As the opening credits begin and The Ronettes Be My Baby booms from the speakers, you know you're about to watch something special. In Scorsese's breakthrough film, we are immersed in a world that no longer exists. Mean Streets is an ode to the old world of Italian American New York that Scorsese was absorbed in growing up in the Lower East Side. With the 50th anniversary of its release this year, it's well worth taking a deeper exploration to see just how revolutionary Mean Streets was, and still is, to filmmaking.
Mean Streets is probably best known for its innovative ability to interweave pop music, to emotionally charge and enhance the storyline. With the possible exception of Easy Rider in 1969, it was rare before Mean Streets to use a film soundtrack in this way. How could Scorsese better introduce a character like Johnny Boy, swaggering in with two girls on each arm? Not much tops Jumpin' Jack Flash as a musical accompaniment, a cool breezy, Rock n Roll animal. It tells everything the audience needs to know about the character in a few seconds. Robert de Niro's character is a young, red blooded New Yorker with a point to prove. There is something of the Liam Gallagher about him, it's a character like no other he plays in his career. As Scorsese states in his book Scorsese on Scorsese, the music of Mean Streets was essential to paint a picture to the audience of what life felt like in that period in New York. Music was everywhere. In the summer, when everyone's windows were wide open, there was an eclectic mix of Soul, Rock n Roll and Folk, blaring out from all sides; and this is what is achieved through the film soundtrack.
Innovative and experimental camerawork is at the heart of what makes this film tick. In one of the great drunk scenes in film history, Scorsese uses these techniques effectively. Harvey Keitel is strapped into a homemade camera harness that cleverly follows the actor's movements. The sole focus of the camera is on Keitel, with the background blurred, which accurately imitates the feeling of being drunk to the viewer. Scorsese, taking inspiration from French New Wave cinema, uses fluid camerawork, which gives the film a feeling of realism, almost like a documentary style of filming. Sometimes it has an amateurish feel to it, but this just adds to the authenticity of the film. This way of filming was innovative for an American film, as often cameras were more static and immoveable objects before the 1970s, restricting an audience's viewpoint.
Mean Streets is a semi-autographical take on Scorsese's early life, with Harvey Keitel playing his alter ego, Charlie. Up to this point Scorsese had rarely witnessed films that reflected the world he grew up in. It was rare to see gritty, realistic portrayals of Italian American New York before the 70s. Mean Streets was the beginning of a wave of new filmmaking that had realism and true emotion at its heart. Apart from a few actors like Marlon Brando, acting styles were different compared to the highly emotive performances of De Niro and Keitel. Their acting takes the viewer to the centre of cultural life in the early 70s. With everyday conversations and jokes, it is filmed in a natural way, giving the audience a front row seat into their lives. This mix of everyday conversations and dark humour influences gangster films from The Sopranos to Lock, Stock. Quentin Tarantino was also inspired in his work by the relaxed everyday conversations within Mean Streets. The weaving of comedy and violence is now so entwined in the gangster genre that it is rarely seen without it. The genius that Scorsese achieved through this style is that it makes the violence even more shocking when it is preceded by humour. The false sense of security a joke has on an audience is disarming, when a shockingly violent scene follows.
With two breakthrough performances from Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and a film that showcases the hallmarks of the genius of Scorsese's future classics, Mean Streets is a must watch for all film enthusiasts.