Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 12: Mean Streets (1973)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Mean Streets (1973) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 73 of the first edition hardback, Ebert likens losing his Catholic faith to the internal struggle of Harvey Keitel’s character in the film. He writes, “When I saw Harvey Keitel placing his hand in the flame in Mean Streets, I identified with him. The difference between us was that long before I reached the age of Charlie in the film, I had lost my faith. It didn’t make sense to me any longer. There was no crisis of conscience. It simply all fell away.” He also mentions on page 276 that Scorsese, who he affectionately refers to as “Marty”, sent him early screenplays that would eventually blossom into Mean Streets and that critic Pauline Kael was another major supporter of the film.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ isn’t so much a gangster movie as a perceptive, sympathetic, finally tragic story about how it is to grow up in a gangster environment. Its characters (like Scorsese himself) have grown up in New York’s Little Italy, and they understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it.” – from his 1973 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ is not primarily about punk gangsters at all, but about living in a state of sin. For Catholics raised before Vatican II, it has a resonance that it may lack for other audiences. The film recalls days when there was a greater emphasis on sin–and rigid ground rules, inspiring dread of eternal suffering if a sinner died without absolution.” -from his 2003 review for his Great Movies series

I’m going to get this disclosure out of the way early: Goodfellas is probably my favorite movie. At the very least it shares the top spot with Boogie Nights, which is a film that was heavily influenced by Goodfellas. I know this is a sort of bland, generic selection for personal favorite film that doesn’t shed much light on my cinematic tastes (Would it help if I also made it clear that John Waters is my favorite director?), but that doesn’t make it any less true. Goodfellas is a fun, gorgeous, devastating work of pop cinema that pulls off my favorite formula in the art of filmmaking: combining highbrow finery with lowbrow trash. It constructs one of the most perfectly balanced & lush cinematic journeys I’m likely to ever see before I die. I cannot say enough good things about it, so I should probably just cut myself off now before the gushing becomes unbearable.

It took a long time for Scorsese, or Uncle Marty if you will, to perfect his Italian-American crime life aesthetic for what would eventually be, by my measurement, his magnum opus. Indeed, a lot of his highly-lauded work came before Goodfellas‘s release:Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Even before these hallmarks in the director’s career, however, he had given Goodfellas something of a dry run in his early work Mean Streets. Scorsese’s third feature film is impossible to discuss in without mentioning the shadow of Goodfellas that looms over it. Praising the film’s innovation or artistic specificity now would feel like exalting the brilliance of the match after the invention of the blowtorch or the flamethrower or the nuclear bomb. Mean Streets is a germ of an idea that Uncle Marty would later hatch & perfect. As someone who wasn’t around to catch the original version of Goodfellas in isolation, it’s difficult for me to judge it too fairly or afford it much patience. For so much of Mean Streets‘s runtime I find myself wishing I were watching its superior incarnation instead.

As much as I’m downplaying Mean Streets here as Goodfellas‘s older loser brother who still sleeps on Mom’s couch “between jobs”, the two films are actually quite different plot-wise. Goodfellas depicts an organized crime ring of Italian-Americans who are on top of the world in their villainy (for a time). Mean Streets follows the same ethnic group through the same streets of NYC, except it depicts them at the bottom of the food chain. Harvey Keitel navigates the ratty New York City of the early 1970s (hard drugs, gang activity, and all) as a low level numbers-runner going through a personal, spiritual crisis. His inner monologues about losing his religious faith & struggling with the then-taboo of interracial lust have lost a lot of potency in a modern context. Most of what makes his conflict worthwhile to the audience as entertainment is in his Achilles heel of affection for a baby-faced Robert DeNiro, who plays the unconscionable brat bastard Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy is essentially an Italian-American version of Johnny Rotten, forecasting the punk rocker stereotype long before the “mean streets” of NYC gave it a name. It’s this loudmouthed, shit-stirring catalyst that gets Keitel’s protagonist mixed up in a level of do-or-die mob violence that’s way over his head and drives the film to the inevitable bloodbath catharsis that would eventually serve as a Scorsese calling card.

Mean Streets is mostly charming if you think of it as a punk rock version of Goodfellas. Its risks, successes, and failures work on a much smaller scale than its descendant’s eventual pinnacle, but there’s something inherently cool about its absence of pressure to deliver big time thrills & awe at every turn. The film was born of the same New Hollywood adrenaline rush that brought on new kinds of crime films like The French Connection and Bonnie & Clyde and although it didn’t quite match the artistry of those works, it’s easy to see how its influence could’ve reached far beyond Goodfellas. The film was made even before Coppola’s The Godfather, for instance, so this version of the modern gangster genre was truly embryonic at best. However, it’s difficult to discuss Mean Streets as a seminal work without obsessively narrowing in on the Scorsese films to follow (as you can likely tell). Almost all of the film’s pop music, pan shots, street brawls, and home video charm is repeated in Goodfellas to the point where the only scene that stands out as distinctly its own is one where two rival crews fight over someone being called a “mook”, despite no one involved knowing exactly what that means. It’s a great moment, but I’m willing to bet it would’ve played even better in Goodfellas. (And, yes, even I’m tired of hearing me say that.)

Ebert loved Scorsese as a filmmaker & as a friend. He supported the director’s career since his debut film Guess Who’s Knocking? and did his best to make his name the modern behemoth that it is. Scorsese even sent Ebert an early copy of the screenplay for Mean Streets before the film went into production. I’m not saying that the reason why Ebert gave the film such a glowing review was that he had established a personal relationship with the director. I just think that their personal connection may have put the critic more in tune with what Uncle Marty was trying to do & say in his work. When Ebert watched Mean Streets he saw an ambitious film about the loss of Catholic faith that had shaped his own life in his youth and all other sorts of early 70s spiritual crises that wouldn’t affect me as much in a modern context (despite ditching my own Catholic faith as a youth), the jaded brat that I am. When I look at Mean Streets, all I see is a misshapen embryo of a better film to follow. Maybe when I get to Ebert’s chapter of Life Itself on Scorsese I’ll even get to review that masterpiece properly instead of cramming my thoughts on it into a different film’s territory.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: 2001 – A Space Oddyssey (1968)

-Brandon Ledet