I wonder when Martin Scorcese saw The Godfather and when he started filming Mean Streets. There are the obvious similarities. The films are both about Mafia families in New York navigating the complexities of a nation changing as the result of a distant war. Their characters are fraught with distorted loyalties and confronting adulthood built on a bedrock of Catholicism. They are moody at times and poetic at others, watching them I’m usually focusing more on what’s happening in their minds than what’s coming out of their mouths.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Godfather (1972) was a direct inspiration for Mean Streets (1973) but I wonder how it would have felt for Scorcese to watch another director attempting to capture the setting in which he was reared. It’s an experience all of us will go through to varying degrees, seeing ourselves reflected on screen and feeling the impact of authenticity or missed representation. I wonder if Scorcese watched the film aghast at the inaccuracies or if he sensed that what was playing out would be lauded as one of the greatest movies of all time — even on this list, Coppola’s classic gangster piece clocks in 91 places ahead of Mean Streets.
There are also the obvious differences between the two films. In Scorsese’s, the focus is not on the Dons or Consiglieres, or the feuds between the families. He trains his gaze on the bottom of the pyramid, the foot soldiers who handle the low level shakedowns and collect on the debts of degenerate alcoholics. They’re “made” but insignificant, representative of most of us workaday employees — content to pick up payments and slack off and not make waves, devoid of the blind ambition and heavy, crown laden, heads that plague the shot callers.
For me, this is the streak of Scorcese genius that is the most palpable. From the poolside socials in Raging Bull to Sunday dinners in Goodfellas, he uses the camera to capture slices of life as if we’re childern watching the adults — disregarded by them but ever present and curious at the world we’re detached from. What we see in Mean Streets reads as familiar and commonplace, a reminder that if we (the masses) were to be mob affiliated, we would likely be loitering around the same clubs and confronting the same demons as Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) instead of being ushered in to Don Corleone’s war room. There is an aura of “good enough” over most of the characters, and then there’s Johnny Boy (Rober Deniro) who won’t or can’t fall in line.
I’ve said in other Scrocese movie write ups that he treats New York City like an additional character. The city pervades the scenery and the mood, and also provides the light beam within whose bounds the plot must operate. In Mean Streets, Vietnam War veterans are returning to a city changed. Men who watched their fathers get rich in spite of a society that seemed intent to stop their upward mobility, are now coming of age in a world where elevation of their familial trajectories is beginning to peter out. The city that nurtured them has also become a sanctuary to those who were even more reviled than the Italians decades before — the gays, the Black people, the women.
Scorcese gives an unusual amount of precious screen time to showing how the culture of the mob thrives on ensuring that they are not at the bottom of the cultural totem pole. There are so many examples — from one of the opening moments when Johnny Boy and Charlie discuss which of the village Bohemian girls they each want, ultimately deciding it doesn’t matter because, you know, same same. Theresa needlessly accosts a Black woman cleaning rooms in their hotel, and numerous other mobsters show blatant racism and bigotry. Their world is collapsing as others who had been shunned by WASP society descend on Manhattan to find a place in a country that wants them out of sight and out of mind.
This feeling of resentment at those who dare to ascend above their social class is a critical part of the American myth. This is the land of opportunity, and from the perspective of a second generation New York mafia man: my father gained social capital in spite of immigrant bigotry, and therefore I must match or surpass his success — and if someone who I consider less worthy dares to assume they are my equal, I will lash out and assume they are the reason for my lack of prosperity.
In some ways, Charlie is like the others in this respect and in some ways he’s different. Both he and Johnny Boy mirror Michael Corleone insofar as this is the life that they were born into and it is inextricable from their identities. The options for Charlie are to conform or rebel — Johnny Boy rebels, acting out against a world that strives to contain him. Charlie sees the writing on the wall for Johnny Boy and becomes intent on course correcting on his behalf, to bring him back to the rank and file foot soldier they will need to be to succeed in this world. The title of the film Mean Streets was inspired by Raymond Chandler who said, “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” This is the world Charlie and Johnny Boy inhabit and their reactions to that reality are wildly disparate.
Charlie is haunted by Catholic guilt. The film starts with him complaining about the leniency of confession and atonement, and dreaming about the depths of hell. He routinely puts his fingers and hands into flames, feels the burn, and contemplates hell. He is the only one who wants to save Johnny Boy in spite of his self destructive tendencies. This is ultimately where Charlie and Michael Corleone’s stories collide, a sense of duty and a sense of shame that will haunt them through their lives on opposite poles of the crime syndicate that raised them.