Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Martin Scorsese | Mean Streets

the true tragedy
by Douglas Messerli

Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin (screenplay), Martin Scorsese (director) Mean Streets / 1973

I saw Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets in Maryland the year it was released, 1973. I do remember its endless street scenes in black, green, yellow, red, and sometimes—particularly when the cop cars came around—in white. All the gangster films I’d seen until then had been basically noir films in black-and-white. Here, for the first time in my memory, the evil-doings of mafioso-like figures was painted in the colors of our day, a reality so potent that it would eventually result in some of the best movies of the next decade in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather 1 and 2. And, of course, from another perspective, Scorsese’s own brilliant Taxi Driver.
     Despite the early years of total bigotry toward Italian-Americans (which continues more-subtly still today), Americans took to Italians, particularly to the actions of the mafia, almost immediately, in part, because that culture so resembles our own claims to this country’s origins; the combination of deep religiosity, dedication to family and friends, an innate sense of honor—however one might define that—along with a love of place (usually a narrow swath of land settled by people like oneself, but sometimes confused with a love of country) along with very large doses of hypocrisy and extreme violence. Aren’t these the ingredients behind absolutely every US Western film?
      As Roger Ebert perceived, however, Mean Streets, unlike the later Coppola films, is not really a story of the Mafia, although those pernicious villains certainly do play a role in the movie. But, rather, this work simply reveals the effects of that world upon the children and young adults who live in their community.
     Charlie Cappa (a very likeable and well-dressed Harvey Keitel), the “hero” of this unheroic film, would like nothing more than to run the bar/male-entertainment joint that he has presumably inherited from his uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova). He is a devout Catholic, disillusioned by the church simply because the priests so easily forgive his many sins. A few “Hail Mary’s” is all that he is asked for his often-violent attempts to collect for his uncle’s protection racket. He’s not very good at it, and sometimes manages only to get $20.00 for thousands of dollars of debt. He is even bilked by young students seeking drugs.
     One might imagine him in a happy marriage to Teresa Ronchelli (Amy Robinson), a lovely epileptic, shunned by the community, who lives nearby. But as both know, in the world in which they live, such a relationship would be impossible. And they keep their love silent. In a strange sense, the horrific “Johnny Boy” becomes their symbolic child, a boy which had they birthed, might have grown up in this scratch of the New York landscape just like Teresa’s cousin. And this is the true tragedy behind the basically comedic riffs of Scorcese’s film.
     Charlie attempts to redeem himself, instead, on the street, particularly by protecting Teresa’s young cousin, “Johnny Boy” Civello (and amazing vision of a young Robert De Niro), who is the very opposite of his “protector”—a violent live-wire triggered, like the bombs he tosses into US Mail boxes, to go off at any moment. A bit like John Cazale as Fredo Corleone and the equally over-the-top Cazale as the wild partner to Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Johnny Boy is not an easy person to protect. Certainly, he’s not at all reliable—he owes thousands to nearly everyone—and when any shake-down appears on the horizon, instead of backing away, he becomes nervously ballistic, causing any number of violent battles, more like Irish donnybrooks that Mafioso-like murders. I can’t wait to see Scorcese’s The Irishman, yet another version of the Italian-Irish connections of American immigrants.

    De Niro, this early into his career, already has perfected a role he would play in so many variations: a man so high-wired and near-mad that he almost might be described as “cool.”
     “Johnny Boy” knows that in this world, death is part of the territory. He embraces it as if it were a warm coat to temporarily keep him out of the cold air he inhabits. He knows death far better than he realizes life, and that is his problem and, or course, his destiny. While Charlie attempts to redeem the “mean streets” of this cinema’s title, the “boy” abandons himself to them, drinking in their lurid pleasures, women, money, and momentary friends.
      Strangely enough, however, this highly plotted dichotomy does not at all appear in this film as an effort leaden ambition. As Ebert writes:

     We never have the sense of a scene being set up and then played out;
     his characters hurry to their dooms while the camera tries to
     keep pace. There’s an improvisational feel even in scenes that we know,
     because of their structure, couldn’t have been improvised.

     As startlingly brilliant as Coppola’s films were, this early story by Scorcese of lost men in search of an American Dream, seems to be closer to the actual world in which we all know we live: violent dreamers who barely manage to stumble through their very everyday lives. Nobody in this film is a true hero, and, strangely enough, nobody in Mean Streets is an absolute villain. That is, quite obviously, the real problem.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

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