ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Many Universal monster aficionados reject the continuity of this film as being part of the official series of movies. A bit like me who rejects the non-Eon James Bond entries, but I really do think that this movie is worthy of inclusion to make this the last genuine Universal monster movie. The fact is that by the time this film was made the Universal horror film needed A&C as much as A&C needed the horror film. When The Wolf Man was released in 1941 A&C were establishing themselves as bankable stars for Universal. But by the end of the decade their star was waning. Also by this time Lon Chanel’s Wolf Man had already met Frankenstein’s monster, and then Dracula, the hunchback and Frankenstein in the House Of movies to diminishing returns. One of A&C’s most successful movies was Hold That Ghost (1941) so it was only natural that the studio thought that bringing together two waning franchises would be the next logical step.
The scriptwriters of Hold That Ghost would be tasked in creating a new film combining A&C and the monster team. The first draft was certainly more horror than comedy and the working title was The Brain Of Frankenstein. Lou Costello was critical of the script and changes were made to include more of the vaudeville side of things but even then Costello was not that happy and had to be cajoled into shooting some of the films iconic moments on the Monster’s lap and the Moving Candle routine which was pure A&C.
What makes this a standout movie is that A&C are on absolute top form and the fact that they are dropped into a straight Universal Monster setting is genius. The casting is superb, Lon Chaney Jr. as Talbot the Wolf Man gives a brilliant performance, his delivery of his plight is played with awesome sincerity, bemoaning his tortured existence and then Costello’s response is just one of the funniest things ever put to film, but not at Talbot’s expense, his reaction is a look of frozen terror, it’s a superb scene. And when the full moon does shine we are treated to a transformation by brilliant Jack Pierce make-up, coupled with Charles Barton’s sympathetic direction and Frank Skinner’s score this is horror at its best.
Glenn Strange plays the lumbering Monster as he had done in two previous films and this is possibly his best performance and there is genuine comic timing in his playful scenes with Costello. Karloff was offered the role but refused although he did do two later films with A&C in …Meet The Killer and Meet Jekyll & Hyde. Lon Chaney Jr. had played the Monster in The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942) and due to an injury to Strange he played a scene in this film as well towards the end of the movie and the destruction of the laboratory, where Chaney’s version is more fluid against Strange’s more stiff-armed-and-legs version.
Bela Lugosi had also played the Monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (I hope you’re all paying attention, and if I’ve got anything wrong, then Barbel will correct me) and hunchback Igor in Son Of Frankenstein and Ghost Of Frankenstein where his brain ends up in the body of the Monster. Anyway, Lugosi’s signature role would always be Dracula (Lon Chaney would play Dracula in Son Of Dracula) and his agent begged and implored Universal to give him another shot at the role after being reduced to working on Monogram’s poverty row horrors. Universal agreed and this completes the films masterful casting. Lugosi plays Dracula like never before, outshining the original version.
Anyway, to the plot. Dracula requires a “simple” brain to reactivate Frankenstein’s Monster and Lou Costello looks like the perfect fit! You don’t really need to know much more.
A&C are never better than in this movie, (if only Morecambe and Wise could have had a vehicle like this to star in and we could have seen their genius on film, instead of the laboured productions we got to see) , it’s not a parody of Universal Horror, it’s a love letter.
You know the show "Desert Island Discs"? Well, if I'm allowed films on my list, that's one of them. Love that movie. Thanks CHB, and yes I agree re Morecambe and Wise.
Edit- without spoiling it, yes I know the line you mean and it's hilarious.
Thanks @Napoleon Plural for bringing Hamlet at Elsinore to attention. I had to record it, although I don't know if I will review it.
ROOSTER COGBURN (1975)
The 1970s saw John Wayne’s career on the wane [pardon the pun] with a few too many insipid westerns and a couple of cops and robber hard boilers which didn’t seem to suit him. This nostalgic western mash-up teams him for the first time ever with Katharine Hepburn, an actress who found fame the same time he did and endured in a similar fashion. Curious fact: both actors were born in May 1907.
Rooster Cogburn retreads two famous movies, Hepburn’s The African Queen and Wayne’s recent Oscar winning turn of True Grit. The Duke revisits the one-eyed US Marshal Reuban J. Cogburn and has fun playing off another cantankerous old bird as Hepburn relives one of her finest hours, for her preacher’s daughter Eula is clearly inspired by C.S. Forester’s Rose Sayer. The script isn’t up to much but gives the two stars enough time to shine and both look to be enjoying themselves immensely. The film is a little placid – even the climax on river rapids doesn’t quite get going – but the scenery is gorgeous and you can’t fault a couple of old stagers when they deliver performances as good as this.
This was the final film made by famous producer Hal B. Wallis. His wife, Martha Heyer, wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym. John Wayne would reinterpret the basic character of Rooster for his final, career defining film role in The Shootist.
You'll be hard pressed to find a more entertaining 'classic Universal Monsters' movie than this one. It has one of the highest 'hit ratios' on jokes (I'd guess around 90%) for any of the Abbott and Costello films, and the monsters themselves are all used extremely well. It helps that Lugosi and Chaney came back to reprise their roles. Great fun.
Glad to see that A&C Meet Frankenstein is so popular!
I’m enjoying your John Wayne reviews @chrisno1 he is in my top 10 favourite actors list.
CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (1971)
Hammer managed to get another prehistoric movie out after One Million Years B.C. (1966) Slave Girls (1967) and Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970). This would be the last one and it’s probably best it was left at a quartet, to be honest. There are no dinosaurs in this one, which at least makes it historically accurate in that sense, but I’m sure that they didn’t have the likes of sexy Julie Ege in an animal-skin bikini either, and she gives predecessor’s Raquel, Martine and Victoria a decent run for their money. There’s not even an attempt at dialogue, just a lot of grunting and screaming and gesticulation as the thin plot is reminiscent of One Million with brothers fighting over women and leadership. Director Don Chaffey and photographer Vincent Cox make the most of the South African scenery, it’s stunning and the best thing in the movie… ok, ok, it’s the best thing after Julie and her bikini…but I do miss the dinosaurs.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962)
Hammer do pirates! The usual Hammer cast (Chris Lee, Andrew Keir, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper) plus a couple of imported Americans (Kerwin Matthews, Glenn Corbett) and the usual Hammer crew (Jimmy Sangster, John Gilling) in a plot involving pirates (of course), hidden gold, piranhas, a wrongfully accused young man on the run from the penal colony to which he had been sent, and some dodgy French accents- they're supposed to be Huguenots. What it doesn't involve is much time onboard a ship, period pirate ships being expensive.
Very nicely put together and feels like a bigger production than Hammer usually managed. Nice to see Sir Christopher doing some sword fighting, years before the Musketeers and decades before "Star Wars". You can spot Desmond Llewellyn in a small part if you pay attention, 007, and Bob Simmons did some of the stunts.
Norman J Warren made a handful of low budget horror/sci-fi movies that are gradually gaining cult status on the fan circuit. This one rips-off Alien and in my view is a damn sight better than the exalted and overrated so-called “classic”.
A group of explorers are exploring caves on some faraway planet when a bug-eyed creature rapes lovely crew member Judy Geeson who then goes into full-on crazy mode and wipes out the rest of the crew one by one. Judy then gives birth to an alien creature in gory scenes. Great sets and photography make this look a lot more lush than the given low budget. Location filming was in Chislehurst Caves and good use is made of it. The vastly underrated Judy Geeson gives a great performance here, as she does in all her work, and Stephanie Beacham and Victoria Tennant also turn in good acts. John Scott’s score is commendable.
Maybe it has just a bit too many clichés for it’s own good, but this is a very enjoyable monster movie, it’s a great fun, but a strong stomach is required for the birthing scene.
QUATERMASS 2 (1957)
Crikey, this was frantic.
Bran Donlevy resurrects his movie role as Professor Bernard Quatermass, the brilliant science brain behind the British Space Program. There’s trouble at the mill. Quatermass is almost involved in a serious car accident with a young couple speeding to hospital. The man has an unsightly blister on his face and is going into seizure. Meanwhile, the space monitoring service has been picking up several meteorite showers which seem to focus on Winnerden Flats – a ghost town close to the location the young couple had earlier chosen for a picnic. Within minutes of the start of this movie, we are dropped straight into an outer space conundrum and pitched into an alarming series of tension wracked scenes whose pace and activity barely let up for the film’s entire runtime. The early plot threads hint at a government level cover up, before Quatermass infiltrates an enormous synthetic food processing installation at Winnerden Flats and realises there is something altogether more sinister and other worldly occurring within its majestic biospheres.
With a script substantially reduced from its original three hour, six episode television format, there is precious little time to develop any character nuances or do more than hint at the latent alien evil which resides at the research facility. Director and co-writer Val Guest is more concerned with propelling the story from A – Z with the minimum of fuss and the maximum impact. Not a lot of shocks for a Hammer production, Q2 works best as a full blown science fiction movie. I had never viewed this film before and only been vaguely aware of the plot, so as something of minor Dr Who afficionado, it was interesting to see how closely the narrative, the alien creature and its disciples were reinterpreted [read: copied] for the opening Jon Pertwee classic Spearhead from Space, with Dr Who’s Nestene Consciousness replacing the unnamed alien lifeform in Q2. It is also worth noting how closely the giant alien climax matches that of The Seeds of Doom, which was itself partly inspired by The Quatermass Experiment. Nigel Kneale, who wrote an initial first draft of the screenplay, is certainly owed a debt by some Who writers.
The movie has a ton of exciting stuff going on, but is over reliant of Donlevy’s brutally tetchy Quatermass. If I am being totally honest, the film needs to slow down occasionally, offering perhaps another ten minutes to explain plot strands and build the story adequately. Despite this failing, I found much to enjoy here. For some reason I thought this would be in colour, but the black and white photography from Gerald Gibbs lends a shifting, sinister air to the proceedings, especially when Quatermass infiltrates the government facility, the drone captives feeding meteorite carcasses to the gigantic alien creature pulsating inside an ammonia-filled biosphere.
Once again, the ending is open ended.
I wondered if this movie was the first to use the legend ‘II’ or ‘2’ after it to indicate a sequel, something very commonplace these days. I looked it up and apparently it isn’t. That distinction goes to something called Sanshiro Sugata Part II, an Akira Kurasawa film from 1945, but close examination suggests this title only works in translation as the original Japanese would have read Sanshiro Sugata Zoku, or ‘sequel’. So, perhaps Hammer do have the honour, certainly in English language cinema.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)
Richard Connell’s 1924 story has been called “the most popular short story ever written in English.” And indeed, the premise of the story has been utilised in a far ranging selection of movies under different titles, countless times. But the best is still this early release which uses some of the sets used in King Kong (1933). Kong filmed by day and Game filmed by night, it certainly makes good use of expensive sets. It’s a pacy adventure, highly atmospheric and at just a few minutes over an hour running time it doesn’t waste a second in telling the story. On a misty island the mad Count Zaroff hunts shipwreck victims who wash up on the shores. One such shipwreck deposits Joel McCrae and King Kong stars Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, who are at first welcomed but are then runnng for their lives as the Count and his hounds pursue them.
Leslie Banks is excellent in a career high performance as the evil, leering Count and is strangely similar to how Bela Lugosi was in Dracula in the opening scenes. Lugosi (and Christopher Lee in the Hammer original) were suave hosts in welcoming their prey before their motives become apparent. Maybe even Ian Fleming saw this film and thought of Dr. No? McCrae makes for an appealing hero and Fay Wray is as lovely as ever.
A masterpiece of efficiency, some of today’s bloated movies could learn a thing or two about pacing from watching this.
It's certainly always been my impression that this is the first sequel to have "2" (or "II") after the name and in this it of course follows the TV version.
Kneale was very unimpressed with "Dr Who" steali....er, paying homage to.... no, I was right the first time. He didn't like the later programme outright stealing his ideas which happened more than once
The TV version had an extended climax in outer space, which was beyond the technical ability of the BBC at that point and was wisely dropped from the film (though probably for budgetary reasons rather than technical, Hammer being their usual selves).
Try watching the TV version if you have 3 hours to spare to compare the two.
For once I disagree. I know this film has an excellent reputation but it has never "clicked" for me., and I've tried more than once.
I love The Most Dangerous Game ! I consider it to be a first rate actioner and a 'classic' of its era. As @CoolHandBond says, modern filmmakers could learn a lot about character formation, pacing and tension by watching this film. Most action movies [most movies?] these days could be 25% shorter if they cut down the long winded violence and unnecessary social interaction scenes.
We can’t agree on everything @Barbel 😁
And it’s nice to agree on something with you sometimes @chrisno1 😁
At first I thought that my lack of appreciation for "The Most Dangerous Game" was because there's nothing supernatural going on, but the same can be said about the contemporary "The Old Dark House", "The Black Cat" and others and I love those. Oh well, it'd be a funny world if we all liked the same things!
Wikipedia relates that some wags at The Daily Telegraph had this movie rated as the third greatest British film ever made. I don’t know who Tim Robey and Robbie Collin are, and I couldn’t check the list as I would have had to sign up for a free trial and The Telegraph isn’t getting any personal details from me, but they need to steady their pens before making assertions such as that. However, a glance at the search entry on Google has The Private Life of Henry VIII at number one and The 39 Steps at number two, so I am thinking this is a list in date order, not a critically assessed list. Even so, I wouldn’t put Sabotage in a top 100, although Time Out’s 2017 survey placed it at no.44.
Alfred Hitchcock claimed his greatest mistake on this movie was to let the bomb explode. He may be right.
The film’s major drawback though is the flimsiness of the plot and the complete lack of any menace from the bumbling cinema proprietor who is in league with a bunch of European terrorists. It isn’t clear who this group represents. A minor player seems to be invoking an Irish accent. Oscar Homolka, who plays the central role, has a distinctly German accent. So who is to say who is responsible?
The film meanders along quite well and has flashes of cinematic interest, but despite historians of cinema history lauding it, I simply wasn’t engaged enough. The suspense is half-baked at best. Homolka barely passes muster as an engaging villain, veering from benign to angry to befuddled. Sylvia Sydney’s heroine is a wet blanket. The ‘hero’ – a Scotland Yard police inspector – is openly plotting to commit adultery with her, so he isn’t exactly an angel. The young lad who plays the son gives probably the best performance in the movie.
So, okay, the tense scenes leading up to the bomb’s detonation have a frisson of excitement, but even that is overwrought. The movie is ponderous at best and simply doesn’t ignite often enough to be of more than passing interest. Hitchcock had already made one classic [The 39 Steps] and would go on to make many far better films than this. I also believe there are ninety-nine other British movies which are better too.
Ninety-nine? Our expectations were considerably higher, chrisno1.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Caught this one on Channel 4 last night, it passed me by in the cinemas because, well, it was yet another Terminator film and you sort of think, okay, so if you can change the future and still the bad old apocalypse comes to pass, what gives? This is referenced by Linda Hamilton at one point - 'Something came to kill me from a future that doesn't actually happen' or some such line, I let it go because the movie is so much fun, the opening half hour is a blast of terrific action and it took me a while to realise that really the whole thing is Terminator 2 all over again, it's pretty much the same plot, with the fun guessing game of wondering who is the good Terminator and who is the bad. Also, though Hamilton and Arnie are top billed, they're not really the stars. The protagonists are Mexican which is a twist that briefly distracts attention, like having Roger Moore in a Bond film largely going through the same motions as many a Connery film.
That said, it is interesting to have the three heroes as women, and it takes a while to realise this. Not one of them, unlike in other action films, is just there as designated eye candy or to service the male exposition.
At some point this movie becomes just fun popcorn Saturday night fun. It doesn't quite make sense. Arnie shows up - but he looks as old as the actor. As he's a machine, how can that happen? It might get a bit of rust but it's not going to put on weight is it? I have an old VCR in the bottom of my wardrobe I don't now what to do with, it looks pretty much the same. It's like the actor playing the hologram Rimmer in recent editions of Red Dwarf - how come he looks inches 50s if he's a hologram?
The film almost seems to riff on the old-style Bond films, as it becomes clear the Terminator is really just Jaws, who is knocked off his stride in a chase but quickly regroups and comes at you again. It also moves into Die Another Day territory with a final reel where they all get on a big aeroplane which leads to CGI aerial fire and similar stuff. The new Terminator has a creepy eco-skeleton (is that the term) which is freaky, that said, as ever, it might be a help if the shape shifter learned not to always resort to the same physical identity it initially adopts, thus making it easier to spot from a mile off. Admittedly, it would then dramatically suffer. Also, the characters just wouldn't survive the physical jeopardy they're placed in, another Die Another Day trait and the sort of thing modern action films looking to compete with Marvel suffer from.
You just know that going on imdb they're going to rip this apart - it has a low rating - but I found it fun.
MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)
This was Lon Chaney Jr’s first foray into the horror genre which led him to starring roles in The Wolf Man and Ghost Of Frankenstein. Lon plays a lovable sideshow performer whose act involves fantastic displays of wizardry. During a storm the carnival bus crashes into an electrical pole and finds that afterwards he has immunity to electricity. Mad scientist Lionel Atwill learns of this and turns Lon into a zombie who does his bidding, namely killing Atwill’s enemies. Lon is captured and sentenced to the electric chair which energises him so he literally glows and he seeks his own revenge. Cheaply budgeted, but nicely made, this is an enjoyable fast paced horror with good performances from both leads.
Its been a long time since I first saw this, and I’d forgotten a lot about it, but it’s well worth a look for horror aficionados.
RIO LOBO (1970)
I intended to watch The Alamo (1960), but I missed the opening few minutes and, already disgruntled, ITV4 annoyed me by chucking in an ad break after twelve minutes, so I bade my farewell and watched this later period John Wayne western instead.
Rio Lobo is the last film directed by the great Howard Hawks and is a vague reworking of a format he’d already used to great success twice in Rio Bravo and El Dorado, that of the hero holed up in a sheriff’s office fighting off a nasty gang of local gun hands out to rescue their imprisoned leader. Rio Lobo starts off with an exciting Civil War train robbery, but it’s downhill from there and the movie becomes pedestrian and everybody is going through the motions with more than a little wink at the camera. I am fairly certain Wayne has been costumed into the same outfit he wore in Rio Bravo, but I’m too lazy to check the online images.
The ‘them-against-us’ situation doesn’t kick in until the final quarter of the film. Mostly it is run of the mill fayre, with the occasional nod to modern mores – for instance, there are three attractive ballsy young women involved in smoking out the bad guys, Jennifer O’Neill among them, and a plethora of jokes about gender stereotypes. It isn’t very funny and it isn’t very tense. The script and story don’t seem to cling together. It feels way too complicated and long winded for such a basic tale of revenge. Wayne isn’t given decent support either. Former Tarzan Mike Henry plays the villainous sheriff and that’s about as good as it gets. Decent music and photography. The star sleepwalks his way through the film as if he’s seen and done it all before – well, he did, in Rio Bravo and El Dorado.
A money loser on release and a disappointing end to a fine directing career for Hawks. Not one of John Wayne’s best by a long chalk, but when this movie came out he’d taken top billing in something like ninety movies over thirty years, most of them successful and several being stand out classics, so I think we can forgive him the occasional lapse.
ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)
This was one of those highly anticipated movies that ended up being a major disappointment. I hated it when I first saw it upon release but it’s cropped up on my streaming service so I thought maybe another view was merited after so long.
Its basically the same setup where Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is offered a deal by the government to head to a L.A. prison (now separated from the mainland by an earthquake) to enact another rescue mission. Even for 1996 the CGI effects are dreadful but the movie is saved a little by the cast. Russell is having a great time resurrecting his role and back up roles played by Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Bruce Campbell and Pam Grier are all pretty good, unfortunately the villain played by George Corraface is a big letdown and the movie suffers from this. Director John Carpenter was on the slide for quite some time before this and it could have been a way back for him but, alas, it was not to be.
So, slightly better than I remembered but still way below par from what it should have been. I won’t be revisiting it again, that’s for sure.
The Stranglers Of Bombay (1959)
Unusually for Hammer, this b&w (easier to hide that it was shot nowhere near Bombay) UK film has criticism of colonial, racial, and class attitudes woven in to the story. Probably that's because of the writer, David Zelig Goodman, here doing his only AFAIK work for Hammer. I don't know what else he wrote apart from the 1975 "Farewell My Lovely" which is excellent though all he had to do there was stick closely to the novel for a good result
It's set back when the Brits are ruling India. Tensions abound, though the rulers are blind to most of them apart from our hero, Lewis, whose views are disregarded by his superior who gives a job which clearly should go to Lewis to the son of an old school chum. That part is played by Allan Cuthbertson, so good at playing snobbish but useless types ("Guns Of Navarone" is a good example) often but not always in the armed forces.
A few Bond alumni - Marne Maitland, George Pastell, and Paul Stassino who I don't recall seeing in many films other than TB.
If memory serves, Carpenter had his post-production time cut in half. This had an effect on his final edit of the film and on the quality (or lack thereof) on the special effects.
Even with the above excuses, nothing changes the fact that the tone of the film is just wrong. It plays as a satire of the first film and it never quite nails the right tone. The only thing the film really gets right is the ending. As bad as the film is, it ends on a really strong scene.
@Barbel all those actors you mention crop up in ITC shows: The Saint, The Persuaders, etc. They must have made a decent living out of the post war UK film and television industry playing little and often.
Fred Williamson and two other workmates form a vigilante group to chase the muggers, dealers and pimps out of their New York neighbourhood, when the police seem to be unwilling to do so. A fourth friend played by Robert Forster declines an invitation to join them. When Forster’s wife is raped by a gang and his son shot dead and the perpetrators receive a suspended sentence by a corrupt judge, Forster is jailed for 30 days for contempt of court, when he verbally slates the judge. Upon release he joins up with his pals and they go in full revenge mode against the gang and the corrupt judge.
Director William Lustig had worked as an apprentice editor on Michael Winners Death Wish (1974) so was well versed in this type of story, he had previously directed the blood splattered Maniac in 1980. This is a more polished entry than Maniac and he gets a terrific performance out of Fred Williamson and Joe Spinell (who played the Maniac). A heavily censored version was released on video back in the day but this version I saw is uncut and it ticks all the right boxes in exploitative cinema.
Just poor phrasing on my part, @chrisno1. I meant only that I don't recall seeing Paul Stassino in other films.
MY OLD LADY (2014)
American writer-director-actor Israel Horovitz bit off more than he could chew adapting his own play for the big screen. It needs a less concentrated eye. Kevin Kline is an American in Paris who inherits a large viager apartment from his father. Unaware of the French property system he is surprised to discover ancient Maggie Smith, and her less ancient daughter Kristen Scott Thomas, are permanent residents and that he owes them rent until she dies. The system allows property to be bought and sold at well below the market price on the assumption a property might be inherited quickly from an older tenant. It doesn’t always work in the buyer’s favour. As Kline struggles with the French property system, a flashy developer offers him a small fortune to buy the flat and start the beginnings of a bijou hotel. There are historical relationships to unfurl and familial complications to resolve and Kline, an ex-alcoholic, returns to the bottle for stress relief.
The story proceeds amicably enough and there are some decent moments of drama when dealing with those difficult family revelations, but the movie doesn’t quite succeed, especially surrounding the romance, which felt unlikely, and the alcoholism which is an unnecessary distraction. Maggie Smith had made this sort of dowager role her own ever since A Room With A View and she isn’t doing anything here we haven’t seen before. Despite some good phrases [“A flower is at its most beautiful when it’s nearly old” was an exceptional one] there isn’t much going on here, even Paris seems remarkably empty. A pleasant enough ninety minutes, that’s all.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER (2023)
This movie covers the chapter from Bram Stoker's DRACULA surrounding the voyage of Dracula from Transylvania to England. The movie fleshes out (pun intended) the details of the voyage, showing the crew dealing with the presence of a creature on the ship that is feeding on them.
This is a very good movie. It's not particularly scary but it oozes atmosphere. The production design is 100% convincing (the ship itself feels extremely real and functions as a character in and of itself) and the acting is top notch from everyone. I appreciated the fact that everyone on the crew is presented as being intelligent...once things get going and they start to figure out what's going on, nobody acts like an idiot just to move the plot from point A to point B.
Well scripted, acted, and directed. A quality piece of work.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
This abomination of a film launched the careers of director Martin Scorsese and his two main actors Harvey Keitel and Robert de Niro. It is an unpleasant, unforgiving, unsubtle pile drive through the ugly unromantic avenues of New York’s Little Italy, a place populated by ignorant numbskulls, violent disorder and benign Mafia Dons who smoke cigars in dilapidated restaurants. I don’t expect swanky boudoirs when watching realist cinema, but I would like a semblance of a story and at least one character whose redeeming features I can cling onto. There is nothing here. The world of Scorsese’s Mean Streets is dirty, menaced, dark and decaying. You can almost smell the mouldy garbage eking off the celluloid it is so unpleasant.
Basically Charlie [Keitel] is a low level enforcer collecting debts for his uncle. His best friend is a borderline psycho, the illiterate Johnny [Robert de Niro]. Just so we know Johnny is going to be the root of all trouble, he’s referred to as ‘Johnny Boy’, as if he’s still a kid and being treated with kid gloves. He isn’t. He’s volatile, unreliable and horrid. Apparently he is married, but we never see his family. Keitel is secretly having sex with Johnny’s cousin Teresa [Amy Robinson] who is epileptic. That isn’t relevant other than it seems to prevent her leaving home because the traditionalist Italian fathers think she’s mentally ill. They should take a closer look at Johnny Boy. Johnny is in debt to Michael [Richard Romanus] and Charlie keeps minding his back. Everyone meets in Tony’s [David Proval] crappy basement clip bar where the strippers barely move and the door closes when the last customer leaves. Charlie thinks he is on the up, but Johnny keeps dragging him down.
The bits and pieces narrative is constantly interrupted by bouts of fighting, swearing and arguing. It is hopelessly, upsettingly violent. West Side Story this ain’t. No discussion can be had without profanity, fist shaking, pistol shooting, raised voices and copious drinking. Only the older generations understand business and debt. They discuss situations cooly, detached and with a calm demeanour that reinforces their position. These guys are at the bottom of the ladder, scrabbling to get out of the mud, only Scorsese allows them no redemption: they stay stuck in the cesspit and so do we from the opening sweat stained close up of Keitel’s waking face to the final aerial snake along the freeway out of there, an escape route going nowhere. As Teresa says to Charlie while he and Johnny desperately try to flee Michael's vengeance: “Do you know where you’re going?” No, of course he doesn’t, this confused little boy is playing a big man’s game and he is lost and abandoned on the checker’s board, his career suddenly curtailed by a loose chip. The closing montage tries to tell us life goes on, but we are so worn out by the incessant bullying of each other by all the characters and the unpausing camera work, which judders, jars, slows down and goes out of focus with erratic abandon, we just don’t give a stiff.
Scorsese made some great movies. Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino are outstanding character studies, with good camera work, incisive editing and screenplays which develop people and the narrative to help us believe and take sides with the individuals on the screen. Mean Streets is absent of all of that brio. Much of it feels improvised and out of control and has no more impact than a loosely coddled together trawl through adolescent recollections and contemporary newspaper cuttings. Critics highlight scenes and performances in this movie as signposts to greater things. That in itself does not make Mean Streets a good film. Even the pop music soundtrack is a befuddling list of choices which make no artistic sense; I have a feeling they are being used ironically, but I can’t be sure because half the time I didn’t care. I certainly wasn’t laughing.
I first saw this film thirty years ago and thought it was a mess and my opinion has not changed, in fact it has worsened. Towards the end, Scorsese chucks in a clip of The Tomb of Ligia and I couldn’t help thinking how more involving and genuine the characters are in Roger Corman’s cheapie horror flick compared to the heartless quartet of losers in this one.
A quite dreadful piece of filmmaking which ought not to be revered as it is. Please check out Raging Bull if you want to understand how to make monstrous characters sympathetic. This film is merely monstrous in all the worst ways.