Martin Scorsese


Michael Powell, the director of ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Peeping Tom’ and one of Martin Scorsese’s great cinema idols, described ‘Mean Streets’ as ‘one of the great films.’

The legendary English film-maker said: ‘I just think it’s wonderful – that complete identification of that world. You never feel anything is staged or done for theatrical effect.’

Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that much of Martin Scorsese’s 1973 Mafia classic was written literally out on the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy. As both Scorsese and co-writer Mardik Martin were struggling young writers at the time, with nowhere to work, much of the script was written in Martin’s car, a beaten up, red valiant – parked outside a coffee house or just driving round the neighbourhood.

Although ‘Mean Streets’ was only his third full-length feature and the first on a decent budget ($400,000), Scorsese certainly knew how to make an entrance.

The film opens with darkness as Scorsese says the words that over the next 20 years would become the hallmark of an entire genre of powerful, and often brutal, film-making:
‘You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.’

We see Charlie, a guilt-ridden young hood, played by Harvey Keitel) Then, with the kind of sheer style that Scorsese perfected and later made his own in films like ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘GoodFellas’, the urban realism of the scene is given an audacious flourish. With a siren wailing outside, Charlie lies back, and, in stylish slow-motion, rests his head, as the glorious opening salvo of The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ comes blazing in.

Today, the influence of Scorsese, and ‘Mean Streets’ in particular, has never been stronger, and 20 years after its release, it has now been re-issued, in a dazzlingly sharp new print.
‘I was very glad to see it,’ says Scorsese at his office in New York, with a quiet pride and the nervous excitement of a true cineaste. ‘It begins another life-cycle, I hope.’

Those worried about the increasingly violent state of modern movies (The New Brutalism’ as it has been called) will hope not.

Last month, saw the release of both 29 year-old, Quentin Tarantino’s brutal but razor-sharp ‘Reservoir Dogs’, and ‘Man Bites Dog’, a savage black comedy by three Belgian students which follows the exploits of ‘Ben’, a charismatic De Niro-esque serial killer.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ in particular has been widely compared to Scorsese for both its cinematic style (it’s cool exuberance, knowing 1970’s pop soundtrack, snazzy character introduction, and macho banter) as well as its subject matter – the repercussions of a hardened gang of criminals’ botched and bloody attempt at a diamond heist.

And if Scorsese’s role as the patron saint of cinema’s sinners were in doubt, ‘Mean Streets’ was re-released on the same day as Abel Ferrara’s devastatingly uncompromising ‘Bad Lieutenant’, a film that features a performance of almost unbearable intensity from Keitel, whose career, like Robert De Niro’s, was launched by his appearance in ‘Mean Streets’.

Although Keitel has argued that the parallels stem from the directors’ respective talents, ‘Bad Lieutenant’s music, photography, violent Catholic imagery and ending, all seem to openly pay homage to ‘Mean Streets’. Like a lot of Scorsese’s work, Ferrara’s film is a highly moral piece about a very venal man, following a remorselessly depraved New York cop whose addictions to drink, drugs, gambling and sordid voyeurism have turned his day to day existence into a living hell.

When a nun is raped on a church alter, but refuses to identify her assailants and then forgives them, the Lieutenant realises that solving the case and understanding the nun’s faith and compassion are his only chance of redemption.

Similarity, in ‘Mean Streets’, Keitel is seeking salvation through saving Johnny Boy (De Niro), a violently unstable petty hoodlum, who is in debt to Charlie’s mobster uncle. As Charlie tries to keep the peace and keep Johnny Boy in line, the film explores the familiar Scorsese themes of loyalty, guilt and ‘doing what’s right’, what Keitel has called ‘the quest to be a hero’.

In America, the film came out at the same time as ‘Badlands’ (‘a beautiful film, poetry’, Scorsese sighs) and, despite Pauline Kael’s praises, ‘it died.’
‘It didn’t die as badly as it died in England though,’ Scorsese recalls with mischievous triumph. ‘As they walked in, they gave the audience leaflets with extracts from reviews saying ‘this is a great work’. And their attitude, was ‘Oh yeah ???’’

The film quickly gained the status of a classic though and developed a huge cult following. Spike Lee has said that ‘Mean Streets’ is one of two films that continue to inspire him (the other being ‘Pixote’). Quentin Tarantino has admitted: ‘I got my Italian heritage from ‘Mean Streets’.”

‘Bad Lieutenant’s Abel Ferrara, whose film ‘Ms.45’ was a kind of feminist vigilante of ‘Taxi Driver’, once told me ‘there is no better director than Scorsese on a low budget.’

‘Man Bites Dog’s Andre Bonzel goes even further. When he saw ‘Mean Streets’ last year, he says, it just depressed him.
‘It’s got everything in it. You just think, what’s the use of doing another film ?”

Mention ‘Mean Streets’ continuing influence and significance, especially in the light of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Bad Lieutenant’, and Scorsese almost visibly swells with pride, stuttering, ‘Well, when you say that, it’s very moving to me, because at the time, I never believed the film would even get distributed.’

‘When I made ‘Raging Bull’, I didn’t necessarily think people would enjoy it or want to see it, but I felt that we had something very special. With ‘Mean Streets’ though, I just thought if ever someone wanted a pretty accurate representation of Italian-Americans – the sort of people I knew and grew up around – then they could take this picture off the rack and look at it. That was all I hoped for.’

He succeeded better than he realized. Scorsese recalls that to the low-grade gangsters of his neighbourhood who couldn’t identify with ‘The Godfather’s Mafiosi (The Godfather’ was “more like epic poetry,” Scorsese explains excitedly) ‘Mean Streets’ rougher, more mundane portrayal made it “their favourite movie.”

“It’s like a home-movie to them. If there’s any trouble in the neighbourhood, they say, ‘well, it’s ‘Mean Streets’ time gentlemen’.”

Scorsese was even told by an FBI agent that Henry Hill, the mobster whose life story inspired Scorsese’s 1990 Mafia movie, ‘GoodFellas’, loved ‘Mean Streets’ so much he even kidnapped gangster, Paul Vario, to get him to see it.
“Vario had no TV, no telephone, never went to the cinema. Never went out even,” Scorsese laughs.

Times have not changed much it seems. When ‘Mean Streets’ was first released, it caused much the same furore as ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Man Bites Dog’ and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ have today.
“It was an unusually violent film for the times, yeah, and it was one of the first to use language like that. But that was the reality. That’s the way people talked. There was an article in the New York Times, saying ‘who the hell cares about these people?’ And I thought, ‘well, I do’.”

Twenty years on, Scorsese still finds himself being called to task for the violent content in his films, hounded into defending himself against accusations of being irresponsible.

Michael Medved’s book ‘Hollywood vs. America’ (HarperCollins) condemned Joe Pesci’s Oscar for his performance as a psychotic small-time gangster in ‘GoodFellas’ and argued that Scorsese’s nomination for ‘Cape Fear’, in which De Niro bites out the cheek of a woman he is raping, was ‘honouring ugliness’.

Scorsese has just completed filming Edith Wharton’s book, ‘The Age of Innocence’, where he mentions pointedly “people drink tea a great deal and violence is going on underneath the smile” and has obviously wearied of the focus on movie violence.

“‘Reservoir Dogs’ is violent. ‘Mean Streets’ is certainly violent, but that’s the lifestyle. What are you going to do about it? These characters live in a violent world, physically and emotionally. If you don’t like it, I guess, don’t look at it. These people do express themselves with violent emotions, they’re always on the verge of creating great destruction. De Niro’s character (Johnny Boy) destroys the fabric of the society they live in, by undoing the threads of honour and respect and causing great destruction (to everybody, including himself).”

He admits though that his own attitude towards screen violence has altered,
“Well, ah, yeah, in the sense that the violence has been taken to another level. There’s something about the structure of the story in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and the way it unfolds, the objective angles of the camera positions and the use of the widescreen. There’s a coldness that’s chilling. There’s nothing I can make that’s that effective now.”

Asked if the aspect of responsibility has given him any anxiety, he can’t help but interrupt, beaming.
“Ha. You’re talking to a Catholic. I have anxiety about everything and guilt about most things. I can’t help it. So yes, constantly. But I don’t think one movie is going to make a kid go out and kill somebody. If the story calls for it, we’ll have it.”

So ‘GoodFellas’ features a scene with Joe Pesci savagely stabbing a dying man in boot of his car and ‘Cape Fear’ includes a rape in which De Niro chews out a woman’s cheek and then spits it at her.
“ ‘GoodFellas’ is not, for me, as violent a film as ‘Mean Streets’,” Scorsese considers carefully. “It’s tougher, I think. I knew, at times, people would be upset by it, but that’s life. ‘GoodFellas’ and ‘Mean Streets’, for me, I can say: that’s life, that’s it, that’s the way it goes. ‘Cape Fear’ is a totally different film. We had to show the depths of the suffering the family will have to endure. That is what the man is capable of.”

The rape scene was based on the affidavit of a woman which was raped in exactly the same way. Does this make a difference to your own conscience – the actuality ?
“There will be just as many people who will say it doesn’t. But, for me, probably, yes.”

To the next generation, Scorsese concedes, ‘Mean Streets’ might be too literate, too complex and personal. It’s rough violence and stylish realism might not be enough anymore. Quentin Tarantino enthused about Scorsese’s natural heir, Abel Ferrara, saying “to me, ‘King of New York’ was better than ‘GoodFellas’’ and the makers of ‘Man Bites Dog’ almost hold Ferrara in equal awe for ‘Driller Killer’ as they do Scorsese for ‘Mean Streets’.

As for the generation of film-makers inspired by ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ which he found the most disturbing of all of them, even Scorsese worries where it will all end.
“I would never underestimate anyone who wanted to go further into this area than before. God knows what can happen. I don’t know if it’s good or bad either. I really don’t know.”

He pauses and with the same nervous urgency, passion and compulsion with which he seems to make his movies, he says “ ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ are ultimately three films that had to be made by me. I had to. I had no choice. ‘Raging Bull’ came out of my… soul in a way, and so did ‘Mean Streets’. I don’t know about the right or wrong of it.”