Harvey Keitel as Charlie Cappa, conflicted Mafia associate
New York, Fall 1972
Film: Mean Streets
Release Date: October 14, 1973
Director: Martin Scorsese
Wardrobe Credit: Norman Salling
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. The rest is bullshit and you know it.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough film that premiered today in 1972 during the New York Film Festival, twelve days before it was widely released.
Though arguably the first of his movies to include many of his now-familiar themes and techniques, Mean Streets was actually Scorsese’s third film, following his debut Who’s That Knocking On My Door? (1967) and Boxcar Bertha (1972), the latter one of the low-budget Depression-era crime flicks produced by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures in the wake of the successful Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Following John Cassavetes’ encouragement to “write what you know” and incorporate more of his own experiences onto the screen, Scorsese reintroduced himself to the world with the remarkable Mean Streets—essentially his own retelling of I Vitelloni (1953) set among the mobbed-up mooks in Little Italy—viewed through the same unapologetically gritty lens that Scorsese would return to three years later in Taxi Driver (1976).
Unlike the then-recent hit The Godfather (1972), Mean Streets focused not on the dons leading these crime families but rather the street-level hoods whose lives are defined by small-time scores, gambling debts, and long nights. Reuniting with Scorsese after appearing in his directorial debut, Harvey Keitel stars as Mean Streets‘ ostensible protagonist Charlie Cappa. Charlie works for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), an old-fashioned “mustache Pete” who doesn’t approve of Charlie’s cronies—specifically the reckless “Johnny Boy” Crivello (Robert De Niro) and Johnny’s epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), with whom Charlie is engaged in a secret affair.
As the screenplay Scorsese co-wrote with Mardik Martin describes:
CHARLES CAPPA JR. (CHARLIE) is 25 of Sicilain origin. He was educated in Roman Catholic Parochial schools with one year and a half at a Jesuit college. CHARLIE was raised sternly in the Roman Catholic tradition but now has rejected many of the religion’s tenets. He is very intelligent and has a sharp sense of humor. He is always well dressed. His favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, and Theodore Dreiser. He likes reading but enjoys films more. He is very fond of the New Testament and often exchanges quotes from it with his friend TONY.
In what would become a true Scorsese tradition, Charlie wrestles with his Catholicism throughout the proceedings, established when we meet him leaving a confessional booth in church at the start of the movie and ultimately resolves to atone for his sins by watching over Johnny, even as the latter antagonizes the connected loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus) whose patience with the impetuous Johnny wears increasingly thin.
Scorsese’s trademarks of religious guilt, masculinity and mob stories, innovative editing and cinematography, and use of popular music can be encapsulated in the sequence where Johnny and his two dates approach Charlie at their neighborhood bar run by their pal Tony (David Proval), set to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ rollicking 1968 hit single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and Charlie’s own commentary regarding penance:
Alright, okay, thanks a lot, Lord—thanks a lot for opening my eyes. I talk about penance and you send this through the door. Well, we play by your rules, don’t we? Well, don’t we?
What’d He Wear?
Unlike the wild Johnny Boy in his leather jackets and knitwear, Charlie is “always well dressed” per Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin’s screenplay—perhaps reflecting his self-righteous, inflated sense of importance inherited from his uncle Giovanni. Of the tailored garments that Charlie cycles through in Mean Streets, his most frequently worn outfit is a handsome navy flannel three-piece suit, patterned with widely spaced chalk-stripes. The configuration of a three-piece suit with a double-breasted jacket had been essentially outdated since the 1930s, but this fits Charlie desperately looking to tradition—be it religious or sartorial—to guide him.
Charlie’s double-breasted suit jacket follows the classic design with a 6×2-button front and wide peak lapels. The “pagoda”-style shoulders follow a concave curve out to the sleeve-heads, which are strongly roped. Each sleeve ends with three-button cuffs that match the six buttons on the front of the jacket. The jacket also has a long vent, welted breast pocket, and straight flapped hip pockets.
The suit’s matching waistcoat (vest) is single-breasted with six buttons up the front and a notched bottom. The lining and back are a lighter satin-finished navy, likely polyester.
The waistcoat features at least two low-slung pockets, as Charlie wears a gold pocket watch in the lower left pocket, attached to a gold chain worn “double Albert”-style across his waistcoat—consistent with both his outdated style of self-important dressing as there’s no need for him to carry a pocket watch since he’s already wearing his usual wristwatch!
Charlie typically wears a white and blue bengal-striped shirt, styled with a long semi-spread collar that—when worn with a tie—takes up most of the space visible above the high-fastening waistcoat. His first tie is “downhill” block-striped in gold and silver with tonal overlaid micro-waves and abstract scarlet stripes that spill over the other stripes like the blood that would be spilled during Mean Streets‘ climax. (Based on the different stripes visible around the tie knot, the cravat appears to have been untied and re-tied sometime between the church-set introduction and the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” bar scene.)
Later, he wears the same shirt with yet another uniquely striped tie. This girthy neckwear is also block-striped in the downhill direction, but in a patriotic red, navy, and ivory with gray claw-like wavy stripes overlaid atop them.
Between these scenes, Charlie wears a plain white shirt with a point collar and double (French) cuffs, dressier than the single-button rounded barrel cuffs on the bengal-striped shirt. Though the shirt is subdued, his tie—again—is not. This tie is downhill-striped with wide scaled red stripes alternating with white-bordered stripes of white-filled squares against a semi-solid blue grid.
Before dressing for a private party at Volpe’s to celebrate the return of an Army corporal named Jerry (Harry Northup), Charlie finds a new monogrammed shirt on his bed with a note from his mother:
Charlie, Try this on — see if the cuffs are too long. Let me know. Mom
The unseen Mrs. Cappa certainly knows her son’s style, as the contrasting collar and cuffs are just the sort of fussy details that Charlie loves. The light blue-and-white broadcloth body of the shirt is patterned with fancy stripes that alternate between plain blue, black-bordered white bar stripes, and sets of white, black, and blue stripes. The stiff spread collar is a contrasting plain white, as are the rounded single cuffs—which function like French cuffs that only fasten through a single layer of fabric on each side, and which Charlie fastens here with a set of large gold-finished disc links.
The shirt also has a front placket and a box-pleated breast pocket that closes through a single-buttoning flap. Above the pocket is Charlie’s navy-embroidered monogram: “CC”.
Evidently, Mrs. Cappa had also selected her son’s tie for the evening: a deep burgundy twill tie with a hairline-width “uphill” indigo stripe pattern. The tie’s blade is “dipped” a brighter shade of scarlet-red.
Charlie’s suit jacket and waistcoat cover most of his flat-front trousers, so we rarely see little more detail than the plain-hemmed bottoms, which are slightly flared (this was the early ’70s, after all!) and have a long break over the tops of his black leather lace-up shoes.
Before and after the corporal’s coming-home party, a few shots of Charlie in various shades of dressing show the trousers’ fitted waistband, which have an extended squared tab that closes with two stacked buttons over the right side of his waist—with no belt loops, suspenders, or side adjusters.
Regardless of what suit or sport jacket he’s wearing, a constant of Charlie’s wardrobe is his heavy black wool double-breasted overcoat. The single-vented coat follows the suit’s design with its peak lapels, 6×2-button arrangement, and “golden age”-informed cut—emphasizing an athletic silhouette with wide concave pagoda shoulders and a suppressed waist that flares out down to the knee-length hem. The coat also has straight flapped hip pockets and spaced two-button cuffs.
Despite the redundancy of wearing a pocket watch with his suit, Charlie always wears his yellow-gold watch on his left wrist. Strapped to a gold-finished expanding bracelet, this wristwatch has a light gold dial with non-numeric hour indices and a bubble over the 3 o’clock-positioned date window.
The rest of Charlie’s jewelry is also gold, including the crucifix he wears on a necklace and the diamond-studded gold pinky ring on his right hand.
What to Imbibe
Charlie shows a preference for drinking J&B Rare, the distinctively labeled blended Scotch whisky. Johnny orders some J&B straight for him and Charlie and, later, Charlie orders a “J&B with soda, please!” and forces Carl the bartender to pour both ingredients into a glass through his clenched fingers.
Stock Anisette is served at his uncle Giovanni’s table at Oscar’s restaurant after dinner. The company was founded in Trieste in 1884 by Lionello Stock, who grew his business from producing medicinal cognac to a range of spirits including this anise-flavored liqueur.
How to Get the Look
Charlie revives the aesthetic of a bygone era through the sartorial lens of the ’70s with his old-fashioned double-breasted three-piece suit, busily appointed with gold ornamentation like cuff links, diamond ring, and redundant timekeeping devices.
- Navy chalk-striped woolen flannel three-piece suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long single vent
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat/vest with pockets
- Flat-front trousers with fitted waistband (with extended two-button tab) and flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Light-blue fancy-striped shirt with large white contrast collar, breast pocket, box-pleated chest pocket (with button-down flap), and white contrast single cuffs
- Burgundy hairline-striped tie with red-“dipped” blade
- Black leather lace-up dress shoes
- Black heavy wool double-breasted 6×2-button knee-length overcoat with peak lapels, straight flapped hip pockets, spaced 2-button cuffs, and single vent
- White cotton sleeveless undershirt
- White cotton boxer shorts
- Gold crucifix on gold necklace
- Diamond-studded gold pinky ring
- Gold wristwatch with round light gold dial (with 3:00 date window) on gold-finished expanding bracelet
- Gold pocket watch on gold “double Albert”-style chain
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart… your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know… the worst of the two is the spiritual.