Mean Streets & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Following the Ingmar Bergman double feature previously discussed, for this entry we'll stick with another combination of two movies, but this time with the theme of New York City in the 1970s.

From 1969's Best Picture winning (and at the time X rated) Midnight Cowboy, through films like The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), and including movies of the so-called Blaxploitation cycle like Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), the Big Apple was well represented in the 1970s, arguably one of the greatest decades for American cinema. And two films, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), starring Walter Matthau, are classic examples of the period's predilection for urban drama and depictions of unrefined authenticity.

The former, Scorsese's look at violence, religion, relationships, and redemption inside a group of the city's lower echelon hoods, and the latter, about a group of gunmen who hold a subway train and its passengers hostage, convey the best and worst of the city in the decade. There was the rough nature of the city streets, the grime and garbage, the insular, isolated melancholy of some of the inhabitants, and the vibe of the bustling conglomeration within the city's melting pot society. In addition, it being the 1970s, there was the distinctive clothing, the hair, the unique cars and language, the music, and the aesthetic of the cinematography, a gritty, unpolished realism that went as far away as possible from the Hollywood gloss of decades previous. There's no mistaking where and when these films were made.

Mean Streets, just Scorsese's third feature, after the student film Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1967) and the Roger Corman produced exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha (1972), not only heralded the emergence of one of America's best rising young filmmakers (this would be further certified with Taxi Driver three years later, itself another '70s New York essential), but it also brought further attention to two actors who would become among the world's greatest: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. In the role of Charlie, Scorsese's autobiographical stand-in, Keitel plays a man torn between his ambition, his love for a girl he cares for but tends to feel ambivalent about, and his obligations to his dangerously erratic friend Johnny Boy, played with gusto by De Niro. Throw in Charlie's Catholicism and all the guilt and sense of moral responsibility that that entails, and you have a film of immense power. Then add to it Scorsese's penchant for sudden, realistic violence, rock and roll music in just the right style played at just the right moment, as well as his keen sense of cinematic technique, and you have a masterpiece.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, on the other hand, is not so much a personal work of auteurist art (its director, Joseph Sargent, would mostly stick with television movies from here on out, many, however, widely acclaimed), but it is a prefect example of a tension filled, wonderfully constructed, and extremely entertaining thriller. It's just another day for Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York City Transit Police, when suddenly he is forced to deal with a group of armed criminals who have taken control of a subway car and threaten its entire board of passengers. Garber, played with delightful cynicism and weariness by Matthau, contends with the bureaucracy of city management while doing his everyday, working man's best to negotiate with the hijackers, attempting to determine how they intend to reach their ultimate desired outcome. The film was recently remade with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, but this original is by far the superior picture. You can count among its biggest admirers Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the color-coded nicknames of the villains in the film for his band of thieves in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Mean Streets will be released for the first time on Blu-ray July 17 and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three will air June 11 on Turner Classic Movies (set your DVRs though – it plays at 2 a.m. Arizona time). Taken together, these two New York City gems are shining examples of the type of superb movies made during the 1970s. They're imbued with a strong sense of naturalism and earnestness of emotion and character that was unique to this period of America cinema. The directness of their storytelling and the unadorned quality of the performances make them both touchstones of the era.


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