ROBERT DE NIRO
At the Nuart,
Looking at Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets again, 25 years after its initial release, a couple of things jump out at you. First, you notice how young and beautiful Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro were, at 32 and 30, respectively. Already De Niro is a prettier, flashier presence than Keitel, and also less carnal. As Charlie, the numbers runner at the center of Scorsese's third feature, Keitel keeps his thickly muscled body coiled while De Niro, as loony Johnny Boy, splinters into right angles. De Niro's physicality is electrifying and menacing, like a shark's. Next to him Keitel feels a little stolid (it's actually something of a relief), but unlike De Niro he's able to shed his physical reserve and make it seem like a libidinal sacrifice – his masochism is a turn-on.
Keitel looks good falling to his knees, something his Catholic director must have picked up on. Charlie, a hood who still lives with a mother who buys his shirts, works for his uncle, a Mafia boss, and spends much of the rest of his time with two friends: Johnny Boy and Johnny's cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), who willingly rolls around on hotel beds with Charlie and can't understand why he's not as eager as she is to get out of the neighborhood. There's something nervous and watchful, almost shifty, about Charlie, but also something pathetic. Painfully self-conscious, he wants desperately to please his uncle (who he hopes will give him a restaurant to run), but he doesn't have the heart to be bad. Neither does he have the will to be good.
Keitel and De Niro are irresistible in Mean Streets, their bellicose virility matched by the erotics of Scorsese's filmmaking. There's headless exuberance in how the then-31-year-old director hurls the camera around, the same exuberance that finds De Niro spazzing into a dance and Keitel levitating through a bar. Mean Streets is the sexiest of Scorsese's films because it's his least controlled: It has a young man's wildness. When Charlie stares at a stripper in Mean Streets, it's through a shuffle of straight cuts. By the time Jake La Motta first sees his future wife in Raging Bull, what makes the moment sizzle is less her carnality than the way the camera captures her shimmering in Kodak black and white; by GoodFellas, all the juice is in the cinematography and the cutting, in the choreography of the Steadicam, in the bebop montage.
Increasingly with Scorsese, passion becomes virtuosity; the recent exception being Kundun, in which you can feel the director as inflamed by the subject of modern Tibet as by his technique. In this cinema of sublimation the eroticism is in the filmmaking itself – and in what at times turns out to be its corollary, male violence. That's never clearer than with Casino, which comes alive only when someone erupts in a fury or the camera swoops to new dizzy heights; it's even better if the camera seems jazzed by that rage, as when De Niro holds down a hysterical Sharon Stone and Scorsese flips the camera sideways to get a closer look. In Mean Streets, though, everything's a kick – the radio pop, the cars, the tight flashy clothes, the gray streets and dank tenements, the Washington Square girls, the deep red of a neighborhood bar, Keitel and De Niro's syncopated dialogue, Scorsese's boundless exhilaration.
What else do you notice about Mean Streets? That Los Angeles can make a pretty good double for the Lower East Side of New York; the film was primarily shot here, with only eight days' location in NYC. That even then Scorsese knew how to move a camera like nobody's business, and that the shot in which a drunk Charlie looks like he's floating on air as he moves through a bar (and for which Scorsese strapped the camera to Keitel's chest) draws a direct line between Sam Fuller and Spike Lee. One other thing you notice: There's not much of a plot. Things happen in Mean Streets – a poolroom fight that's more Three Stooges-absurd than ugly, a frenzied party, some afternoon sex, an elaborately staged barroom shooting starring David Carradine and his teenage brother, Robert – but mainly what happens are characters.
Scorsese begins the film with some phony home-movie footage of Charlie and the gang palling around, then jumps from one quick-sketch scene to another by way of character introduction. Keitel's Charlie, watchful and slightly defeated, scared, is the expressive center around which De Niro's Johnny Boy – wild-eyed, spooky – darts and weaves. Almost everything great in Keitel and De Niro is already here, as are hints of many Scorsese regulars: Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, Henry Hill. And while Mean Streets reveals its influences in nearly every frame, sometimes by direct quotation (a scene in a hotel room unfolds like early Godard), Cassavetes is the most obvious inspiration, specifically in the way the characters trip over one another, fighting and loving with ferocious tenderness.
In her rave of Mean Streets, Pauline Kael wrote: “There has never before been a gangster film in which you felt that the director himself was saying, 'This is my story.'” Kael wasn't saying Scorsese was a gangster, but that he too has “walked these streets and has felt what his characters feel.” In other words, he was making movies that meant something to him. Although Kael was high on Scorsese's talent, the insinuation of intimacy between the director and his mobsters has tended to distract critics. In A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson so anxiously wants to find fault with the director that he mischaracterizes him as a gangster manque: “Scorsese is the adult version of a delicate, hypersensitive kid who grew up in a rough neighborhood and ever afterwards felt bound to pretend that he was hit man as well as a violinist.” Even when Scorsese parks himself in a cab and babbles about blowing a hole in a woman, as he does in Taxi Driver, Thomson again accuses him of wanting to have it both ways (“he's a back-seat director”).
But the man Scorsese plays in Taxi Driver is too small, pathetic really, to be anything more than a creep – he has to stretch up and forward in his seat for Travis Bickle to see him – and too consumed by fantasy to pull the trigger, much less get out of the cab. In this inverted Catholic confession, Scorsese pointedly implicates himself, but unlike some of his critics the director also knows there's an enormous divide between Bickle and his character, the back-seat psychotic. Taxi Driver is actually the second time Scorsese puts himself in the back of an automobile; in Mean Streets he did what Thomson accuses him of and cast himself as a hit man named Shorty. It's a small, flashy role, and Scorsese looks like a boy as he puts an end to Charlie and Johnny Boy's good times; it's the most self-consciously moralistic he'll ever get in front of a camera.
Thomson sees Mean Streets, along with Taxi Driver and New York, New York, as tributes to the Hollywood forms of the '40s, and as a result finds them “academic and self-indulgent, abrasive with mannerisms.” Scorsese is clearly crazy for film and especially Hollywood, but at his best – and Mean Streets is the director at his best – his movie love reads nothing like empty formalist noodling but rather as a genuine search for meaning; in this sense, Mean Streets signals his evolution from rapturous student, of movies and violence both, to personal filmmaker. “Marty, you've just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit,” Cassavetes famously told Scorsese after the younger director showed him a rough cut of Boxcar Bertha, a film he'd made for Roger Corman. “Don't get hooked into the exploitation market,” Cassavetes said, “just try and do something different.” The something different was Mean Streets.