When “In the Street” was first screened in 1948, it was unusual in several ways: it was a silent film created two decades after Hollywood jettisoned the silent format for talkies, it was a view of New York’s Spanish Harlem at a time when mainstream movies ignored the growing urban Hispanic population, and it offered an unprecedented view of daily life without the benefit of a preconceived screenplay.
Much of the genius of “In the Street” is based on how it was made. A trio of creative artists—photographers Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb and noted writer James Agee—used compact 16mm cameras to surreptitiously film their subjects. With the cameras hidden from view, the filmmakers were able to gain access to everyday life in a manner that would have been otherwise impossible. (Levitt, a major figure in the post-World War II street photography movement, edited the footage for its presentation – some sources incorrectly identify her as the film’s director, even though the production carries no director credit.)
The film kicks off with a somewhat grand opening scroll that reads, “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer; and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this film is to capture this image.”
Well, there isn’t much in the way of battles in this film, unless you count children in Halloween masks that playfully employ socks full of flour as weapons in their play. And no poet, masker, warrior or dancer is on view. But there is great theater in how the neighborhood denizens interact.
The film opens with a boy peddling his bicycle down a street, careful of a slow-moving horse-drawn furniture cart that occupies most of the path. From there, daily street life plays out in benign, amusing and rueful ways.
A little girl kisses a boy, and the boy returns the tribute by punching the girl in the face—her tears bring out two older girls, perhaps her sisters, to escort her away. Stray dogs sniff about the sidewalk, looking for attention from pedestrians. Neighborhood children place a wooden barrel over an open fire hydrant, turning the street into a watery playground. Adults hold conversations in all manners of interaction, from quiet confidential whispers in tight huddles to loud vertical conversations between someone leaning out of an apartment window and a person on the sidewalk several floors below. A well-heeled older woman dolled up in an expensive fur stole seems worlds removed from raggedly children picking through rubble in an empty lot. A lonely woman cradles a cigarette while staring unhappily from an open window. An adult leads a group of children down one street, maybe parading them to a better life, as two elderly ladies slowly travel in another direction, their fate already determined by time.
Levitt, Loeb and Agee shot their film in 1945 and 1946, and the stretch of time for the production can explain why the Spanish Harlem residents are dressed for summer heat in one shot and in heavier autumn garb for another. The filmmakers initially considered calling their work “I Hate 110th Street,” based on a sour sentiment expressed in a sidewalk chalk drawing, but they wisely jettisoned that for a more positive and universal title.
If there is one drawback here, it is a brief montage of small children looking directly into the camera and making smiley or goofy faces—this clearly connected the filmmakers with their subjects, which was not the intention of the work, and it briefly gives “In the Street” a home movie feel.
Years later, Levitt recalled that she and her colleagues were in the right place at the right time. “It was a good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television,” she said. “There was a lot happening.” Indeed, “In the Street” offers a valuable visual record of a disappeared way of urban life.