MEAN STREETS 50TH Anniversary – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute


MEAN STREETS 50TH Anniversary – AFI Catalog Spotlight

This October, the AFI Catalog celebrates the 50th anniversary of MEAN STREETS, which marked the first pairing of AFI Life Achievement Award recipients Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in a breakthrough film that catapulted both careers and set a precedent for American independent filmmaking. Also featuring Harvey Keitel in one of his early starring roles after performing in Scorsese’s first feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? (1967), MEAN STREETS (originally titled SEASON OF THE WITCH after the song by Donovan) was a semi-autobiographical story that Scorsese based on his youth in New York City’s Little Italy. It was conceived as the third part of a trilogy, with the first installment being the unproduced JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM and the second as WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?—Scorsese and his NYU film school colleague Mardik Martin had worked on the screenplay for MEAN STREETS for seven years with the earliest outline finished in 1966. As they found it difficult to secure financing for the project, Scorsese took several jobs, including work on the seminal concert documentary WOODSTOCK and directing Roger Corman’s B-movie BOXCAR BERTHA, which prompted Scorsese’s friend and mentor John Cassavetes to advise him to return to a more intimate and self-reflexive approach to cinema. Hailed as “a triumph of personal filmmaking” by Pauline Kael and “one of the source points for modern movies” by Roger Ebert, MEAN STREETS ushered in a new style of storytelling that resounded with critics and audiences alike, as well as inspiring future storytellers including Richard Linklater, who called Scorsese “the patron saint of independent filmmaking.”

MEAN STREETS was a challenging proposition for Scorsese to get off the ground, and after several rejections he approached Roger Corman, who agreed to finance the film if it was rewritten as a Blaxploitation picture. When Scorsese declined, he was introduced to Jonathan T. Taplin through his friend, actress Verna Bloom. Taplin had not previously produced a movie but had managed musical performers and staged concerts for Bob Dylan and The Band, among many others. Taplin worked together with executive producer E. Lee Perry to raise the primary $300,000 budget, with help from Consolidated Film Industries, which provided all laboratory facilities and processing fees on deferment, and from Corman, who initially agreed to distribute the picture, giving the project greater credibility. According to Taplin, much of the funding came from acquaintances from his hometown in Cleveland. To keep costs low, filming during the nearly month-long shoot took place in Los Angeles, standing in for New York City, a location that was expensive to permit. However, roughly a week was spent in the city with locations that were provided for little or no money by Scorsese’s friends—in addition, the New York crew was composed mainly of students and friends from NYU. The Feast of San Gennaro committee demanded such a high rate for permits that Scorsese borrowed the funds from Francis Ford Coppola, who had recently released the blockbuster THE GODFATHER with similar themes of Italian American life. The transformation of Los Angeles locales to represent New York was so effective that many contemporary viewers were convinced, including Vincent Canby, who stated in his New York Times review that the picture “was shot entirely on its New York locations.” The film was novel in its use of rock music instead of a traditional orchestrated score, a practice now commonplace that was, at the time, fairly unusual. Licensing songs significantly added to the budget, and by some estimates it nearly doubled. MEAN STREETS was produced entirely independently before Warner Bros. picked it up for distribution for approximately $750,000.

Scorsese told a group of AFI Fellows during a Conservatory seminar in 1975 that he encouraged his actors to improvise during rehearsals, which he transcribed from audio tapes to include in the script. As one example, the scene in which Johnny Boy delivers a long monologue to Charlie about why he cannot make that week’s payment to Michael was originally entirely improvised by De Niro and Keitel, according to Scorsese. The sequence was the last to be filmed, after Scorsese pleaded with his producers for another day to be added to the shooting schedule. He mentioned in the seminar that he edited the picture but did not receive onscreen credit due to DGA regulations. Also participating in post-production were filmmaker Brian De Palma and Sandra Weintraub, who Scorsese was romantically involved with at the time. Scorsese told AFI fellows in 1975 that he was working with Mardik Martin on a sequel to MEAN STREETS.

Despite receiving many positive reviews, some which compared Scorsese to Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas, and others noted that the young directors were the first to come out of film schools as opposed to studio apprenticeships, MEAN STREETS did not fare well at the box office upon its initial release. According to Taplin, Warner Bros. failed to support an aggressive marketing campaign because it did not have a large financial stake in the picture, and the studio recently invested nearly $15 million in THE EXORCIST, which demanded more attention. Warner Bros. also did not plan to release MEAN STREETS in Europe, leaving Taplin and Scorsese in negotiations to buy back foreign distribution rights. Seven months after its October 1973 release in the U.S., the film screened on May 10, 1974, at the Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight series. In 1997, MEAN STREETS was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion and preservation in the National Film Registry, and the following year it was re-released theatrically to celebrate its 25th anniversary. MEAN STREETS remains today a cult classic, exploring themes of religion and guilt juxtaposed against sex and violence in Italian American life that resonate throughout Scorsese’s large body of work. His personal and realistic style of independent filmmaking has gone on to have a significant impact on cinematic storytellers worldwide, with MEAN STREETS driving artists to pursue new avenues of self-expression. Scorsese refers to MEAN STEETS as a “declaration of statement,” as noted by writer Eric San Juan, who mentioned that the film presents “thematic hallmarks of virtually every picture he ever made” and reflected that “this movie is Martin Scorsese.”

In the AFI Archive at the Louis B. Mayer Library, the Martin Scorsese Papers contains scripts, storyboards and breakdown sheets among other treasures from the MEAN STREETS production, illustrating the work that went into creating Scorsese’s masterpiece. Learn more about the full collection.

From the AFI Archive:

From the AFI Archive:

Watch the original trailer for MEAN STREETS here:

Watch MEAN STREETS here:

Watch a Q&A with Martin Scorsese at the Film Society of Lincoln Center about MEAN STREETS here:


Casillo, Robert. Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Toronto: University    of Toronto Press, 2006.

Ebert, Roger. “Mean Streets,” accessed September 5, 2023,

“The Impact of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Steets,’” Cinephilia & Beyond, accessed September 5, 2023,

Kael, Pauline. “Mean Steets: Everyday Inferno—Review by Pauline Kael.” Scraps From the Loft. January 11, 2018.

“Mean Streets,” American Film Institute Catalog, accessed September 9, 2023,

Rausch, Andrew J. The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010.

San Juan, Eric. The Films of Martin Scorsese: Gangsters, Greed, and Guilt. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.


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