Taxi Driver wasn’t the first time Martin Scorsese had his characters see a movie in a Times Square theater. Mean Streets came out three years earlier, in 1973; if was the director’s third feature, but the one that really put him on the map. The film is set in New York’s Little Italy and could have been titled (as Woody Allen later indeed called a movie) Small Time Crooks. The smallest-time hustle comes when Michael (Richard Romanus) and Tony (David Proval) fleece two teenagers who’ve come downtown from Riverdale — a Bronx neighborhood that’s probably the most well-to-do in New York City — to score some “firecrackuhs.” Flush with their winnings, they spot their pal Charlie (Harvey Keitel).
Probably the most important thing to know about Scorsese, other than his movie-making prowess, is that he’s a world-champion film buff. He lets all his buff-ness out in this sequence, which re-imagines early-’70s W. 42nd Street as — unlike the grindhouse reality — a rare and wonderful cinema repertory center. Just check out the extremely eclectic titles we see on the marquees. [For more on this point, see Update, below.]
Moving left to right, that’s George C. Scott in Rage and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement; an unknown film that starts with Scho — any nominations?; Tony Curtis in Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came; three French films — Borsalino, And Hope to Die, and Rider on the Rain; and, finally a realistic touch, two porn movies, Rose Bud and Eighteen Carat Virgin. The latter is an actual film, but I haven’t been able to find Rose Bud in any of the usual reference works. Maybe it’s Scorsese’s cinephile joke about what a porno version of Citizen Kane might be called.
Michael, Charlie, and Tony see yet another film, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956); on the screen is an awkward fight scene, an implicit commentary on all the fist-fights in Mean Streets. Fair enough, but it’s inconceivable that this critical darling (ranked as the seventh-greatest movie of all time in a 2012 Sight & Sound survey, and the model for probably half the serious American films of the ’70s) would be playing in a Times Square theater in 1973. In any case, it’s a droll touch that the three buddies are more interested in and amused by the carryings-on of their fellow patrons than the Searchers scene.
As Mean Streets progresses, shit gets realer and realer, with a lot of the trouble stemming from Charlie’s loose-cannon friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakout role), who eventually angers someone he really shouldn’t have angered. Charlie borrows a car and after Johnny Boy dances around a bit to the great Smokey Robinson tune “Mickey’s Monkey,” they head out. Where else? To the movies.
This time, on the screen is a truly horrible film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). IMDB plot summary: “A man’s obsession with his dead wife drives a wedge between him and his new bride.” Same old same old.
A few points worth mentioning. First, in contrast to the Searchers scene, Charlie and Johnny Boy pay rapt attention. That may be a Scorsesean commentary on the power of cheap entertainment, a la Sullivan’s Travels, or it may just be because they really need something to take their mind off their troubles.
Second, Ligeia was directed by schlockmaster Roger Corman (and written by Robert Towne), which is significant because Corman gave Scorsese a directing job on his previous film, Boxcar Bertha (1972).
Finally, the coming attraction posters in the lobby where Charlie makes a phone call are, of course, very carefully chosen. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) is another critics’ darling, and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), with Ray Milland, is another Roger Corman cult classic. Most significant of all is John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970). This is from a 2010 interview with Scorsese in The Telegraph:
[Scorsese’s] first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in 1968, was a semi-autobiographical neighbourhood story of a young Italian-American (Harvey Keitel) who discovers that his girlfriend has been raped. When Cassavetes saw the film he declared it ‘better than Citizen Kane, it’s got more heart’. Cassavetes became a close friend and mentor – unstinting in his support of Scorsese, and unsparing in his criticism. Scorsese remembers that when he made his first feature in Hollywood in 1972 for the producer Roger Corman, the Depression-era exploitation film Boxcar Bertha, Cassavetes told him, ‘You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.’
Thus chastened, Scorsese returned for his next film to the Mean Streets he knew. And the rest is history.
Update: When I put a link to this post on Facebook, the very smart linguist and author Ben Zimmer had some issues, noting, “You think Scorsese at that stage in his career would have had the wherewithal to redo all the marquees with movies of his liking? Those look like the real exteriors to me (and it’s not like he could’ve just CGI-ed them).”
I responded (defensively) that I was around New York City in the early ’70s, and certainly did not remember 42nd Street theaters as being a home to foreign and art films. But on reflection I concluded Ben was most probably correct. Subsequently, Mr. Zimmer did some stellar research, reporting:
Assuming these are the real marquees from real location shooting and not the result of some crazy composite, I think the shot would have to be from late 1972 at the earliest, because that’s when “Rage” and “And Hope to Die” got released in NYC (11/22/72 and 11/29/72 respectively). It’s a bit odd that there are also movies from 1970 as well (“Suppose They Gave a War” and “Rider on the Rain”), but I guess they could’ve been still going as second-run releases. “Borsalino” was another 1970 release… In fact, when it opened in NYC, the Apollo on 42nd St. was one of the theaters where it played, according to this Village Voice ad. So at least we know you could see arty French movies on that stretch of theaters at the time…
Here’s a screen shot of part of the 1970 Village Voice ad he mentions:
It’s fascinating to me that this movie would have played on 42nd Street, in a Manhattan art house (the Greenwich), and suburban theaters as well, including the Main Street in my 1970 residence, New Rochelle, N.Y.!
In conclusion, I concede that that the Mean Street marquees are real. That leave the posters and movies-in-movies, which I still maintain were purposefully chosen by Scorsese. I hope Ben Zimmer agrees.