The mean street life

The mean street life

Watching a maestro’s first film can sometimes be a trying affair.

l Who’s That Knocking At My Door

l Mean Streets

Reliance BIG Home Video,Rs 499 each

Watching a maestro’s first film can sometimes be a trying affair. And sometimes it can be utterly fascinating,especially if that director is Martin Scorsese,who is still at it — making films which provoke and unsettle and profoundly engage us. Who’s That Knocking At My Door is no wolf at the door. It’s the real deal,rawness,awkward patches and all. Scorsese’s abiding twin themes — the religious and the erotic —which keep coming up for air in his films,are never more apparent than in his first,which started life when he was a student of film in the mid-60s.

The film stars Harvey Keitel as a young,confused Italian-American trying to find himself mostly by mooching around on the streets of New York. His relationship with a young woman reveals his weaknesses: the girl’s troubled past brings out in him not a sympathetic suitor but an unforgiving,unpleasant male. Who’s That Knocking At My Door has problems with pacing and structure,but there’s no denying its power which flows from the fact of its maker being completely at home with his subject. You know he has lived this life. Keitel,at some point,could have been Scorsese,or any of the friends that he (Scorsese) hung out with,in his own neighbourhood of Little Italy.

Mean Streets came a few years after this. It’s Scorsese’s first proper feature,and it stars Keitel again,as Italian-American mob aspirant Charlie. Which means that he has to impress his uncle,who is the big cheese in the hood,and whose opinion matters in every sphere of Charlie’s life. Whether it’s got to do with the self-destructive Johnny Boy,his dear friend,who owes big bucks to every loan shark there is,and who simply can’t hold down a job. Whether it’s got to do with his girlfriend,Johnny Boy’s cousin,who also happens to be epileptic. Neither Johnny Boy,the fellow who thinks nothing of tossing a lit cracker into a dustbin,waiting for it to go boom,nor his sister finds favour with the uncle,without whose approval Charlie will not lift a finger. Mean Streets is the kind of film you can never forget,because it is the truth. In the DVD’s special feature,Scorsese goes walkabout many years later with two of his old friends in several of the same locations that he shot Mean Streets,and talks of how the film came to life in the corners and in the hallways he had spent time as a young man.

It harks back to a time,says the director,“when if anything happened,it happened to us all. It was the genesis of my life till that point”. Keitel is very good in the film. Even better is Robert De Niro,who was talked into doing the film by Keitel: as a strutting,cocky hood who wants more than he has,and knows in his heart of hearts he will never get it,De Niro steals every scene.