Mean Streets Review

(3.5 STARS)

With Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese became a made man. The semi-autobiographical 1973 film unquestionably represents the director’s coming out party as a major talent, and it does so without even the slightest hint of the man abandoning the principles of his low-budget debut—Who’s That Knocking at My Door.

Mean Streets is film about small people doing small things. It doesn’t romanticize the gangster’s life like Coppola did just a year earlier in The Godfather. It’s actually as groundbreaking and influential as Coppola’s film, but Scorsese moves the myth in the opposite direction, back toward the low-life anti-heroes of old. In doing so, he’s able to depict a story that’s structurally simple and relatively small in scope, but one that’s also driven by an incredible sense of culture that only someone like Scorsese could draw us into so completely.

Scorsese quickly introduces us to the four most important men in this story. However, they’re far from the most important men within their Little Italy neighborhood. Tony (David Proval) operates the local watering hole. His most regular clients are also his closest friends. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) fashions himself a nice guy. He’s not nearly as rough-around-the-edges as his two other friends—the slick Michael (Richard Romanus) and wild man Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro)—though he is looking to break into his uncle’s more legitimate operation, which would presumably mean committing criminal acts worthy of the tremendous, and seemingly inexplicable, guilt that weighs so heavily upon his shoulders.

The trouble all starts with Johnny Boy. He owes Michael quite a bit of money (and Michael isn’t the only person to whom he’s indebted), but he doesn’t have a cent to his name. Michael is starting to get fed up, but Charlie is able to talk him off the cliff. Johnny Boy is a good kid, he insists. Just give him a couple days to get his act together.

But Charlie, as his uncle tells him, needs to learn how to remove himself from these lowlifes and their problems. It’s time for him to accept his destiny—to take over the failing restaurant of one of his uncle’s lackies. He needs to dump these clowns, ditch his epileptic girlfriend (Amy Robinson’s Teresa), and become a man. The poor guy just has a problem pulling the trigger.

So much of Mean Streets is small, personal, and naturalistic. The film’s best scenes are those in which Charlie and his friends are just bullshitting—almost improvisationally. Because it’s a gangster flick, one can’t shake the sense that there’s an 8MM somewhere offscreen pointing at these guys’ heads. Scorsese’s surprise for us, then, is that this isn’t a gangster thriller; It’s not even a gangster movie, exactly. It’s a character study. It’s about the courage to choose one’s own path. That Charlie is a gangster means so little the scope of things. He’s just a kid—sweet-natured, but a little yellow-bellied—surrounded by individuals with stronger wills than he. One of them will pull him strongly enough that his path will be chosen unless he can adopt a sense of agency and fast. That’s Mean Streets‘ M.O.

Scorsese has always been known as a director capable of coaxing out jaw-dropping performances out of his actors (see also The Departed, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver), and Mean Streets is no different. Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro, of course, are two of the director’s most frequent onscreen collaborators, and it’s not hard, after seeing Mean Streets, to understand why. DeNiro’s work is showier—very fast and loose. Keitel, meanwhile, creates a character as complex as any you’ll find in a Scorsese picture. And the rest of the cast—from Amy Robinson to Richard Romanus—fits his or her part to perfection.

Technically, this is a whole other beast from his first two films. Scenes flow seamlessly together with crisp, assured editing. Almost every moment is scored with a wide range of popular and classical music. And you get your first glimpse at a masterful Scorsese tracking shot (during a fight scene, of all things).

The film does move a tad slowly, but it’s without question Scorsese’s best to this point in his career (both Who’s That Knocking and Boxcar Bertha were, by and large, underwhelming). It’s dramatic without resorting to melodrama. It’s subtle but never too obtuse or boring. And it’s a very meaningful film directed with care and passion that’s evident from frame one.

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