro, unpredictable and unforgettable) out of trouble. Following Charlie, Johnny and a couple of drinking buddies and turncoat friends, "Mean Streets" moves at a rapid clip, aided immesurably by a soundtrack of carefully selected pop hits. De Niro's entrance to the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash" remains an indelible moment, thirty eight years later.
"To be here, 38 years later – is unthinkable," remarked Scorsese, on stage to introduce the film, "It was our dream to be at the festival. To be wanting to make films, trying to make films at that time was an extraordinary moment in film history with the different New Waves – the French, the Italian, the British, so many others, and of course [John] Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke making films here in New York."
The filmmaker, received by an appreciative audience, spoke about the first premiere of "Mean Streets" at Lincoln Center in 1973. He mused about the vulgar language of his film and his mother's reaction to seeing it for the first time at the festival – when someone asked what she thought, she responded "I just want you to know one thing, we never use that word in the house." Following the screening (a great print with crisp picture and sound), Scorsese sat down for a Q&A and soon launched into a signature series of monologues that touched on inspirations behind the film, the process of making it and how it represented a pivotal moment in his life.
"My interest was changing from films that were straight up comedies to dramatic pictures," Scorsese said of the period prior to the making of “Mean Streets,” “I was marking short films at [NYU's University College of Arts and Science], got some notice on those, flew out to California a couple of times to try to do television shows or whatever I was told to. And at the same time I just worked as an editor wherever I could, as a documentary editor. For me, it was always trying to get this film made.”
A breakthrough of sorts came with Roger Corman, who offered Scorsese the opportunity to helm 1972's “Boxcar Bertha,” a decidedly minor entry in the Scorsese canon, but a notable one nonetheless. “Corman saw ['Who's That Knocking On My Door'] and had a meeting with me immediately, a week after I was out in LA and asked me to do a sequel to 'Bloody Mama,' which, I said sure, 'Boxcar Bertha' it became.”
“I was very happy I didn't get fired off that,” Scorsese added to laughs, recalling several gigs that didn't work out as well. “There's only one director [on the set] but I always like acting like the other director there,” he noted with a slight smirk.
Scorsese described the genesis of “Mean Streets” as “pretty much a counterbalance to 'Who’s That Knocking.' To a certain extent, 'Mean Streets' is closer to the reality of what was going on.” Finding financing wasn’t easy – the director related the now-famous story of Corman pitching him on an all-black version of “Mean Streets.” “I said, ‘Ok, I’ll think about it.’ You never say no. As I walked out, I said, ‘I can’t, no it’s just not gonna work.' ”
Shooting in New York for more than a few days was out of their budget, so Scorsese and crew tracked down the most New York-esque places they could find — in Los Angeles. “The interiors had to have some aspect of New York,” Scorsese explained. Shooting around Little Italy proved difficult, since most people in the neighborhood weren’t open to having cameras around. “My father had to talk to a lot of people, pay some money to people in buildings, and he was quite upset about it, but they weren’t very forthcoming.” The shoot lasted twenty six days. “Basically it was all designed, for one shot to go to the next, to create the impression of New York.”
Anyone who’s heard the filmmaker talk knows there’s a wealth of information delivered via his particular dialect, a machine-gun pace and yet one full of focused recollections. Looking back, Scorsese spoke of reflecting on a different world opening up to him, a world outside his neighborhood and his parent’s apartment. “Cinema was opening many possibilities for me, particularly to not live that way. I couldn’t anyway, I was not…physically you have to be pretty tough.” Unlike Keitel’s protagonist, who plunges himself deeper and deeper into an unwelcoming criminal world, the movies were the young director’s way out — a very fitting theme to a great evening with a historic talent.