(This is the 32nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays a character who struggles to express himself (at least until the final explosion). The bottled-up tenseness of Travis Bickle gives Harvey Keitel as Sport, the pimp, space to be playful. Keitel jives and wiggles and pours on the shtick, and in the scenes between him and De Niro, you see two styles competing with and complementing each other simultaneously.
In Mean Streets, Keitel and De Niro occupy the other side: Keitel’s Charlie is stiff, De Niro’s Johnny Boy is expansively crazy. Throughout the movie, various characters ask Charlie why he maintains a friendship with the punk Johnny, and a possible reason is hinted at when we learn that Johnny Boy once took a beating from some cops to allow Charlie to escape. But that’s not the real reason Charlie is drawn to Johnny. Charlie is self-aware, and he knows what he gives up in order to be the good boy who rises the mob ladder. Johnny Boy does everything Charlie wants to do but can’t. Near the end, when things have gone to hell, Johnny Boy tells Charlie, “You got what you wanted.” It’s hard to imagine, since Charlie is facing an untenable position, but Johnny Boy is the one who creates the instability Charlie needs deep down inside himself.
Mean Streets is a cheap movie (the budget was around $500,000), and it shows. Continuity is a mess, with scenes switching from night to day at random, and the soundtrack (about which more in a bit) sounds like old records being played on a turntable with a bad needle (much of the music actually came from Scorsese’s collection of LPs). But Mean Streets is cheap the way the early French New Wave films were cheap: there wasn’t any money, so they made do with what they had. Scorsese and cinematographer Kent Wakeford give the film a specific look that works perfectly.
Mean Streets is very Scorsese-like; you could argue that this is where his style, as something identifiable, first erupted, although it was not his first film. The use of violence as something almost random, that sparks when the audience is least expecting it, is one example. And then there is the soundtrack, from back when Scorsese still made brilliant musical choices in his films. Right from the start, when “Be My Baby” runs behind the opening credits (one of the great rock and roll openings in movie history), Scorsese shows as much personal understanding for music as he does for the Little Italy milieu. I’m fond of telling people that Mean Streets is the best rock and roll movie ever, even though it isn’t one by most people’s standards (it’s not The Last Waltz or Woodstock), because it shows how the music is part of the characters’ essence.
The comments included several people who agreed that the use of music in Mean Streets is excellent, along with some discussion of Who’s That Knocking at My Door as the first film in the “Scorsese Style”.