By: Mimi Lipson
August 24, 2017

One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite neo-noir movies from the Sixties (1964–1973).



I got ten dollars says when you think of Mean Streets, you think of Harvey Keitel as Charlie: transcendently drunk, moving through a party to the crazed accompaniment of “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips.

Streamers brush over him, kisses and liquor splash his face from one side and then the other. His disembodied head is a bowling ball being run through a carwash. This is so essentially Scorsese, this alchemy of film and music. His techniques have been replicated so many times in the last 43 years that it’s easy to forget that they started somewhere, and this is where. There is a common and valid criticism of filmmakers who use soundtracks as a crutch to tell us how to feel about what is happening onscreen, but this is something else. The rock ‘n’ roll lures us with familiarity, and then the perceptual slippage — the way Keitel’s sluggish reactions break sync with the song’s giddy vocals, for instance — untethers us from the realism and the comedy of the plot.

Mean Streets is half shaggy dog, half coming-of-age: Charlie is a loan collector working for his uncle, hoping to move up in the business but weighed down by loyalty to the feckless Johnny-Boy (Robert De Niro). In their scenes together, De Niro and Keitel have the timing and chemistry of a late-model Abbott and Costello. The weight and extension of this small, specific world are vividly intact and yet, somehow, the Little Italy of Scorsese’s youth is a hellscape, suffused with moral peril. The movie opens with a voice that comes to Charlie in the moment of awakening. “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” It’s Scorsese’s voice, and it’s God’s voice, or it’s the voice of a priest or of Charlie’s wiseguy uncle, telling us that this is a fallen world. It’s a noir world, but Charlie didn’t bring the war home. He didn’t have to: he’s a Catholic boy.

If it’s not the “Rubber Biscuit” scene you remember first, maybe it’s Johnny Boy making his grand entrance in the same bar, bathed in red like the seventh circle of hell, dragging the beat on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” He struts in slow motion, his arms around a couple of Jewish chicks he picked up in the Village. With his wolfish smile and weird Hasidic diamond cutter’s hat, he’s both comic and erotic. There’s a love interest in the story — a girl — but forget about the girl. Johnny Boy is Barbara Stanwyck. He’s Lauren Bacall. He’s trouble.


KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Kio Stark on THE KILLERS | Alix Lambert on BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | Judith Zissman on ALPHAVILLE | Mark Kingwell on HARPER | Lynn Peril on BLOW-UP | Devin McKinney on SECONDS | Drew Daniel on BRANDED TO KILL | Luc Sante on POINT BLANK | Gordon Dahlquist on LE SAMOURAÏ | Alice Boone on LE CERCLE ROUGE | Brian Berger on COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | Adrienne Crewe on PERFORMANCE | David Levine on THE FRENCH CONNECTION | Dan Fox on GET CARTER | Melissa Gira Grant on KLUTE | Brandi Brown on SHAFT | Kaleb Horton on FAT CITY | Peter Doyle on THE GETAWAY | Sarah Weinman on HICKEY & BOGGS | Annie Nocenti on BADLANDS | Josh Glenn on CHARLEY VARRICK | Gary Groth on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE | Lisa Jane Persky on THE LONG GOODBYE | Mimi Lipson on MEAN STREETS | Sherri Wasserman on SOYLENT GREEN.

MORE MOVIES at HILOBROW: KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: 25 neo-noirs of the Sixties (1964–1973) | James Parker’s BOURNE VARIATIONS series | Alix Lambert’s SÉRIE NOIRE series | Jacob Mikanowski’s SCREEN TIME series | Josh Glenn’s SHOCKING BLOCKING series | Joanne McNeil’s ALL MY STARS series | MORE: including dozens of HILO HERO items on movie directors and actors.


WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

Share this Post
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on Tumblr

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.