‘The Searchers’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ in ‘Mean Streets’

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.]

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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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

‘Sexual Freedom in Denmark’ or ‘Language of Love’ in ‘Taxi Driver’

MarqueeWhen I started this blog, a friend and colleague, John Jebb, had an immediate reaction: “You’ve got to do Taxi Driver.

He was right.

The movie-in-movie scene in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is strange, unique, and hard to forget. The taxi driver of the title, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), has somehow wangled a date with his dream girl, Betsy (Cybill Shephard at her 1970s dreamiest). Travis isn’t the savviest guy out there, and his choice of activity for the date, a double feature at a 42nd Street grind house, is spectacularly off. (The clip starts with a look at street drummer Gene Palma, a Times Square fixture in the 1970s and ’80s.)

It gets worse. Eventually, Betsy bolts.

At this point a curatorial note is in order. The Lyric marquee lists two films — Sometime Sweet Susan, an actual 1975 porn film, and Swedish Marriage Manual, which isn’t listed in IMDB or any other reference site I could find. IMDB says the movie on the screen in Taxi Driver is Sexual Freedom in Denmark (1969). But I think it’s more likely to be the Swedish Ur kärlekens språk (1969), translated in the U.S. as Language of Love. If anyone knows for sure, I would be interested in hearing from them.

Back to Taxi Driver, I have to say I find this scene a bit much. One has to suspend one’s disbelief enough just to accept that Betsy would agree to go out with Travis, and that he would be so out of touch to think that a skin flick is an appropriate first date. But the idea she would agree to walk into the movie and stay for as long as she does strikes me as way over the top. The genius.com website has a version of Paul Schrader’s screenplay, with some character notes, starting with Travis’s reaction to Betsy’s initial discomfort at the double bill:

Travis seems confused. He is so much part of his own world, he fails to comprehend another’s world. Compared to the movies he sees, this is respectable. But then there’s also something that Travis could not even acknowledge, much less admit: That he really wants to get this pure white girl into that dark porno theatre.

Travis makes an awkward gesture to escort Betsy into the theatre. Betsy looks at the tickets, at the theatre, at Travis. She mentally shakes her head and walks toward the turnstile. She thinks to herself: “What the Hell. What can happen?” She’s always been curious about these pictures anyway, and – like all women, no matter how intelligent – she’s been raised not to offend her date. A perverse logic which applies even more in offsetting circumstances like these.

I don’t know. It seems to me that Schrader and Scorsese were mainly trying to get as much uncomfortable awkwardness into one scene as they possibly could. If so, they succeeded.

Update: Ben Zimmer, a good friend of Movies in Other Movies, found and sent along “‘This is a dirty movie’ – Taxi Driver and ‘Swedish sin,’” a 2011 article by Elisabet Björklund that answers some of the questions I raised above.  She writes:

The film being shown is not an actual Swedish film, but a construction that has been cobbled together. The makers of Taxi Driver have been quite creative in making the film-within-the-film seem Swedish. All the footage is taken from the American sexploitation film Sexual Freedom in Denmark …, but a Swedish soundtrack has been added. This composite may be construed as a parody of Swedish films with sexually explicit content from around the time of the sexual revolution.

She goes on to describe the “added” soundtrack:

The first images show a man sitting at a desk talking to a woman.  In Sexual Freedom in Denmark, the scene is an interview by Ole Lassen – the Danish cicerone or narrator of the film in the parts shot in Denmark – with journalist Lizzie Bundgaard. In Taxi Driver, however, the scene has been manipulated to make it appear that we are watching a therapy session. On the soundtrack a man’s voice informs us in Swedish that many people have been able to eliminate old habits and patterns of behaviour through consultations. Then a woman’s voice says, ‘My parents were very strict. They told me that the body was the house of God. Sex was dirty, something to be ashamed of.’

Did this Swedish dialogue and narration come from another movie, or some other source, or did Scorsese and Schrader concoct it? Björklund acknowledges she doesn’t know, and thus there remains one open question about the sequence.