The Scorsese-De Niro Oeuvre that began in Mean Streets


I thought I would bring together one of my favourite Directors, Martin Scorsese and actor, Robert De Niro to discuss the performance and collaboration between director and actor in a film.

Mean Streets (1973) represents the first of eight films (soon to be nine) that have become the Scorsese-De Niro oeuvre.

Scorsese and De Niro met through Brian De Palma, who is a college friend of Scorsese’s. De Palma directed Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987) and numerous other films. Scorsese and Di Nero both grew up in the same neighborhood and new of each other from mutual acquaintances. In many references to their relationship, both on and off the screen, they are said to share a dynamic connection with one another and are known as having a shorthand way of conversing, where with limited words, the other could interpret and complete the sentence.

Scorsese offered Di Nero any role in Mean Streets excluding that of the lead role that was given to Harvey Keitel. When Di Nero turned up for the auditions wearing a hat, Scorsese immediately knew that he should play the role of Johnny Boy. Di Nero wears that very same hat in the film.[1]

To fine-tune the role of Johnny Boy, Di Nero stayed in character even when he was not on set. De Niro appeared on the Michael Parkinson Show for an early publicity interview for the film and wouldn’t answer to any name but ‘Johnny Boy’. He also kept trying to borrow money from the host. This just shows his dedication to his profession.

Di Nero’s character Johnny Boy is a reckless, un-ambitious crook that goes around the neighborhood of Little Italy to the beat of his own drum…that only he can hear. He owes money to everyone with no honorable intention of paying it back.

After Johnny Boy makes his grand entrance into Tony’s bar. He is ushered into a back room by Charlie (Keitel) to discuss his debt to a small-time loan shark named Michael.

De Niro and Keitel’s confrontation scene that takes place in the backroom is the most significant in terms of De Niro’s performance and collaboration with Scorsese.

Check it out here if you aren’t familiar with it….

Firstly, the scene expresses the nature of the two characters and clearly defines the circumstances they are faced with. Keitel’s remains the patient listener, occasionally uttering a word or two to indicate his attention to the conversation and remains relatively still during the conversation. Keitel is calm, playing the mediator and from previous scenes when Keitel is in church, you immediately sense that this man is the Preacher and Johnny is the irresponsible disciple.

De Niro’s performance is effortless and natural. As Johnny Boy he is both charismatic and reckless.  He moves about constantly almost manic in comparison to Keitel. His arms and body vigorously move in rhythm to his words, alluring Keitel into his story. As he talks of a kid who interrupted his winning streak, De Niro playfully bites his fist in vexation. This mere action concretes his misfortune and in a way that lets us sympathize with him. It also assumes that Johnny Boy believes righteously that his gambling is justified because he was on a winning streak. In his own twisted way, Johnny Boy blames the kid for his financial troubles.


In a close analysis of his body language, De Niro’s constant shrugging of the shoulders implies a sign that he is trying to express a very committed statement. It reveals that the person doesn’t really have a strong opinion of what they are saying. It also suggests that the person does not believe wholeheartedly with what they are saying. Continual shrugging generally implies a lack of credibility.

De Niro also touches his nose briefly and he continually turns his head and body to the left of our view. This action indicates a sign that his character is fabricating the story. With his head and eyes looking down to our left implies that he is trying to remember a past feeling to support his story.

His actions show how committed and focused De Niro is during this scene.  As a spectator, you want to believe his story but his actions are telling you otherwise.

The most notable aspect of this scene is the comparison to the screenplay.[2] An online version of the screenplay has only four short lines of dialogue that cuts to a flashback of how Johnny Boy lost his money. When I transcribed the scene from the film, it ended up being five pages long in total.

I didn’t have the actually shooting script to compare it to, so I did a bit of research and came across the following text by Andrew Raush in his book titled, The Films of Scorsese and De Niro:

As a true collaborator, Scorsese would listen to their ideas about the characters, scenes, and dialogue. From this experimentation came a fully improvised conversation scene (the nonsensical “Joey Scala–Joey Clams” discussion) between Keitel and De Niro. This new scene, suggested by De Niro, was inspired by the comic banter of comedians Abbott and Costello.[3]

In relation to the same scene, Scorsese added the following….

When I shot it, it was about fifteen minutes long, hilarious, and clarified everything totally. It’s like the betrayals of trust, one character taking advantage of another.”[4]


The same improvised scene was the one that convinced Warner Bros, President John Calley to purchase the distribution rights to Mean Streets. [5]

In an interview, Scorsese was quoted to have said that Mean Streets was life as he knew it in Little Italy. The role of Charlie and Johnny Boy were based on his father and uncle. Interesting also is the name of the lead role, Charlie Cappa. Scorcese’s father’s middle name was Charles, and his mother’s maiden name was Cappa.[6] Possibly, the character of Charlie is the sentiment of a younger Scorsese.

With this in mind I’ve developed my own mantra from a screenwriting aspect: “Write what you know and direct how you saw it”

And finally to all the future directors out there, listen to your actors, as you’ll never know what they may bring to their performance.



[1] Dougan, A 1998, Martin Scorsese: Close Up: The Making of His Movies, Thunder    Mouth Press, New York, p.37.

[2] Screenplays For You, Mean Streets Movie Script.

[3] Raush, A 2010, The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert Di Nero, Scarecrow Press Inc, p. 8.

[4] Raush, A 2010, The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert Di Nero, p.8.

[5] Raush, A 2010, The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert Di Nero, p.11.

[6] Q&A with Martin Scorsese 2011, Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Mean Streets 1973, Movie, Warner Bros, Los Angeles. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Pease, A 2006, The Definitive Book of Body Language, Bantam Dell, New York.

Q&A with Martin Scorsese 2011, Film Society of Lincoln Center, viewed 12th October 2013.

The Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Films 2008, DVD, PPMedia & Stanford University. Directed by Oksana Bulgakowa.

Screenplays For You, Mean Streets Movie Script, viewed 12th October 2013.

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