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Mean Streets is a 1973 drama film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin. The film stars Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and David Proval. It was released by Warner Bros. on October 2, 1973. De Niro won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as John "Johnny Boy" Civello.

In 1997, Mean Streets was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot

Charlie (Keitel) is an Italian-American man who is trying to move up in the local Mafia and who is hampered by his feeling of responsibility towards his childish and destructive friend Johnny Boy (De Niro). Charlie works for his uncle Giovanni (who is the local mafia caporegime), mostly collecting debts. He is also having a hidden affair with Johnny Boy's cousin, Teresa, who has epilepsy and is ostracized because of her condition - especially by Charlie's uncle. Charlie is torn between his devout Catholicism and his Mafia ambitions. As the film progresses, Johnny becomes increasingly self-destructive, growing continually more disrespectful of his creditors. Failing to receive redemption in the church, Charlie seeks it through sacrificing himself on Johnny's behalf.

Production

Aside from his student film project Who's That Knocking at My Door and Boxcar Bertha, a directing project given him by early independent maverick Roger Corman, this was Scorsese's first feature film of his own design. Director John Cassavetes told him after he completed Boxcar Bertha, to make films he wanted to make, about things he knew. Mean Streets was based on actual events Scorsese saw almost regularly while growing up in Little Italy.

The screenplay for the movie initially began as a continuation of the characters in Who's That Knocking. Scorsese changed the title from Season of the Witch to Mean Streets, a reference to Raymond Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder," where he writes, "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Scorsese sent the script to Corman, who agreed to back the film if all the characters were black. Scorsese was anxious to make the film so he considered this option, but actress Verna Bloom arranged a meeting with potential financial backer, Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the musical group, The Band. Taplin liked the script and was willing to raise the $300,000 budget that Scorsese wanted if Corman promised, in writing, to distribute the film.

According to Scorsese, the first draft of Mean Streets focused on Charlie's religious conflict and its effect on his worldview. Along with fellow writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese wrote the whole script while driving around Little Italy in Martin's car. They would find a spot in the neighborhood to park and begin writing, all the while immersed in the sights, and sounds of what would eventually appear on-screen.

Once the financing was in place, Scorsese began to recruit his cast. De Niro had met the director in 1972 and liked what he had seen in Who's That Knocking at My Door. De Niro was impressed with how the film had so accurately captured life in Little Italy; De Niro had grown up in a similar area, Hell's Kitchen. Scorsese offered the actor four different roles, but he could not decide which one he wanted to portray. After another actor dropped out of the project, Scorsese cast Harvey Keitel in the pivotal role of Charlie. Keitel was also responsible for convincing De Niro to play Johnny Boy .

Reception

The film was well received by most critics; some even hailed it as one of the most original American films of all time. Pauline Kael was among the most enthusiastic critics; she called it "a true original, and a triumph of personal filmmaking" and "dizzyingly sensual". Other critics like Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said "the acting and editing have such original, tumultuous force that the picture is completely gripping". Vincent Canby of the New York Times reflected that "no matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter". One of Scorsese's most consistent supporters, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that "In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies." Time Out magazine called it "One of the best American films of the decade". Currently the movie has a 98% "certified fresh" approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 43 reviews.

Trivia

  • On DVD, Mean Streets preserves the original 1972 Warner Bros. logo.
  • Martin Scorsese has a cameo appearance toward the end of the film.
  • Given his bad experience directing The Godfather, and after seeing Mean Streets, Francis Ford Coppola chose Scorsese to direct the sequel. The opposition of film executives convinced Coppola to direct the film, with a few conditions.
  • Charlie's voice-over narration is actually spoken by Martin Scorsese, not Harvey Keitel.
In fact no one in Europe wanted to touch the project; the press slammed it and the distributors were naturally dubious to the film's merits. It was Peter Hayden who rescued the project. New to the business, he went to America with a film crew and recorded his early meeting with Marty and the cast which later appeared in the documentary attributed to him, " Martin Scorsese - My Life in Films" which won the Best Documentary at Cannes Film Festival the following year. The story goes that Peter arrived in the middle of industrial action on the film set and Marty and he struck the distribution deal in a cupboard hiding from the shop stewards. The net result was that Peter Hayden became the first independent film distributor in the UK since Gaumont and released Mean Streets and his accompanying documentary as a double bill. If others had helped to make Scorsese's film, it was Hayden's tireless work that secured its fame, forcing many critics to review the film for a second time and pressing for its exposure which he undertook himself.

References

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