Mean Streets stars Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel trying to make it big in NYC’s Little Italy. Here are some behind the scenes facts about the film.
Despite the poor box-office performance at the time of its release in 1973, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets has gone to be recognized as one of the greatest gangster movies ever made. The film currently boasts a 97% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 96/100 Metascore. In 1997, the film was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Mean Streets stars Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel as a pair of low-level street hoods trying to make it big in New York’s Little Italy. For a better understanding of the movie that put Scorsese on the map, here are some behind the scenes facts about the making of the film.
Following the poor critical and commercial reception of his previous film, Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese’s friend, and fellow filmmaker John Cassavetes urged him to get back to his roots and make a personal film, much as he did with Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967.
Scorsese agreed and decided to make the semiautobiographical Mean Streets as a result. Scorsese based the story on his own personal experiences coming of age in New York’s Little Italy, molding many of the characters on people he knew in real life.
Charlie & Johnny
In the first of nine collaborations between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the iconic actor was given a choice to play any one of four key roles in the film. De Niro initially wanted to play the role of Charlie, but financiers wanted the bigger-named John Voigt to star in the role.
When Voight dropped out and Harvey Keitel was cast as Charlie, he urged De Niro to accept the role of Johnny instead. Once cast, both actors immediately wanted to swap roles but Scorsese declined. As for Johnny, he is based on Scorsese’s unruly uncle Joe “The Bug” Scorsese, who was often in trouble with the law.
Scorsese initially began writing the screenplay for Mean Streets in the 1960s while riding around Little Italy in his car with co-writer, Mardik Martin. At that time, the film was titled Season of the Witch.
It was film critic Jay Cocks who suggested Scorsese alter the title from Season of the Witch to Mean Streets. Cocks pulled the title from a Raymond Chandler quote that read: “Down the mean streets a man must go.” While he initially hesitated, Scorsese ultimately agreed to change the title.
L.A. Film Shoot
Mean Streets is often hailed as the definitive New York gangster film. However, only six of the 27 shooting days were filmed in New York City, with the majority of the movie being filmed in Los Angeles.
In total, 20 days of filming took place on location in Los Angeles. Many of the movie’s most memorable scenes were shot in L.A., including the infamous poolhall skirmish and the scene in which Johnny Boy blows up a mailbox. As many as 24 to 36 different shot setups were needed to complete the film on the tight schedule, leading to innovative handheld camerawork that the movie was praised for.
Roger Corman’s Condition
Scorsese employed Roger Corman’s production crew for the filming of Mean Streets, many of whom were carried over from the set of Boxcar Bertha. When Scorsese approached Corman with the screenplay for funding, the legendary low-budget producer agreed to give Scorsese a sizeable budget under one condition: that he hire an all-black cast.
Corman wanted to capitalize on the Blaxploitation craze of the time, but Scorsese refused as he wanted to tell a personal story near and dear to his heart.
The Godfather Connection
While filming in Little Italy, Scorsese opted to feature the iconic landmark St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. The same church was used during the baptism scene in The Godfather, as well as a church scene in which Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is feted in The Godfather Part III.
Further connecting to Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster trilogy, Robert De Niro plays two characters in Mean Streets and The Godfather Part II that run across the rooftops in Little Italy as the Feast of San Gennaro festival takes place below.
A Little Help From Friends
Speaking of Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather director helped his longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Scorsese fund Mean Streets by putting his own money into the film. And that’s not the only help Scorsese received from his Hollywood peers.
According to Brian De Palma, he helped Scorsese edit a few scenes of Mean Streets. Scorsese edited much of the film himself, but because the movie was not a unionized production, editing credit ultimately went to Scorsese’s supervisor Sidney Levin, who was a member of the Editor’s Union.
Mean Streets features an array of inventive camerawork, including a 69-second handheld tracking shot made in the absence of affordable dolly tracks. To properly depict Charlie’s drunken behavior in one scene, the camera was physically mounted to Harvey Keitel as he stumbles around the bar.
As Charlie bumbles around, the camera was deliberately undercranked to achieve an unsteady, dizzying effect to make it appear as if Charlie’s is drunk.
According to Scorsese, De Niro and his costar Richard Romanus did not get along well during filming. When Scorsese noticed their animosity toward each other on set, he capitalized on their energy for one pivotal scene in the film.
During the scene when Johnny Boy (De Niro) pulls a firearm on Michal (Romanus), Scorsese urged his camera operator to continue filming takes of De Niro hurling insults at Romanus. The entire crew got upset, leading to authentic tension and animosity between the two actors that made it into the final cut of the film.
In order to depict Charlie’s fractious mind-state, Scorsese opted to feature a different voice than that of Harvey Keitel for his inner-monologue. The narration is voiced by Scorsese himself, who also appears in a cameo in the opening credits posing next to Keitel in a family portrait.
Scorsese got the idea to use a different voice for the inside of Charlie’s head from famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, who used a similar technique in his 1953 film Il Vitelloni.