Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune
The Story: A young guy in Little Italy drinks and hangs out with his loser friends, wondering where he’s going. When he picks up an understanding WASP-y girl, he finds his horizons broadening, but his neurotic sexual hang-ups threaten to ruin everything.
How it Came to be Underrated: Most Scorsese fans don’t dig deeper than Mean Streets in his early filmography, but this little-seen debut, four years in the making as his NYU thesis film, is a worthy companion to that film, with Keitel playing essentially the same character at an earlier point in his mixed-up life.
Why It’s Great:
- Most movies have a romance, but the hardest thing to show onscreen is two people really falling in love from scratch, as we get to see here, with each hesitant step. What’s even harder is to show their sexual relationship without succumbing to either embarrassment or exploitation. There’s a lot of movies with sex scenes, but there’s only a tiny handful of movies about sex, in all of its promise and anguish. Fun to show, but so hard to talk about.
- After this, Scorsese would get a lot of credit for his “daring” displays of violence. But, as Scorcese’s fellow Sicilian-American Antonin Scalia will tell you, America only pretends to dislike violence. You can take people’s heads off as long as they don’t take their pants off. For daring to discuss the biggest taboo, this is probably Scorcese’s most truly daring movie.
- Scorsese’s overuse of ‘60s music has become so grating in his recent movies that it’s surprising to be reminded how startling and fresh it was in his early films (he was the first to do it well in feature films, taking his inspiration from the avant garde films of Kenneth Anger) It helped that he couldn’t afford in the early days to use the same few Stones songs over and over, so he dug deep to find great obscure doo-wop songs with an oddly sinister edge.
- This movie was made from ‘65-‘68, which was sadly the end of the era when jobless 20-something louts still inexplicably wore shirts and ties while drinking away a Friday night in somebody’s apartment. Even slackers had a little class back then.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Scorsese followed this up with a fun Corman quickie called Boxcar Bertha. His most underrated movie from the ‘70s was New York, New York.
How Available Is It?: It’s on a beautiful DVD with a nice commentary by Scorsese and his fellow film student Mardik Martin
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Two days ago I was raving to my friend about the use of music in the "El Watsui" party scene. A brilliant and already fully formed version of the kind of pop scoring Scorsese became famous for later on with things like the "Layla" sequence in GOODFELLAS. The scene also sets up one of Scorsese's obsessive themes: the ways in which violence can erupt suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, but also often from jokes taken too far among angry young men.
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