Worth A Look: 24.44%
Pretty Bad: 11.11%
Total Crap: 2.22%
2 reviews, 33 user ratings
You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.Those are the first words you hear in Martin Scorsese's first truly great film. "Mean Streets" holds the same place in Scorsese's career that "Chasing Amy" does in the career of Kevin Smith, where the promise of a talented debut and the disappointment of a lesser sophomore effort was followed by a major talent coming completely into his own.
"Mr. Id, meet Mr. SuperEgo"
We hear those words in complete darkness, then suddenly cut to Charlie (Harvey Keitel) jerking awake in bed, as if from a disturbing dream. He looks around, disoriented, gets up for a moment, sirens and city noises are heard from outside his little room, he looks around as if he's been caught doing something he shouldn't, and then goes back to bed.
In this brief scene before the credits, you already have a sense of Charlie, a nervous, guilty sort, always looking over his shoulder. As he lays back down to bed, the deep bass backbeat of "Be My Baby" thumps onto the soundtrack, and the film cuts to the beat, splintering our view of Charlie, a nervous guy who can't sleep, reinforcing a sense of his skittishness.
The film jumps off quickly, establishing both the major characters and an unvarnished view of urban life that's been copied everywhere since, from other movies to modern TV cop shows. It was much more shocking in 1973, when it was very rare for movies to be filmed outside of studios and back lots. These days it's rare for urban dramas to not be filmed on location.
"Mean Streets" was considered the ultimate New York movie. Young filmmakers in the early 70's tended to be either Californians or New Yorkers. The Californians tried to make glossy, audience-pleasing films, and the New Yorkers made edgy, cinema verite slice-of-life movies. Yet despite being the prototypical example of that, and being set in Manhattan's Little Italy, after some quick location work in New York, much of the film was shot in Los Angeles. It's a sign of Scorsese's technical brilliance that managed to pull that off, and people who have seen the movie are always surprised to hear it.
The characters are low-level hoods, wiseguys, and hangers-on. At the time of its release, what everyone discussed about "Mean Streets" was its grunt-level "realistic" view of the Mafia, which contrasted so thoroughly with the dark romance of "The Godfather." But you don't actually see a lot of what these punks do to get their money--that would wait until "Goodfellas." What strikes you now is how thoroughly you see lower-class Italian-American life. Scorsese knows these guys and their lives down to their fingernails.
Michael (Richard Romanus), a loan shark, is a stolid, humorless guy with a fierce concern for his image. Charlie is trying to reconcile his Catholic guilt with his low-level mob position and his love of drinking, gambling and women. Between them, like the spark that you just know is going to ignite the fire that will burn down the house, is Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro).
Johnny Boy is first seen blowing up a mailbox on a city street for the sheer hell of it. De Niro plays him as pure free-floating id, doing everything and saying everything that occurs to him, as it does so. He is happy, reckless, irresponsible, and mesmerizing.
A lot has been written about De Niro's performance, the showiest in the film, but it's the pas de deux between his uncontrollability and Keitel's repressiveness that make the film work, and Keitel matches him every step of the way. Also, Charlie is a screwed-up human character you can identify with, while Johnny Boy comes off as more a force of nature, always seen from outside.
Charlie, with his great consciousness of himself as a sinner, takes on helping Johnny Boy as self-imposed penance, even though you discover that his mafia patron, his uncle, has specifically told Charlie to stay away from Johnny Boy. And Charlie is dating his cousin Teresa--who his uncle also told him to stay away from. The more time you spend with Charlie, the more obvious it becomes that he subconsciously wants to be punished for his sins, and he's going to get what he wants.
There's actually very little plot in "Mean Streets." The incidents pile up, but like life the changes are happening slowly in the background, as people change their minds. Michael has loaned money to Johnny Boy because Charlie vouched for him, and is more and more pissed at him. Johnny Boy is ignoring Michael and does nothing to pay him back. And Charlie tries desperately to hold everything together and make it all, somehow, come out right. Essentially, the same scene gets played out again and again, as Charlie steps in to save Johnny Boy's ass and Johnny Boy continues to misbehave.
All of this is shown with a show-off technical virtuosity which is still stunning. All Scorsese's trademarks emerged in this film as if fully-grown: the use of popular music to set the mood, shifting to slow-motion and back, the relentlessly pacing camera. The first major entrance of Johnny Boy, a dollying shot in slow-motion, bathed in red light, to the strains of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is one of those indelible movie moments that stick with you forever. A fight in a pool hall (set to "Please Mr. Postman" from a jukebox) is so dazzling as to be distracting.
There is one particular moment that is totally unique. Charlie has gone to bed with Teresa. They meet at a cheap hotel to keep their meeting a secret; Charlie because his uncle doesn't approve of her, and Teresa to protect her reputation. They have a tense conversation as she pushes for more commitment from him and he tries to evade. Seemingly joking, he makes a gun of his hand, aims it at her head, and mouths, "bang."
But the soundtrack cuts over it the sound of a real gunshot. The dislocation, the surprise of that moment, gives you a sense of the bit of hatred hiding underneath Charlie's genuine affection for her, that is so palpable it's naked.
Of course, it cannot and does not end well. It ends in violence that was completely predictable, and yet still somehow manages to catch you by surprise.This is one of the movies that give the films of the 1970's their reputation for intelligence and great art.
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originally posted: 09/22/03 18:26:10