Wednesday, May 7, 2014

EW #7: Mean Streets (1973)

Harvey Keitel leads a stellar ensemble cast in Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese's best film.

This entry in the Entertainment Weekly All-Time Greatest film list represents one of the most pleasant and exciting surprises on the list for me personally. True, EW's placement of Mean Streets so high in the rankings seems to support the notion that EW's critics overwhelmingly favor Baby Boomer cinema -- The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, and Nashville are all in the Top 10, with seminal Boomer comedy Annie Hall just around the corner at #13. However, their placement of Mean Streets as the highest-ranked Martin Scorsese film, described in their laudatory blurb as "the director's greatest exploration of crime, rock and roll, Italian-American manhood, and the wages of sin," also agrees with my own firmly held contention that Mean Streets is indeed Scorsese's best film, bar none.

While Bonnie and Clyde (1967) pioneered the form of the revisionist, anti-heroic gangster film, it was nevertheless a period piece and an homage (intentional or no) to the 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film cycle. Scorsese's Mean Streets brought that form up-to-date and into the present moment. Mean Streets is the progenitor of the contemporary, fast-talking, pop-culture-referencing crime film, and without it, the careers of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, not to mention the more polished and ultimately less interesting Scorsese picture GoodFellas (1990), are all unthinkable.*

But more important than its enduring influence is how truly enjoyable Mean Streets is to watch. With few exceptions (like possibly Bonnie and Clyde or Hal Ashby's The Last Detail) there are few 1970s Hollywood films that feel this lively, fresh, witty, and urgent. There is a lot of life and a lot of humor in this film, and unlike the later GoodFellas, which is polished and controlled and very "clever," the humor and action in Mean Streets emerge (dare I say) organically from the tension between the youthful naivete of (most of) its main characters and the very real dangers they face as they cockily take on forces much more powerful and deadly than they. As the only level-headed one in the bunch, Harvey Keitel's Charlie does his best to herd these kittens, but despite his best efforts, their ambition and anger will not be contained or corralled. This, of course, has brutal and disastrous consequences.

The famous "mooks" pool hall fight, viscerally shot using a steadicam and set ironically 
to The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman."

In essence, all the elements that constitute Scorsese's best-known signature style -- fast-talking street toughs, brilliant use of pop songs, brutal violence, and long takes of people entering crowded clubs -- are already present in Mean Streets, accompanied by a rawness and energy that just isn't there in most of Mr. Scorsese's later films, not to the same degree anyway.** I simply cannot recommend Mean Streets highly enough to anyone who likes GoodFellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, or any of Scorsese's other "hit films" of his middle and late career. If you have seen those others and you haven't seen this, then you truly are in for a treat. Do yourself a favor and see Mean Streets.

Mean Streets is also required viewing for anyone interested in the "Hollywood Renaissance" period of filmmaking. It stands alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Waltz as one of Scorsese's crucial contributions to that bygone yet enormously influential era of 1970s Hollywood.

"I'm a mook? What's a mook?"

Bonus Afterthought: After Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver, my next couple of favorite Martin Scorsese pictures include Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and The King of Comedy (1982). Both are unusual in Scorsese's filmography: the former is a female-centered romantic drama, and the latter a dark comedy starring Robert DeNiro as a social misfit, would-be comedian, and stalker. But both films display a remarkable subtlety and sensitivity in Scorsese's directing style, and are just flat-out pleasurable to watch. Alice is especially recommended if Scorsese's usual testosterone-laden approach is not your thing. If you prefer mellower slice-of-life fare closer in vibe to Altman or Ashby rather than to "usual" Scorsese, then King and especially Alice are not to be missed!

Rupert Pupkin says: "Check out The King of Comedy!"

* It's true, I am no great fan of GoodFellas -- what many see as a career apotheoisis, I see as a harbinger of  Scorsese's long slow slide toward the middle. But since GoodFellas has its own entry as # 68 in EW's Top 100 List, I will discuss my specific views on that film once we get there.
** I exempt Taxi Driver and Raging Bull from this declaration; though much darker in tone and theme than Mean Streets, those two seminal works have the same vital energy and gutsy drive that make this earlier film a must-see.

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