50 years of Mean Streets – A film that provides a glimpse into Martin Scorsese’s future works

Mean Streets was a pivotal film that launched Martin Scorsese’s career and paved the way for his signature style of depicting uneasiness, violence, and guilt. It also foreshadowed elements that would appear in his later films, including The Gangs of New York and The Irishman. Interestingly, the film almost never came to be, as it was originally intended as a Blaxploitation film with a predominantly black cast. However, after ace producer Roger Corman read the script and offered to finance it only if all the characters were black, Scorsese was left with no choice but to consider the proposal. Fortunately, John Cassavetes intervened and helped Corman see the larger potential of the film, allowing Scorsese to realize his vision.

The protagonist of the film is Charlie Chappa (portrayed by Harvey Keitel), an Italian-American residing in the Little Italy neighbourhood of New York. His friend, John Civello (played by Robert De Niro), is in deep debt due to his gambling habits, and Charlie feels responsible for helping him out of his mess. As things spiral out of control for John, also known as Johnny Boy, Charlie takes charge and decides to intervene. Mean Streets provides an authentic depiction of a particular period in American life that has now vanished, with the virtual disappearance of Little Italy from New York’s landscape. The film is less concerned with presenting an engaging plot to the audience and more focused on exploring life and situations.

A still from Mean Streets (Image courtesy: Warner Bros.)

Six years before its release, Martin Scorsese started writing the script for Mean Streets with his friend and classmate Mardik Martin. Originally titled Season of the Witch, the story was heavily influenced by Scorsese’s personal experiences. However, selling the script proved to be a challenge for the up-and-coming director. When the script failed to gain traction, Scorsese moved on to direct Boxcar Bertha for producer Roger Corman, but the film’s lukewarm reception resulted in the cancellation of his next two projects with Corman. During this difficult time, Scorsese’s mentor John Cassavetes even told him that he had wasted a year of his life. It was then that Scorsese returned to Season of the Witch, but Cassavetes advised him to rewrite the script. Once he completed the new version, Scorsese approached Corman for financing, but Corman would only agree to fund the film if it was made with an all-Black cast. In the meantime, Scorsese also sought input on the script from Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it on to Robert De Niro.

A still from Mean Streets (Image courtesy: Warner Bros.)

Scorsese had originally envisioned Harvey Keitel in the lead role, as they had previously worked together in Who’s That Knocking at My Door. However, due to producer interference, Jon Voight was ultimately cast. But fate intervened when Voight dropped out of the project at the last minute in favour of another film. Scorsese was still in the process of finalizing the cast when he met Robert De Niro for the first time at a Christmas party hosted by one of the film’s producers. When Scorsese offered him his pick of any role in the film, De Niro initially chose Charlie. However, as he had already filmed some scenes with Keitel in that role, De Niro was turned down. It wasn’t until De Niro showed up for his audition wearing a pork pie hat that everything fell into place. The look was so convincing that Scorsese, Keitel, and even De Niro himself were taken aback, leading to De Niro being cast in the role of Johnny Boy.

Trailer of Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese was a bundle of nerves on the film set, owing to his meticulousness. He carried five books of storyboards and found it challenging to pick the right one. After the film was complete, Scorsese tried to secure a distribution deal with Paramount, but the head of the production stopped the screening after just ten minutes, saying that the company was not interested in the film. Fortunately, another screening was scheduled at Warner Bros. which eventually purchased the film for $750,000. Mean Streets premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, where Scorsese met Federico Fellini for the first time. The two hit it off instantly, and when one of Fellini’s distributors walked into the room, Fellini immediately informed him that he had just seen one of the finest American films ever made. Although Fellini had not watched the film, his endorsement helped the distributor buy international distribution rights to the film. Martin Scorsese faced an unfortunate situation when The Way We Were, a movie starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand, was released a week after his film and took over most of the theatres in America, despite the rave reviews his film had received.


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