Blu-ray Review: Mean Streets

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese | CAST: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Richard Romanus, Amy Robinson, Cesare Danova, Victor Argo, George Memmoli 
RELEASE DATE: 11/21/23 | PRICE: Blu-ray $21.72, 4K UHD $32.87
BONUSES:  Excerpted 2011 conversation between Scorsese and filmmaker Richard Linklater; selected-scene audio commentary featuring Scorsese and actor Amy Robinson; new video essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith; interview with director of photography Kent Wakeford; excerpt from a 2008 documentary about scripter Mardik Martin; 1973 promotional short “Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block”
SPECS: R |  112 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video   | Overall 

Whether you like or dislike Martin Scorsese’s epic-length films of the last few decades, one thing is for sure: they are not eminently rewatchable. Not so for his greatest films from the ’70s and ’80s (up to and including Goodfellas), which invite repeat viewings because of the intoxicating mix of camerawork, editing, raw performances and musical soundtracks that rarely stop.

Mean Streets (1973) bristles with the cinephile energy that was found in the first films of the French New Wave and New German Cinema (not forgetting the various other New Waves of the ’60s and the debuts of directors like Lars von Trier and Leos Carax). Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of cinema made the film a homage to his favorite filmmakers and a thoroughly original work. He integrated visual quotes (or film clips) from Lang, Ford, Godard, Boorman, Cassavetes, Roger Corman, and Kenneth Anger.

The last-mentioned is key to the film’s rewatchability, as Scorsese (who has mentioned his debt to Anger frequently) edited various scenes to the music used in them — most expertly in the opening scene (where “Be My Baby” plays as 8mm mock-home movies are shown) and De Niro’s entrance into the centerpiece bar location as the plot’s catalyst, “Johnny Boy” (shown in slow-mo, in time to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”).

The film is episodic but does have a simple premise concerning aspiring mobster Charlie (Harvey Keitel) trying to keep his screw-up friend Johnny Boy out of trouble, while Charlie carries on a secret affair with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), who is epileptic. Johnny Boy seems to have a death wish, as he never repays his debts and frequently mocks another aspiring mobster, Michael (Richard Romanus), to whom he owes several thousand dollars.

When the film was initially released, it featured a cast of “nobodies” (except for Cesare Danova, who had appeared in many Italian movies and much American TV, plus playing Elvis’s “rival” in Viva Las Vegas). Keitel does a terrific job anchoring the film as Scorsese’s surrogate — Charlie’s narration at a few points is spoken by the filmmaker.

De Niro, however, steals the picture in many scenes where he and Keitel form a sort of goombah comedy team (with Johnny Boy in one famous exchange in a back room sounding like an earthier Lou Costello). Since this is the lean, hungry De Niro, though, his performance has different facets — including the fact that Johnny Boy is also extremely (and unexpectedly) violent in his craziness.

The visuals crafted by Scorsese and cinematographer Kent Wakeford look sublime in this latest restoration of the film. The deeply red color scheme in the bar sequences made the film look terrible in its cable airings and on VHS. Here, the right color balance has been struck, and the “hellish” color in the bar never washes out as it did in previous iterations of the film.

Over the years, Mean Streets has become a seminal example for young filmmakers wanting to make a personal statement in an entertaining, eye-catching fashion. Countless filmmakers — from Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino to Wong Kar-Wai and Richard Linklater (who interviews Scorsese on this release) — have borrowed imagery, plot elements or even just the neighborhood ambience for their early features. This is all the more impressive because Scorsese had to shoot nearly all of the interiors (and even a few exteriors) in L.A. for budgetary reasons. He thus had to choose some very specific Lower Manhattan locations for exterior shots to communicate the feeling of Little Italy and Greenwich Village felt so vibrantly in the film.

Scorsese himself also borrowed heavily from Mean Streets, as Raging Bull and Goodfellas have elements from the early film — and then he borrowed from both Mean Streets and Goodfellas for Casino. (Scorsese revived some of the Mob ambience from those three films in his “gangster ages,  slowly” epic The Irishman.)

Robert De Niro in Mean Streets (1973).

Among the supplements is a short publicity film that, even as far back as 1973, posits Scorsese as the “star” presence of the film. In “Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block,” we see the filmmaker and two of his downtown friends walking through Little Italy, discussing the old days. Scorsese notes that these friends were the toughest audience for him to present the film to, as they had lived some of the events in it.

Mean Streets cinematographer Kent Wakeford maintains in an onscreen interview from 2011 that before he came on the film in Los Angeles much footage was shot in NYC but only “six minutes” of that remains in the finished film. Wakeford’s estimate of the amount of NYC footage contradicts Scorsese’s many anecdotes about location shots and the use of one specific hallway in a Little Italy apartment building that he “had” to use as the location of the final confrontation between Charlie and Johnny Boy.

Wakeford sketches a portrait of a very content set, except for the assistant d.p., a devout Catholic, who was very disturbed by the sacrilegious dialogue in the film. He also reveals how the wonderful “Rubber Biscuit” scene was shot via a metal rig holding the camera that was attached to Keitel as his character drunkenly walks through the bar, seeming to “float” until he passes out.

The look of the film is described by Wakeford as being “nervous, alive, edgy” achieved with the use of a handheld camera. This also benefitted the actors, he says, as “they knew they had freedom of movement” in the scenes.

The only original onscreen supplement in the package is a visual essay by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, who discusses the physicality of the characters in the film, noting that Scorsese “neither defends nor judges” the characters but does force the viewer “into physical intimacy with them,” via various gestures (touches, hugs, punches, etc).

The most intriguing information passed on in Smith’s essay about the film’s genesis is a quote from a Scorsese interview about him understanding what the origin of the film was about only after his father died. He then began to remember many emotional conversations between his parents about the large debts his father’s brother was raising and the ways in which his father Charles (whom the Keitel character is named after) tried to help him out.

Also in the package is a collection of excerpts from a 2011 interview Richard Linklater conducted with Scorsese for a Mean Streets screening at the Directors Guild of America. Scorsese notes his inspiration for the finale of the film by recounting an anecdote about a car ride he took with a “part-time policeman” one night in Little Italy — he later learned that, shortly after he left the car, the driver was shot to death by another driver.

Linklater emphasizes the film’s use of music, to which Scorsese notes that music is an integral part of the character’s life; it’s in the “very fabric of the story.” He notes that producer Jonathan Taplin helped raise money for the production, which was ultimately made for $650,000 (only 35K of which went to clearing the many songs on the soundtrack).

The fact that what Linklater calls the “ultimate gritty NY movie” was primarily shot in L.A. is also brought up, as is Roger Corman’s offer to make the film, but only if Scorsese recast it as an all-black exploitation film. Scorsese declined, but did end up using the crew he has used for his Corman production (Boxcar Bertha) to shoot the film.

Scorsese’s role as “Shorty,” the briefly seen character who ultimately shoots three of the leads, is also brought up by Linklater. Scorsese notes that the scene in question was shot the night of his 30th birthday. It’s also brought up that, although it received good reviews and has become a classic of early ’70s American cinema, Mean Streets was a complete failure at the box office — but it did give Scorsese mentor Francis Coppola the idea to cast De Niro as young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.

In a sequence from another supplement, a piece of a 2008 documentary on the generally under-discussed screenwriter Mardik Martin, Martin discusses his own discovery of movie history and his work with Scorsese on Mean Streets and other unproduced scripts, as well as much prep-work he did for Scorsese’s documentary about his parents, Italianamerican.

When interviewed with his scripter and friend, Scorsese notes that his “main connection” with Martin was a shared sense of humor about “the absurdity of just living.” Scorsese adds that both of them shared a love of Rocky and Bullwinkle. (There’s a topic yet to be covered in a cable-funded Scorsese documentary.)

Buy or Rent Mean Streets

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”