History starts here

Marking the anniversaries of ‘Mean Streets’ and the JFK assassination

Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy in the 1973 Martin Scorsese picture 'Mean Streets.' Courtesy: The Criterion Collection

When Martin Scorsese sat down with friend and classmate Mardik Martin to pen Season of the Witch — later rechristened Mean Streets — he hardly thought he was changing how movies would look and move. 

The kid who grew up on Elizabeth Street in New York City’s Little Italy made his low-budget debut in 1967 with Who’s That Knocking at My Door, followed by the forgettable exploitation feature Boxcar Bertha in 1972. It was a somewhat inauspicious beginning, but then came Mean Streets, and everything changed. From the voiceover narration supplied by Scorsese himself reconciling sin and atonement to the violent and tragic ending, the film didn’t just break the mold — it set it.

Director Richard Linklater calls Mean Streets the patron saint of independent cinema. It’s easy to see why. From the rock ’n’ roll needle drops that send the narrative into another gear to the street-level story that feels pulled from the guts, the film put forward a bold new template for cinematic storytelling. And then there are the Scorsese hallmarks: character introductions punctuated by on-screen text, the sudden eruptions of violence that dissipate as quickly as they bubble up and extended moments of character interaction — often comical but with a sinister edge. Every frame feels like an urtext for cinema to come.

Scorsese can’t take all the credit; a great deal of Mean Streets’ success and legacy belongs to those in front of the camera. Scorsese wrote the part of Charlie, modeled after the director’s father, for Harvey Keitel — whom he worked with on Who’s That Knocking — and Keitel returns the favor in spades. Still, he’s almost consumed by Robert De Niro, who plays the always-troublesome and erratic Johnny Boy in this first of 10 collaborations with Scorsese. De Niro had been working for years in smaller films, but Mean Streets started a string of performances that would vault him among the greatest.

And all of this is on stunning display in Criterion’s newest UHD Blu-ray set. It’s been half a century since the Scorsese masterpiece debuted at the 1973 New York Film Festival, but the movie still pulses. And thanks to Criterion’s 4K digital restoration, it also looks spectacular. The set features a bevy of interviews, retrospectives and a video essay about the film that provides insight into the autobiographical details of the story, along with a renewed understanding of the themes that Scorsese — who turns 81 on Nov. 17 — established with Mean Streets and has been honing ever since. Fifty years have passed between his breakthrough sensation and his latest masterwork, Killers of the Flower Moon. What a phenomenal career.

. . .

Nov. 22 marks 60 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and we’re still grappling with it. Sure, there were conspiracies to eliminate heads of state long before JFK drew his last breath, and there will no doubt be many to come, but what other event could have given birth to this many conspiracy theorists?

Made following the release of the Warren Commission’s report and based on attorney Mark Lane’s counterargument, Rush to Judgment is director Emile de Antonio’s 1967 documentary of the same name, following Lane as he interviews eyewitnesses to disprove the Warren Commission’s findings. The interviews are unvarnished and, at times, boring and repetitive — Lane’s primary argument is that multiple witnesses all saw and experienced the same truth — but the documentary itself is what matters. Refraining from cinematic flourishes, save for some comparison editing, de Antonio films Lane asking questions and captures the responses.

What becomes apparent is that the official record was not the truth, at least not for those who were there. They knew something — either through first-hand accounts or past interactions — that colored the events and brought them to a contrary conclusion.

Listening to these people, it’s no wonder we’re still debating who killed Kennedy, if the moon landings were faked, if 9/11 was an inside job — even the origin and impetus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. An American schism formed that day in 1963, the first of many. As one subject says, not just for himself but for generations to follow: “I think all of us who love this country should be alerted that something is wrong in the land.”

ON SCREEN: Mean Streets is available Nov. 21 on 4K UHD Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection; Rush to Judgment screens at the Alamo Drafthouse (Sloans Lake) on Nov. 22.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here