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Mean Streets (Blu-ray Review)

6 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus.

In a recent series of Warner Blu-ray releases that have been borderline “stealth,” there are at least two with an uncommonly eager fan base, including Ken Russell’s wild-and-a-half Altered States. The other is Martin Scorsese’s career-maker set in New York City’s Little Italy section, a movie whose look has always been a partial product of its low budget and a preponderance of darkly-lit sequences that take place in a neighborhood bar where one presumes the Duchess of Windsor would have preferred not to utilize the ladies’ latrine.

Limiting the discussion to my adult life, there are only two times when I can recall falling in love at first sight with a director’s style. One was with Robert Altman’s peripatetic zoom shots, overlapping dialogue and merited mean-spiritedness when MASH first opened early in ’71 (which means I never, ever had any use for the spinoff CBS series). The other came when I caught a 4 p.m. Saturday showing of Scorsese’s breakthrough feature, which had caused a sensation at the ’73 New York Film Festival. Somehow, the word hadn’t trickled down to my theater, a 150-seater that, even on this humble level, was pretty close to empty. I have always wondered if the careers of Altman (MASH aside) and Scorsese would have ever gotten out of the gate had newspapers reported the weekly box office returns the way they began doing in the 1980s. Their returns would have looked pretty paltry (which means that editors wouldn’t have wanted to cover them) compared to, say, those of some stagebound Neil Simon adaptation.

But anyone who was paying attention just knew that when the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” hit the Mean Streets soundtrack just after the Warner logo, a good musical ride was in store — not only from jukebox standards (think Robert De Niro’s natural-rhythm footwork to “Mickey’s Monkey”) but also the nooks-and-crannies. (I always thought the Blues Brothers’ later hit cover of The Chips’ fairly obscure “Rubber Biscuit” from late ’56 was in partly due to the latter’s inclusion in one of Streets’ most boozily kinetic scenes.) Some of the dialogue throwaways were unprecedented as well — as in the great throwaway when De Niro utters, “Back to Bataan” while drunkenly lobbing an object off a roof — an allusion to the John Wayne-Edward Dmytryk war drama (now, there’s a political combination) that had played on TV for years by ’73 and would have been part of these particular characters’ pop-culture heritage. In who else’s movies (then or now), were you going to get this kind of stuff? Certainly not from John G. Avildsen or Charles Jarrott, for damned sure.

My attitude was cemented about Scorsese when, just two months later, the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C., played his then barely seen debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door with same-lead Harvey Keitel — a Mean Streets thematic first cousin that also gave dime-store pop some serious love by including my favorite garage-band tune ever (the Bell Notes’ "I’ve Had It") on its soundtrack. When I became programmer of the same theater about a year-and-a-half later, the initial weekend double-bill in my opening calendar ever was of Knocking and the madcap rock paean Let the Good Times Roll (the latter in a fabulous stereo print). Man, I’d pay $30 to see a 35mm pairing of that duo today.

Now that De Niro has spent the past 15 or so years selling out to a greater extent than I can recall any actor doing all of movie history, it may be hard for younger viewers to appreciate just how exciting and unpredictable he was in the early days. I can’t recall a more chilling mix of goofiness and tinderbox sociopathic behavior than his portrayal of Streets’ Johnny Boy, a notorious neighborhood deadbeat and welcher of (sometimes high-interest) debts. John Houseman ended up getting the supporting male Oscar that year for The Paper Chase, a memorably emblematic performance that didn’t differ too much from what he usually did on screen (though, obviously, Houseman’s looks and manner of speaking somewhat painted him into a corner). The National Society of Film Critics, though, went for De Niro — a decision that made the Academy’s arteries seem a little on the hardened side, much as The Sting’s win over American Graffiti (and the un-nominated Streets) did in the best picture category. This seems as true now as it did then, which isn’t to call The Sting a slouch, especially in Universal’s centennial year.

There’s been some disappointment voiced that Warner didn’t follow the lead of France’s Region-B Mean Streets Blu-ray release by loading up this edition with extras beyond carrying over the DVD’s commentary and a promotional featurette the studio put out at the time. I’m less surprised at this than the fact that the movie is coming out on the 39th anniversary of its original release, which makes one wonder if something bigger (or maybe not) is planned for the near-future. My attitude is that you can’t have too much Scorsese on Blu-ray soon enough. Right now, the glaring career omission is Sony-controlled The Age of Innocence, where a Blu-ray presumably would make more of a difference than it would with also MIA The King of Comedy.

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