FILM / The word on the streets: Mean Streets was the making of Martin Scorsese. Sheila Johnston finds the director still enthusing about it 20 years later and assessing its influence on his forthcoming film, The Age of Innocence

'I'll get into a cab sometimes here in New York, and they'll know who I am and the film they'll bring up is Mean Streets . . . 'Aaah, you'll never do better than that, kid, that was the best one . . .' That sorta stuff. 'It really was accurate, that was my life.' ' Martin Scorsese, now one of the most admired directors in the world, still finds his breakthrough movie following him around. And it was pleasing to find him so attached to it still, so affectionate about it that he was prepared (while many directors can barely find a half-hour window to plug their latest project) to take time out from editing his next film, The Age of Innocence, to muse on his Little Italian hoods on the occasion of Mean Streets' re-release in Britain.

The great British director Michael Powell was one of the film's most ardent early champions, but it seems to have also had fans in lower places. 'Henry Hill (the gangster turned FBI informant whose story Scorsese filmed in GoodFellas) told me that the real-life head of the Mob played in the film by Paul Sorvino never went to the movies, he didn't have a phone. He lived like a medieval lord in this villa in Brooklyn. And one night they sort of kidnapped him and took him to see Mean Streets - it was their favourite film because it depicted their lifestyle accurately, they thought. At the same time, the head of the FBI task force that caught this whole Mob told me that the task force's favourite film was Mean Streets . . .'

With such encomia, you might feel that the film's re-release is an offer you can't refuse, but back in the early Seventies it met with a decidedly mixed reception (see box, below). Since then it has meandered in and out of distribution, both on film and on video. Some people didn't care for the language, violence and general seediness; others were bugged by the film's free-form, episodic structure; and there have been some complications over the music rights (the highly eclectic wall-to-wall soundtrack ranges from Italian ballads to traditional folk music to opera to the Rolling Stones).

'I had made this rough little 8mm film back in 1962 - I didn't know about synchronisation, so whenever I showed it, I stood up with a friend and we read out the dialogue, and I actually chewed the records up. The music was everything from Lonnie Donegan to Prokofiev to Django Reinhardt. So I was playing around with music even then. On Mean Streets we couldn't find the people who owned the rights to some of the Italian songs. But eventually they found us . . .'

He began the script (originally called Season of the Witch after the song) in the mid-Sixties, when he was studying film at New York University but still wondering whether to devote his life to celluloid or the cloth. 'I liked the song, and the sense of everything going wrong. It was a strange period - I was still living half the Mean Streets lifestyle, and had half an eye on going back to the seminary (he had been expelled from one 10 years before).

'Everything was coming to a head for me at that time and also in America. There was hell to pay soon for living that lifestyle, and hell to pay for a country at the end of the decade . . . For me the film really is kind of set in 1963 - I was almost involved in an incident like the one at the end, the shooting in the car. I just missed it by 10 minutes. And that was three weeks before Kennedy got shot, so it left a hell of an impression on me and the whole film comes out of that situation.

'It was pretty tightly written because I worked on the script for, like, seven years and had 26 days to shoot the picture. I only shot six days and nights in New York. It was a student crew, who were nice kids and everything, but we would blow lights in buildings and have to wait hours; it was sort of an unprofessional situation. One scene we did on Eighth Street, where the guys pick up two gay men and then throw them out of the car, was a nightmare because we had no permits and it was the middle of the night. At the end there was such confusion that, next thing I knew, more than half the coverage was lost. The kids just threw the film away by mistake] So I had to cut the scene together with two or three angles.'

Most of the film, however, was shot in LA using one of Roger Corman's crews, which gave it a slightly slicker finish. Scorsese insists that this wasn't the reason why Mean Streets, despite the title, mostly unfolds indoors. 'Nothing was changed from exterior to interior. That was the lifestyle, mainly in bars, churches and apartments. And social clubs, which were after-hours joints started up for a couple of weeks or months in the back of tenements, when enough of the police had been paid off. A lot of things would happen in those places. The nature of the lifestyle was clandestine and hidden, constantly. You live on the mean streets, but you want to stay inside. It was kind of declasse for young gentlemen of that stature, who wanted to be respected crooks, to hang out on the corner with young kids.'

Would he do it differently today with the benefit of 20 years' experience (not to mention the ability to command rather better budgets)? 'I haven't sat down to look at Mean Streets from beginning to end since I made it. It's so personal and I love the music and I love the guys - I look at parts of it sometimes, but it's a little painful for me, like most of my movies. At the end of the 'mook' scene (someone calls the kids mooks, a word they don't understand, but obscurely feel to be insulting), where they have that big fight, I had a scene in the street with them running away and the big fellow throwing a garbage pail after them. The kind of thing I used to see all the time. Never had time to shoot it. I'd have liked another 10 days to get a little more coverage, go further with the performances too. I really would have liked to shoot the whole film in New York, let's face it.'

So indelible has been the impact of Mean Streets - and its successors Raging Bull and GoodFellas - that Scorsese will probably always be associated with that New York Italian-American demi-monde. In fact, the subjects of his films have been extremely varied. But jaws dropped around the place, all the same, when he announced possibly his most 'atypical' project to date, an adaptation of The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's novel of 19th-century New York manners.

'I hope people will bear with me and be patient,' says Scorsese. 'There is conflict in this film. But it is expressed over tea. It's a wonderful, impossible love story to do with the constrictions of society - a longing that comes in a direct line from Who's That Knocking and, sort of, Travis's obsession with Betsy in Taxi Driver. And also it's about depicting the world they live in, the detail, the furniture, the customs, the food, the music . . .' Certainly, that suggests an unlikely connection with Mean Streets, and its 'anthropological' chronicling of a strange, exotic milieu; at all events one can be fairly sure that the result won't have much to do with the Merchant-Ivory strain of British period drama. 'There's a tendency for anything that smacks of a literary edge to be respected, unnecessarily at times,' Scorsese adds. 'But I like the genre - for me it comes out of the early David Lean pictures or Visconti's Italian costume films. I was hoping to try and open the form a little bit and do something different with it.'

'Mean Streets' opens next Friday

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID ABOUT 'MEAN STREETS'

'No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realised they have a kind of tonic effect that has no releation to the subject matter. Such is Mean Streets . . . an unequivocally first-class film.' Vincent Canby, New York Times, 3 Oct 1973. 'One leaves the film with the sense of having endured a class in social anthropology rather than an aesthetic experience.' Richard Schickel, Time Magazine, 5 Nov 1973.

'A true original of our period, a triumph of personal film- making. Though the street language and the operative style may be too much for those with conventional tastes, if this picture isn't a runaway success the reason could be that it's so original that some people will be dumbfounded - too struck to respond.' Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1973.

'In essence, Mean Streets is an updated, downtown version of Marty (1955), with small-town criminality replacing those long stretches of beer-drinking in a Bronx bar . . . the screenplay, instead of developing (the) characters and their complex interactions, remains content to sketch in their day-to- day happenings. But Scorsese is exceptionally good at guiding his largely unknown cast to near-flawless recreations of types.' Variety, 1973.

'Mean Streets is Pictures trying to look like Cinema by putting on the appearance of a Film: a pretty banal low-life melodrama . . .' Russell Davies, Observer 7 April 1974.

'A brilliant piece of work. I wish I did not feel I could live without it.' Dilys Powell, Sunday Times, 7 April 1974.

'There is a lot to loathe. But it is still, to my mind, a stunning film - one of the few that conjures up the milieu of crime without wallowing in the punishment.' Margaret Hinxman, Sunday Telegraph, 7 April 1974.

'What may well prove the year's most over-rated film . . . In a period when movie-making has reached a high plateau of soulless slickness and glitter . . . a movie oozing amateurishness from every hole in the plot and every crevice in the continuity may come across as endearingly genuine, unassuming and direct.' John Simon, Esquire, Jan 1977.

(Photographs omitted)

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