Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)
Mean Streets is one of American director Martin Scorsese’s earlier films that, for an entire variety of reasons, tends to get overlooked over by many devotees. Merely off the top of my head, I can name three of those reasons: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. All three have been declared, time and time again, as masterpieces of American cinema and many a film buff holds those three critically lauded efforts dear to his or her heart. I also have a strong fondness for those movies, with the highest honours going to Taxi Driver were I to say which one I like most. Mean Streets is Scorsese at his most raw, a film that is gifted with such a sense of purity in terms of storytelling it is small wonder that much of what we see on screen was inspired by what the director witnessed himself as a young boy living in the lower economic class, Italian-American neighbourhood of New York.
The characters portrayed in the 1973 film are fictional in name, but Scorsese has been on record for claiming that in terms of what the movie delivers in regards to mood, cultural sensibilities, and whatever mischief the young men of Little Italy would find themselves in, Mean Streets is actually based on a lot of fact. The story revolves around a small band of Italian American youths who are most likely in their mid-to-late twenties, but more specifically Charlie (Harvey Keitel, who has rarely been better, and this is considering many of the fine performances he has given since then) and ‘Johnny Boy’ (Robert De Niro, teaming up with Scrosese for the first time!). Charlie tries to be a good person, at least as good as he can be. He is well liked among the community, helps his uncle in collecting debts, which might make someone like him come off as a hoodlum, but he’s really a genuinely okay chap overall. His Achilles heel lies in his poor choice of friends, most notably Johnny Boy, who is a careless and reckless fool who borrows money from just about anybody without ever any intention of paying the loans back. Johnny Boy has an unhealthy habit of displaying an annoying sense of misplaced bravado, which frequently gets him into trouble, and since Charlie is often with him, the latter earns a good licking from time to time as well. Why should Charlie stick up for Johnny Boy, given the troubled youth’s unwillingness to show any signs of straightening out and only digging his grave deeper and deeper into the gutter? It is the sort of loyalty that not even the cleverest could muster justification for. Even friendships come with their warning signs.
For all intents and purposes, Charlie has trouble with sin, with ‘doing bad’ and paying the price for mistakes, even those that aren’t his, a potentially dangerous habit to say the least. His relationship with religion is slightly on the iffy side, as he ruminates during one of the visits to the local church early in the film. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as an easy solution or an easy choice in his life. Johnny Boy is in fact the brother of Charlie current lover, Teresa (Amy Robinson), who, due to her unfortunate battle with epilepsy, is frowned upon by Charlie’s uncle. The circumstances have pushed Charlie into seemingly taking on other people’s sins, as is exemplified in his foolish devotion to Johnny Boy despite the latter’s clear lack responsibility and desire for foul play. Most would have thrown Johnny to the wolves long ago, but Charlie chooses to remain by his side, even after Teresa herself expresses clear and utter disdain towards her brother, practically wishing ill of him. When the loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) begin to sharpen their teeth because they demand accountability on the part of Johnny, Charlie, being the silly good Samaritan that he is, still opts to back his friend up. Both Keitel and De Niro are lively and honest in their portrayal of Charlie and Johnny respectively. Keitel’s performance is the more heartfelt in how he conveys with great detail the difficult reality and consequences of Charlie’s choice to stand by Johnny. Somehow the knows instinctively that Charlie can do better and be happier with all the troubles he wilfully chooses to follow around, and much of that rests with Keitel’s acting. His youthfulness, his frustration when things grow worse but also his worry, these are the signs of a man caught between a rock and a hard place. The worsening of the scenarios is enough to ignite feelings of exasperation from the audience, but therein lies our fascination with Charlie: his own attachment to the scum of his neighbourhood. Is Charlie that smart after all if he can’t seem to get a clue? Has he taken on the mantle of martyr? Keitel balances these conflicting emotions perfectly, giving this reviewer’s favourite performance De Niro, on the other hand, is flamboyant, almost to an extreme, emphasizing some of the character’s more reprehensible traits. Liar, cheat with a propensity to rub many, if not most, just the wrong way. His is the performance that demands more showmanship, more scene stealing. There is a perverse humour about his mannerisms in many scenes given how his brashness is never concerned with limitations. One is tempted to simply laugh these episodes off despite how repulsive his behaviour truly is. De Niro takes full advantage of the stage set for him. No sympathy is ever elicited from the viewer because his character is too much of an a**hole, but that does not prevent the actor from leaving a lasting impression by the film’s end.
An important element in providing Mean Streets its pure, unfiltered feeling is Scorsese’s camera, which follows the action in the most intimate of fashion. Incidentally enough we reviewed another film from 1973 that adopted a very documentary inspired visual style to enhance its storytelling, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and Mean Streets does very much the same, although perhaps here the camera feels as if it’s even closer to the characters, capturing even the intangibles that permeate every scenes, such as exuberance and frustration. Too close for comfort is a term that comes to mind when thinking about the proximity with which the camera follows Charlie, Johnny, Teresa and the other unfortunate souls. With no room for a reprieve, the viewer must see what Charlie sees and go where he goes. Rarely has a piece of fiction felt as real as it does with Mean Streets. Many times Scorsese will cut to a festival that is occurring in the streets, or to someone starring out the window, just to get a feeling of the surroundings, its sights, its sounds and its smells (maybe not that last one).
Primed with a fantastic soundtrack (as well as some lively music emanating from the ongoing festival that transpires throughout the entirety of the film’s story), Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is a film as autobiographical as can be without literally being an adaptation of the director’s personal life. He would go on to build up a rich and varied filmmography, exhaustive even in how it covers the many film genres, but this entry represents a more youthful Scorsese, one that had a few things to get off his chest before flexing some more polished and experimental directing muscles. The ending, both abrupt and violent, can be read as a condemnation of the nasty habits and characters he grew up around, and who probably still inhabit those streets where the festival music can be heard in Little Italy.