MEAN STREETS….TO THE RESCUE

Mean Streets to the rescue? Yes, believe it or not.

The poster for an upcoming film on the right as shown in Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS.


Once upon a time, in a strange time and place known as 1980s New Jersey, I was attending a film history/appreciation class at Mercer County Community College while working as a waiter near Princeton. The class textbook was “An Introduction to American Movies” by Steven C. Early and the instructor’s name escapes me. Good thing, too, because if he’s still alive and has access to the internet,he certainly WON’T like this blog entry. 
  What made me think of this particular incident was a result of some online research I’ve been doing for Killin’ Generals. It’ll make sense in a minute. I actually liked the class, being able to watch some classic cinema and write essays about it was my idea of fun. The teacher? Not so much. He was a stodgy stick-in-the-mind so set in his ways about cinema that if you moved his chair two inches in any direction, he’d fall on his ass. Example: The class final consisted of writing an essay on a given genre, choose a film to write about that proves its importance to the genre, as described in class. Well, I chose Film Noir as a genre and Scorsese’s Mean Streets as the film, with lots of info to back it up. I got an ‘F’ because the teacher said color films outside of the time period of 1941-1958 was NOT genre. I fumed, argued but ultimately got a ‘C’ in the class. Yours truly was not pleased. 
   Okay, flash forward a few years later to the mid-90s. PBS was showing a 6-part documentary series on American Cinema with one segment entitled….

Screen grab of PBS series devoted to American Cinema.




I enjoyed the show when it aired but more than anything else, the last 15 minutes of the show was pure redemption. The show, narrated by the great Richard Widmark, came to a point in which film ‘scholars’ decided when and why noir ended. However — and this is an important however — Widmark then intoned the following statement: “Some say that was the end of Film Noir. But I don’t see it that way. Film Noir was a look, a tone, a feel. The shadows are still deadly. Murder still stalks the streets. Love and violence still share the same bed. Fate could still put the finger on you for no good reason at all. Life doesn’t change… because people don’t change.”
 And then, the downbeat to the Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ and the opening of…Mean Streets
 That’s what I call redemption! Or, as Scorsese himself says later in the program: “Mean Streets became a very clear attempt to do a Film Noir in color. What I was trying to do was blend what I knew as a reality, with that style….I think of it as Noir because I love Noir films. As much as possible, it’s my version of a Noir. But in reality, I was trying to get as much as possible, to my experience…My intention was, why not really show it?” 

 So there you have it.Thank you, Mr. Scorsese. I sometimes wonder if that instructor ever saw that episode. He probably retired with tenure and didn’t care any more. As for the ‘C’ average student? Well, he went on to write the NY Times Bestseller Lee Marvin Point Blank which has a more than few things to say about modern Film Noir. 
– Dwayne Epstein

P.S. If interested, the PBS show runs about an hour (with a terrific a opening montage) and can be seen on YouTube by clicking below.  Enjoy!

 

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2 thoughts on “MEAN STREETS….TO THE RESCUE

  1. Hi Dwayne,
    I have a feeling that if you presented this entry to your former film instructor, instead of being embarrassed, I think he would stubbornly still agree that color cannot be film noir under any circumstances. This would allow him to save face and not feel ashamed for giving you a crummy grade, and also be jealous of you for having written Point Blank. I know that all teachers/professors are not like the following, but I have a relative, a retired teacher, who has disagreed with everything I have ever said since the day I was born.

    On another note on the Lee/Mean Streets connection besides the Point Blank poster, and the scene towards the end showing a short clip of The Big Heat on a TV in an apartment, here’s something a bit off-the-wall. As you know, in Lee’s early tv work, he did two episodes of “Suspense” in 1950 and ‘53. Both were paid for by Auto-Lite spark plugs, its sole sponsor. I only noticed this because the show’s commercial for Auto-Lite has a really cute cartoon car and other graphics that I used in an art project. In a noirish night scene from Mean Streets, shortly after Theresa’s epileptic fit, we see DeNiro and Keitel stand next to a battered, weather-beaten Auto-Lite sign near an auto repair shop. The sign’s graphics are those dated from the ‘50’s, when they paid Lee to sell their product. By 1972 when Mean Streets was filmed, the Auto-Lite graphics had been updated to a contemporary style.

    • Interesting take on what I wrote, Shawn. I’m sure the teacher of my film class would in no way, shape or form, change his opinion about the use of color or the time in which the film was made being out of the ‘classic’ period of noir. But hey, that’s his problem. There are a plethora of post-period noir because as Widmark intones in his narration: “People don’t change.”
      By the way, working on a local newspaper in NJ a year or two later, I was able to exact an even better revenge that I might write about in the future. Believe me, it’s a hoot!
      As to the ‘Suspense’ sponsor reference, interestingly, as I write in my book, Marvin got hired to do ‘M Squad’ because the CEO of the show’s sponsor was Pall Mall and when he saw Marvin in action said, “Hey, that kid really smokes.”

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