Martin Scorsese emerged as a generation-defining filmmaker with this gritty portrait of 1970s New York City, one of the most influential works of American independent cinema. Set in the insular Little Italy neighborhood of Scorsese’s youth, Mean Streets follows guilt-ridden small-time ringleader Charlie (Harvey Keitel) as he deals with the debts owed by his dangerously volatile best pal, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and pressure from his headstrong girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson). As their intertwined lives spiral out of control, Scorsese showcases his precocious mastery of film style—evident in everything from his propulsive editing rhythms to the lovingly curated soundtrack—to create an electrifying vision of sin and redemption.
Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets receives a brand new 4K restoration and comes to 4K UHD through The Criterion Collection, presented in Dolby Vision on a triple-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. A 1080p presentation of the film can be found on the included dual-layer Blu-ray disc alongside this release’s special features. The new restoration was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
While I know there is already controversy around one aspect of this new restoration (which I will get into), I’ll say right out of the gate that I was thrilled with this presentation. It’s a gritty-looking film with many nighttime exterior sequences and low-lit interiors, so there will always be limitations due to that. However, I was still surprised by how much of an improvement this new restoration and digital presentation afforded. Though dark, the exterior nighttime sequences were easier to see, delivering cleaner shadow delineation and deeper blacks. The bar interiors, consisting of a heavy red light layered over everything (and a red gel over the lens, according to cinematographer Kent Wakeford in an included interview), also look significantly better with a broader range and more detail than before. I was even impressed with how cleanly encoded these sequences looked. I expected some evident noise and artifacts since Criterion’s encodes usually have issues with reds and blacks mixing. But nope, it’s cleanly rendered with a nice-looking level of grain and smooth gradations. To say I was surprised would be an understatement.
Dolby Vision and HDR almost certainly help in a lot of this area, aiding in pulling out those details in the shadows, yet even then, the base presentation still looks clean. Highlights and some of the hotter-looking regions of the screen (like bare lightbulbs) look excellent as well, with grain still evident. A couple of Criterion’s recent 4Ks (Walkabout and, to a far less significant degree, Don’t Look Now) had issues with brighter areas where it was being opted to wipe away finer details if there weren’t that many to begin with. Happily, I saw no evidence of that here.
Now, the one issue that has already come up online is the film’s colors, which, compared to the previous Warner Blu-ray, lean more towards a yellow-green hue here. Though noticeable, I think the concern and rage around it is overblown. This is not some Ritrovata-level piss-stain look and features more nuance than anything they’ve ever done. I’d even say the look isn’t that far of a leap from how the special edition DVD appeared. The DVD still had the whites balanced out, but you can see the yellow-green look there, and this presentation ends up just pushing that a bit more. It’s also not a blanket grading, as some scenes don’t feature as heavy a look (a few exterior shots, the extended backroom sequence between Keitel and De Niro), with others featuring a heavier green tint (some apartment hallways and restaurants). Nighttime sequences can have a bit of a green look, but that’s pretty common from the era and, again, doesn’t look all that different from the DVD. The look hasn’t impacted black levels, and blues still pop up. I know there will still be heated debates around it. Still, I ultimately thought the colors looked fine, and the presentation overall is excellent, delivering a marked improvement over the previous Warner editions.
(The SDR screen grabs are taken directly from the source disc. They have been converted from PNG files and converted to JPG files. While they should provide a general idea of quality, they should not be considered reference quality.)
The film’s soundtrack also comes out sounding a bit better. Presented in lossless single-channel PCM, the monaural presentation shows a surprising range level, especially in the music. Some of the narration can be muffled (I’ve always found that true), but the dialogue is otherwise sharp and clear. No heavy damage is present, and it doesn’t sound like much—if any—filtering has been applied.
Criterion packs on some great material, though sadly, they haven’t produced much in the way of new content. They first port over the select-scene audio commentary featuring Scorsese and actor Amy Robinson, recorded for Warner’s special edition DVD. As it was on the DVD, it is presented as a separate feature and has edited the film to about 77 minutes to eliminate all dead space (since it’s not an alternate audio track, it has not been included on the 4K disc). Robinson pops up here and there, more after her character makes her first appearance, and she explains how she came to be cast in the film (right place, right time) and what it was like shooting what was an incredibly independent and personal film for Scorsese. Scorsese takes up the bulk of the runtime and ends up placing a heavy focus on his early career, from doing work for Roger Corman to Boxcar Bertha (a film Scorsese says most of his peers hated, though Robinson states here that she liked it) to the long path in getting this film made, on which he refused to make any concessions (Corman was interested but wanted to change it to a Blaxploitation film). He even brings up his very short stint on The Honeymoon Killers.
That’s all fascinating, but my favorite moments were when the director talked about how he tried out things here that he had wanted to do in his previous films but lacked the resources. Some of this concerns the camera work, but most comes down to music choices. He always wanted to make the music soundtrack a significant part of his films but was limited due to the costs of licensing songs (for example, he had wanted to use Rolling Stones music in earlier films). With this film, he could throw in the songs he wanted to enhance a scene, which would become a staple of his movies. There’s also plenty of conversation about filmmaking around this period, Scorsese bringing up Coppola and Cassavetes (the latter of whom sounded to be a mentor for Scorsese). It’s an excellent track, very much worth listening to if you’re interested in hearing Scorsese talk about this period of his career. It’s incredibly in-depth and entertaining.
Also ported over from the previous Warner releases is the film’s trailer and a 7-minute 1973 featurette entitled Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block. It's not terribly insightful, but it’s a cute promotional piece about the making of the film, highlighting how it takes place in the neighborhood Scorsese grew up in and is based on his experiences. It even has him visiting his mom.
It pushes the film’s setting and suggests that it was shot right there on the streets of New York, but this isn’t entirely true: outside of most of the film’s exteriors, much of the film was shot primarily in Los Angeles. This is brought up in the commentary but ends up being a prominent topic in a 2011 interview with cinematographer Kent Wakeford, who is still amused when he hears that the film looks like one of the most “New York ones” ever made. On top of this, he also talks about doing handheld camera work and being ready to move with the action (like the pool hall fight scene) and explains the look and feel Scorsese wanted, which was “nervous and edgy.” Amusingly, he didn’t think much of De Niro and Keitel initially, thinking Scorsese just pulled a couple of “punks” off of the street. That would change when he would run across them out of character, only to be stunned at how unlike the characters they were. It was then that he realized what incredible actors they were. The interview is about 19 minutes and was initially recorded for the French Blu-ray. It makes for another solid inclusion here.
Criterion next includes 9 minutes’ worth of excerpts from the 2008 documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood, pulling two sections about Scorsese’s collaborations with Mardik, ranging from his early shorts up through Mean Streets. Also included are 30 minutes’ worth of excerpts from a Q&A following a 2011 film screening for the Director’s Guild of America, featuring Scorsese and director Richard Linklater, the latter of whom you can tell is excited to have been asked to be there. Linklater first talks about how the film impacted him, mostly being struck by what he calls the “hang out” attitude of it, and gets into what an influence it has been on films since. From there, Scorsese talks about its history, real-life events that influenced the plotlines to some degree (most of which is also covered in the commentary), and what it was like making films during that period. He also shares some fun facts, like how he was up to do the “voice” of R2D2 (and he’s being sincere). It’s yet another fun and engaging conversation with Scorsese.
Finally, Criterion includes one newly produced feature, a 29-minute video essay by Imogen Sara Smith entitled A Body Among Other Bodies. It’s an incredibly insightful piece, Smith focusing on the film’s look, feel, representation of its characters, use of music (and movie references), and the performances of its two leads, and how the film as a whole makes a lasting impact compared to films that came before. She even brings up films and sequences that possibly influenced Scorsese, including I Vitelloni and how it introduces its characters. Smith talks over movie clips, and it feels a bit like an audio commentary. It’s still a crime that Criterion has yet to commission her to do one, but her essay here is a beautifully assembled piece and probably the most substantial addition here.
Lucy Sante then provides an essay in the included insert, digging into the film's impact on moviemaking, especially with soundtracks. Considering the film's stature, it’s a little surprising that Criterion didn’t produce much else, but what’s here is still engaging and a breeze to get through.
Features are open to improvement, but the new 4K presentation looks exceptional.