Mean Streets was the first epochal film in Martin Scorsese’s career – and he seemed to know it, opening with three motifs that signal the direction he would take over the next decade. The first image we see is a film projector, suggesting a fresh start, or consolidation, after his first two films, which seem like apprentice works by comparison. From there, we move to an extended credit sequence that takes place on a small screen centred in the middle of the frame. This miniature screen, which is modelled on the newsreels of the 1950s, continues the gritty documentary realism of Who’s That Knocking At My Door, but with an even more vital and vibrant yearning for total continuity between cinema and city. Finally, we shift to the start of Scorsese’s gangster narrative, where the main contraband seems to be film equipment as well, since we open with the revelation that a box of German lenses is actually a collection of Japanese adapters. Whether German or Japanese, Scorsese indicates his intention to pair his gritty crime narratives, and their perennial New York backdrop, with a wider cosmopolitan apprecaition for the various New Waves that were unfolding in Europe and Asia at the time.
This ambition is even more remarkable in that it is paired with a very specific genre exercise – a revival of the gangster films so popular in the first wave of sound cinema, but adapted to fit the experiences of second-generation Italian-American immigrants in New York City. If Mean Streets is more experimental than Scorsese’s debut, then it’s also tighter in its story too, blending avant-garde and genre touches, and pairing individual vignettes with a broader narrative thread, for an experience that must have been more visceral and ethereal than just about anything else available in American cinema at the time. At times, Scorsese’s freewheeling style approaches the hand-held camera revolution of the 1990s, as he veers between classical composition and underground cinema like a master bricoleur, creating an experience that is closer to music than to cinema, so organically does it ebb, flow and recede.
No surprise, then, that the film is suffused with back-to-back music, which imbues even the most suspenseful scenes with a loose, easy immediacy. This is a gangster film shot with the intensity of a live concert, or a live event – live cinema, as vitally connected to the streets as a newsreel about crimes and characters that have dominated the headlines the same day. Whereas Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was a solo vehicle for Harvey Keitel, and Barbara Hershey and David Carradine were only permitted a fairly anodyne rapport in Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets contains the first great pairing of Scorsese’s career – Keitel, who plays low-level gangster Charlie Cappa, and Robert De Niro, who plays his friend “Johnny Boy” Civello. Unlike The Godfather, though, we don’t see anything of the Mafia hierarchy, since Scorsese mainly focuses on these two lone traders as they collect money (in Charlie’s case) or evade collectors (in Johnny Boy’s case). In both cases, however, they’re continually moving, seeking or escaping capture, and creating vivid lines of flight through the lower Manhattan streetscape that couldn’t be more different from the stately, historicised compositions of Coppola’s mob.
In that sense, Mean Streets is about the vibrancy of Italian-American street life as much as it is a Mafia film – and that vibrancy centres on movies, especially westerns, the main point of reference for the masculine camaraderie on display here. As with most westerns, Mean Streets is as much about postures, poses and swagger as it is about story, characters or themes, since Scorsese introduced a whole new haptic vocabulary here – an entirely new masculine body language to rival the John Wayne postures that preoccupy his Italian-American characters. It’s a matter of vocal inflection as much as body language, especially for De Niro, who had been in a fair few films by this point, but who discovered his most distinctive beats and tics here. In particular, the inane role of Johnny Boy plays perfectly to De Niro’s unhinged, shit-eating grin – he easily has the most vivid facial expressions in the entire film, and they’re only ever one degree of insanity away from morphing into those of Travis Bickle.
Above all, Mean Streets is fixated with the unique homosocial ambience between Italian-American men, and the uneasy way this eroticised male closeness sits alongside the first dawnings of Boomer liberalism. The Mafia operates here mainly as a way of drawing men close to each other, while violence is used primarily as a way to create continuity between the bravura of the western and Scorsese’s new masculinism. We see this in two distinct incursions into the Vulpe bar, the Italian-American dive where Charlie and Johnny Boy spend most of their time. In the first, a pair of outsiders propel themselves out of the toilet and into a western-styled stick-em-up along the bar, adopting a heightened cowboy stance before one of them eventually succumbs to his wounds. In the second, a local soldier returns from the war, and is greeted by Charlie as a spitting image of John Garfield, only to channel all this classical Hollywood hubris into an assault that draws on the opening scene of The Searchers.
Within this world, Charlie and Johnny Boy revive the archetypes of the respectable gangster and the anarchic gangster, the gangster promoting social cohesion and the antisocial gangster – and the film unfolds in the elastic space between these two extremes. Once again, De Niro steals the show here, exuding an anarchic energy that cuts through the civilised ceremony of the gangster code, turning him into the progenitor of all the crazy characters who proliferate out through subsequent Mafia films and television series, from Sonny Corleone to Tommy DeVito to Richie Aprile to Phil Leotardo – figures who identify too much with Mafia immunity.
More originally, perhaps, Johnny Boy’s anarchy threatens to undo the entire homosocial economy of the Mafia code, and its unspeakable homoerotic substrate. Women are entirely excluded from Mean Streets – we never see wives, we rarely see girlfriends, and even the Virgin Mary is much more muted than in Scorsese’s debut. Instead, any possible romantic or sexual energy is channelled back into Charlie’s friendship with Johnny Boy, starting with a scene in which they help a homosexual couple escape from a police raid. The more masculine member of the couple sits in the front seat of Charlie’s car, with the driver, while his more flamboyant partner squeezes himself between Charlie and Johnny Boy, like the homoerotic continuum they can never quite acknowledge. Right away, Scorsese seems to undo this tension by cutting to the first domestic scene in the film – Johnny Boy appearing to complain to his wife or mother that there’s nothing to eat in his apartment. When he returns to the bedroom, however, we realise he is in Charlie’s apartment – and, what’s more, he has slept the night, laughing off his gay passengers only to share a double bed with his closest buddy.
This willingness to explore the homoerotic anxieties of gangster culture is what sets Scorsese apart from the gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s, along with his awareness that cinema is uniquely placed to take on this project. For, in order to disavow the continuity between himself, Johnny Boy and the two gay men who shared their car, Charlie now resorts to two scopophilic gestures – erotic acts that prioritise the pleasure of looking at women over the need to actually engage with them. The first is more literal, and involves spying on the woman who lives in the apartment next door. The second involves Charlie reciting a dream about seeing a figure on his bed, and ejaculating blood instead of being able to make love properly. Charlie is reciting this dream to his wife, but Scorsese shoots and edits the scene so he appears to be reciting it to Johnny Boy, fusing marital and homerotic love into a dissonant state where the very prospect of intercourse with a woman is enough to trigger massive genital trauma.
In both cases, the act of watching overtakes sex itself, as if both men have to remain at a cautious distance from women for total heterosexuality to be still tenable. That need for a restless assurance of visual distance works perfectly as a cinematic conceit, and so Scorsese’s camera follows suit, alternately caressing and distantiating his characters, luxuriating in their homosocial closeness only to pull back in increasingly crazy, jagged and anarchic ways, to prevent us ever identifying too directly or closely with their homoerotic potential. This crazy energy correlates to that of the Manhattan cityscape itself, meaning that neither Charlie nor Johnny Boy can survive for any length of time outside, or in open space, or in rural areas. In a beautiful sequel to the thwarted rural excursion of Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, Charlie accompanies his girlfriend to the Jersey shore, only to confess that, despite always invoking Francis of Assisi, “I hate the ocean and I hate the beach and I hate the grass and I hate the trees.” When she asks him to imagine a space where he can interact romantically and functionally with women, he rattles off a list of urban images that ends with the spectacle of John Wayne – and he can only kiss her, and mean it, when he is dreaming about John Wayne.
John Wayne thus becomes the limit of the film’s masculine self-ideation – the point where it slips into homoerotic devotion despite itself. Scorsese’s own camera is as indebted to this tension as it is to Hollywood history, tacitly cruising his male subjects, as we sink into the same easygoing camaraderie, sliding seamlessly from one space to the next as new characters come and go organically and incidentally. Over the second half of the film, Johnny Boy almost entirely recedes from the view, and the action mainly confines itself to the bar, as Charlie drifts into a dreamlike stupor. As surreal tableaux emerge and recede, Charlie realises there is no real middle ground between the anarchic sides of the Mafia, represented by Johnny Boy, and the impersonal business core personified by his debtors, as much as he might try to plug the gap with an old-fashioned gentlemanly gangster persona. When we finally see Johnny Boy again, he’s the closest he has ever been to John Wayne, but also the furthest, adopting the Duke’s swagger while standing precariously on the roof of a local apartment complex, and firing shots at the Empire State Building. The film reaches some great phallic impasse here, as the low-angle shots associated with John Wayne are intensified by the rooftop, as well as the frantic poses that Charlie and the other gangsters have to adopt to elude Johnny Boy’s shots.
It’s as if John Wayne’s persona had broken free and revealed itself to be profoundly antisocial, amoral and plain-out insane all along – or as if John Wayne had finally regressed back to Johnny Boy, his most infantile self. As Johnny Boy breaks into one final line of flight through the city – down streets, up fire escapes, over the roofs of buildings – John Wayne’s spectre also seems to be shadowing itself, chasing its own tail. The climax now comes with all the intensity of an epileptic fit, as Charlie realises that the only option is to leave the city, but only makes it as far as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway before Johnny Boy’s creditors finally catch up with him. While Mean Streets isn’t quite as Catholic in its outlook as Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, Keitel’s character has still sought solace in the confessional here, but deflected the booth onto two other cloistered experiences – going to the movies, and driving at night. In one final act of revenge, Johnny Boy’s creditors turn his death into a lurid cinematic tableau while driving, as Scorsese refuses to resolve he film’s anxieties into anything but what they are – kinetic, dynamic, traumatic, and an impetus for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which would go on to achieve the apparently impossible, and free Scorsese’s camera even further.