Street scenes

Harvey Keitel talks about being discovered after 20 years of acting

In synopsis, Smoke sounds like it has too much plot for two movies. (Actually, there is a second film--Wang, Auster, and Keitel enjoyed working together so much that, after completing Smoke, they dashed off a companion piece, the largely improvised Blue in the Face, in just five days.) On screen, however, nothing seems forced or schematic; everything feels relaxed and natural.

The very randomness of what happens--which, to be sure, is more apparent than real--provides the suspense and narrative momentum. The story's various strands are ingeniously looped and intertwined, and the characters continually surprise the audience and themselves while they sort through the tangles. Much like the current Bridges of Madison County--a picture that it resembles in no other significant way--Smoke is the work of filmmakers who aren't afraid to take their time.

The movie abounds in grace notes and small pleasures. The two best moments are practically dialogue-free: Rashid, the runaway and budding con artist, and Paul, the newly unblocked writer, sit together watching a baseball game on a battered TV set, silently enjoying each other's company. Later, in the wake of an emotionally and physically violent confrontation, the two men cap off a picnic lunch and quietly end their hostilities with a couple of good cigars.

In a summer movie season in which pell-mell pacing and instant gratification are all that most commercial movies have to offer, Smoke attempts nothing less than to speak directly to our hearts and minds about the things that really matter.

Harvey Keitel's story would not be out of place if told by a character in Smoke.

He was born in 1939 to immigrant parents--father from Poland, mother from Romania--who operated a luncheonette on Avenue X in Brooklyn. One of three children, Keitel lived in a second-floor apartment in Brighton Beach. It was a different, more trusting time, when a family wouldn't think twice about going down to the beach with blankets and sleeping by the sea on summer nights.

Even so, not all of Keitel's Brighton Beach memories are happy ones."In my neighborhood as a boy," he recalls, "I used to go down to this bakery and buy bread. And there were men and women there with numbers tattooed on their arms. "Yeah," Keitel adds, sighing, "it's like I said: there was a lot to learn in that neighborhood."

As a boy, Keitel nurtured an active imagination and affected a poolroom bravado. But his best attempts at maintaining a sub-zero panache were repeatedly undone by his chronic stutter.

High school was torture. His grades were poor, and he dreaded being asked by teachers to speak in class. So Keitel transferred to a vocational school. And when that didn't work out, he joined the U.S. Marines.

"Fortunately," Keitel says, "Vietnam didn't happen until a few years after I came out. But I have to admit guys join the Marines looking for a war. So, at the time, as a young man, I regretted missing out on it, and pondered reenlisting.

While in the Marines, Keitel lost his stutter and gained a high school equivalency diploma. As a civilian, he sold shoes for a while, then studied to become a court stenographer. While working at Manhattan Criminal Court, he was encouraged by a fellow court reporter to join him in signing up for acting classes. Keitel agreed--then spent the next few months wrestling with his old insecurities before he dared to go onstage.

Fortunately, Keitel was taken under the wing of Frank Corsaro, a patient and encouraging mentor who subsequently became artistic director of the Actors Studio, a wellspring of Stanislavskian "method" acting in the United States.

By 1965, Keitel was ready to make his professional debut, in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's Up to Thursday. Later the same year, he answered an audition call for a movie to be directed by a New York University film student. The movie was a semi-autobiographical drama titled Who's That Knocking At My Door? Its director and screenwriter was a 22-year-old boy wonder named Martin Scorsese.

"Marty and I had a very similar sense of humor," Keitel says. "And we seemed to possess a certain common denominator...I think we saw each other as being brothers of a kind, belonging to some secret society which I haven't got a name for."

The two men clicked as friends and collaborators while filming on weekends during the winter of 1965-66. (During the week, Keitel says, "We had to earn money to buy food and pay the rent.") When Who's That Knocking finally made it to a few theaters in 1967, reviews were mixed: Variety dismissed it as "sexploitation," but Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert dubbed it "a new American classic."

Because of its nudity and relatively frank treatment of sexuality, the movie ran mostly in adults-only cinemas. Still, it enjoyed at least some theatrical exposure. Even less was seen of the second Scorsese-Keitel collaboration, a 1970 student protest drama called Street Scenes.

But then came Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese's audacious and electrifying tale of Catholic guilt and self- destructive posturing in New York's Little Italy, in which Keitel played an apprentice loan shark who fears the wrath of God, the wages of sin, and the recklessness of his best buddy, Johnny Boy, played by an up-and-coming actor named Robert DeNiro. The movie made Scorsese a red-hot property and ignited the stardom of DeNiro, who garnered top billing.

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