With its searing portrayal of low-level mafiosos in Little Italy and captivating performances by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets stunned audiences when it was released in 1973. Today, more than 40 years later, the film remains a classic gangster film.
1. MEAN STREETS WAS ROBERT DE NIRO AND MARTIN SCORSESE'S FIRST FILM COLLABORATION.
The duo went on to make seven more features together, including crime genre classics such as GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and Casino.
2. MUCH OF THE FILM'S BUDGET WENT TO ITS SOUNDTRACK.
Clearing songs for the film ate up almost half of the film's $500,000 budget. Staying true to his well-documented love of rock, Scorsese used tunes by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones for the Mean Streets soundtrack. “For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby,'" the director said in Scorsese on Scorsese.
3. SCORSESE VOICED THE OPENING NARRATION.
“You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullsh*t and you know it.” These lines gave audiences an immediate glimpse into the inner thoughts of Harvey Keitel’s character, Charlie. Charlie serves as Scorsese’s onscreen proxy, and with the opening voiceover, the director literally became the voice inside his head.
4. SCORSESE USED SOME INNOVATIVE CAMERA TECHNIQUES.
Keitel delivered one of the film’s most memorable performances, due in large part to a scene in which his character, Charlie, staggers drunkenly around a party. In order to capture the real sensation of being intoxicated, Scorsese strapped a swinging camera to Keitel’s head while the actor stumbled around, simulating drunkenness. (Call it the original GoPro.) To further enhance the scene’s inebriated tone, the camera was “undercranked,” meaning the scene was shot at a slower frame rate to give it a woozy, sped-up feel in playback.
5. THE MAJORITY OF MEAN STREETS WAS SHOT IN LOS ANGELES.
Although Mean Streets is considered a “New York film”—one that captures the city’s grit, charm, and violence in the 1970s—very little of the film was actually shot in New York. The legendary pool hall brawl scene, which supposedly takes place on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was actually filmed in Los Angeles, as were many of the other “New York” sequences. Operating on a small budget, Scorsese was forced to shoot in L.A. for financial reasons. Out of the 27 total shoot days, only a handful were spent in New York. Scorsese did return to New York for the film’s beach scene, because, according to Scorsese, “the water looks different at Staten Island than it does in L.A.”
6. BUDGET PROBLEMS PLAGUED THE PRODUCTION OF MEAN STREETS.
Although budget issues were prevalent during the making of Mean Streets, the lack of funds also directly contributed to the film’s style. Some of the most iconic shots in Mean Streets were done using a handheld camera, including a 69-second take that follows Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy as he walks through Charlie's apartment, as well as the famous pool hall brawl.
7. SOME OF SCORSESE'S MEAN STREETS FILMMAKING TECHNIQUES BECAME STAPLES OF HIS DIRECTORIAL STYLE.
Scorsese is known for his consistent style, including focusing the camera on a pair of eyes in slow motion as a classic rock and roll song plays. In Mean Streets, this technique is employed during Robert De Niro’s famous entrance. As De Niro enters a bar with a girl on each arm, the camera zooms in on Harvey Keitel’s jealous gaze as The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays.
The technique would be repeated memorably in both GoodFellas and Casino.
8. MEAN STREETS CAME INTO BEING THANKS, IN PART, TO ANOTHER LEGENDARY DIRECTOR.
After Scorsese's first feature, Boxcar Bertha, legendary producer/director Roger Corman offered the up-and-coming filmmaker a job directing another exploitation film. At this point, director John Cassavetes stepped in. According to Scorsese, Cassavetes told him not to waste his talent and energy on another genre assignment and instead make something that mattered. Scorsese told him about a script he was working on called Season of the Witch, but it needed a rewrite. "So, rewrite it then," Cassavetes responded.
9. THE FILM TAKES ITS TITLE FROM A RAYMOND CHANDLER ESSAY.
Originally titled Season of the Witch, the film’s name was changed to Mean Streets from a line from Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Writing about the art of storytelling and plumbing the depths of humanity, Chandler wrote, “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”