The Accidental Reinvention Of The Gangster Film

“It is not really a film, it is kind of a declaration of who I am.”
-Martin Scorsese

In 1973, only a year after the release of The Godfather, new-comer Martin Scorsese released one of the most important gangster films of all time, Mean Streets. Its importance in cinematic history may not have been felt immediately, yet there is no doubt Scorsese’s first great film would prove to be a game changer in terms of both the gangster genre and film in general.

Scorsese’s life on the mean streets coloured his take on the Italian-American gangster film, producing a radically different type of gangster film from what Hollywood had been accustomed to.

The gangster picture first saw the light of day with Mervin LeRoy’s Little Caesar, which not only spring boarded Edward G. Robinson into stardom but gave birth to the archetypal American gangster film.

While not a great film, Little Caesar‘s impact on the gangster genre is undeniable as it lay the groundwork for almost every gangster film up until the 1970’s. The gangster genre encompasses a plentiful collection of sub-genres including the heist and detective films, however they all have one thing in common: the lack of personal touch.

In many ways the classic gangster picture follows a straight line to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. It is a film which owes itself completely to the classic gangster films of Hollywood. Its place as one of the greatest films of all time sets it far above many of those films , yet it is still very much a classically filmed Hollywood picture. With The Godfather‘s release in 1972, the classic gangster picture had nowhere else to go. As the genre had said all it could within the confines of the archetype, a total reinvention was needed. While Scorsese never intended this, Mean Streets which was released a year later signalled a rebirth of the genre.

In discussing the film Mean Streets Scorsese often mentions that to him “it is not really a film, it is kind of a declaration of who I am” which explains why the film does not feel like a classical gangster film. .

Almost every character in the film is a gangster–some low-level and some high level–however you get the impression that all of these people are very low level and this is simply because of the realism. Scorsese understood the culture of the Italian-American gangster as he, himself, was involved in it simply by living and growing up in the “mean streets” of New York’s Little Italy.

In previous gangster films the central story is almost entirely dedicated to a specific conflict such as a heist or hit, Mean Streets changed that. Instead of a straightforward story, Scorsese decided to document several days and nights during the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy.

What drove Scorsese to make this film was the need to express his feelings at the time. With Harvey Keitel playing his cinematic alter-ego, Charlie, Scorsese authentically showcased a snapshot of a young Italian-American.

The interactions of the gangsters are constantly on screen, everything in these characters’ lives are touched by organized crime, however this is not a judgement nor the point. It is simply there, part of nature in this community. It is the backdrop instead of the driving point.

As he was just coming out of film school, Scorsese’s main influence was European, with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci having significant impact on him. This gives the film an entirely different look than any previous gangster film. The film featured handheld cameras, improvised dialogue, pop music as the score, and naturalistic direction and acting.

Viewing the film now, it is difficult to see the revolutionary techniques that Scorsese used in Mean Streets, as all of these have been used countless times since. Just as Scorsese was influenced by directors before him, a large number of filmmakers working today take some influence from Scorsese and his work. It is not only direct influence either, but rather the techniques used in this film have become so commonplace in both cinema and television that it is hard to spot what made this film so different from other gangster films.

Scorsese revolutionized the gangster genre not only with style and technique, but because he was telling a autobiographical story. While Scorsese may continue to inspire the gangster genre, the films have returned to the archetypal, impersonal genre fare they previously were due to the fact they are no longer drawing from personal experience. Although there are exceptions, such as the De Niro-directed A Bronx Tale which drew from screenwriter and stars Chazz Palminteri’s childhood in the Bronx, for the most part these films are not from the heart.

With the Hollywood gangster genre reaching its logical pinnacle with 1972’s The Godfather, it appeared there was nowhere to go except redundancy. Scorsese’s life and influence allowed for a personal touch that translated into a gangster film which introduced the conventions of the French New Wave into the gangster genre. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets revolutionized the genre by drawing heavily from his personal life, creating an entirely original story about Italian-Americans who happened to be gangsters.

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One Response to The Accidental Reinvention Of The Gangster Film

  1. Mean Streets is indeed a game changer. It’s disappointing that when ppl talk about game changing films this one rarely gets mentioned. Thanks for drawing attention back to this amazing film.

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