“Mean Streets” Movie Review

With Todd Phillips’ Joker coming out this month, there is so much attention given to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I decided if we’re gonna talk about that film’s obvious influences from Scorsese, why not go back to his real roots? This crime drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 14th, 1973. Part of the reason it managed to see the light of day is because some of his fellow “Film School Brats” of the Hollywood New Wave helped him get it off the ground. When it finally did, it managed to gross over $3 million against a production budget of around $500,000, which was considerably low at the time. The film also managed to become extremely popular with critics and young NYC audiences when released, including a rare positive response from Pauline Kael. Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese, the screenplay initially began as a continuation of characters from his debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film is said to based on real events Scorsese witnessed regularly as child in the Little Italy neighborhood. The director almost made it in the style of a Blaxploitation film for Roger Corman before a connection got him in contact with producer Jonathan Taplin, who managed to secure studio funding. While it is his third directorial effort overall, it’s apparently the first one made completely of his own fingerprints. Set in a small New York City neighborhood, Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie Cappa, an Italian-American man and small-time hoodlum. He’s best friends with young gambler John “Johnny Boy” Civello, played by Robert De Niro, who’s swimming in debts to local loan sharks. Charlie is struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic beliefs with his aspirations to rise in the local mob run by his uncle Giovanni, played by Cesare Danova. However, as Johnny Boy’s behavior towards other street-level thugs becomes increasingly volatile, their chances of making it out alive get increasingly harder. This is not usually the film that people talk about whenever Martin Scorsese’s name comes up in conversation. It’s understandable why not, since it’s very early work and clearly lacking the finesse of some of his later films. But I still feel like it’s important to acknowledge where every artist gets their start, no matter how bumpy it is. Recently, almost all of the auteur’s early films appeared on Netflix, including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I thought it would be a cool change of pace to steer clear of his more well-known pictures and choose something a little more hard edge for him. And Mean Streets proves to be a pretty good starting point for the director, even if it’s more amateurish than his later works. Scorsese’s career-long fascination with Italian-American crime is evident here in the look at all these small time hustlers. The mob itself isn’t captured in as much sprawling detail as it would be in the future with Goodfellas and Casino, but there’s a certain quality to it that makes it feel lived-in and real. Everyone in this neighborhood knows everyone and what they’ve done, and that doesn’t always bode well for the protagonists. Where Mean Streets falters a little is that it’s sometimes hard to care for the characters and what they’re all doing. There are numerous scenes where multiple people are talking over one another with lots of vulgarity, which helps give it a fly-on-the-wall feeling. But seeing this and watching them do reprehensible things for about 2 hours can get exhausting, especially because none of the characters really change by the end. Harvey Keitel has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and his performance in this film is proof of that. As Charlie, he’s very conflicted about his choice of career as it contrasts heavily with his Catholic background. He does his best to keep cool but when pressured just enough, he explodes in a fury of anger that’s hard to look away from. And in the first on nine collaborations with the director, Robert De Niro is absolutely incredible as Johnny Boy, one of his most unpredictable characters. In every scene, he’s extremely volatile and fast-moving, practically refusing to stay in the same place for very long. There’s a tinge of melancholy to his character as he just gets himself into more and more trouble as the plot rolls along. These two characters are undoubtedly the main focus of the whole movie and rightly so. De Niro and Keitel’s chemistry is excellent and you really feel like these two have been friends for a long time. This duo is also flanked by a capable supporting cast of character actors, who fill various roles with lots of appropriate gusto. Chief among them are Richard Romanus as one particularly irked loan shark trying to collect his due, George Memmoli as a pool hall owner, Amy Robinson as Johnny’s cousin and Charlie’s secret girlfriend, and Cesare Danova as Charlie’s calculating and cautious uncle in the mob. Each one has something to lose to someone else and the film’s refusal to paint a black-and-white portrait of the characters is very engaging. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Mean Streets shows Scorsese’s distinct voice gradually developing. In his professional film, Kent L. Wakeford’s cinematography has a certain cinéma vérité quality to it. Nearly every scene is handheld and follows the characters through the grimy and ugly streets of New York. There’s also a beautiful use of the color red, as it often appears in a hazy dominance over several scenes. Whether it’s a birthday party for a drunken soldier or a simply night out at the bar, the color red is almost always there as if to foreshadow the bloodshed in this lifestyle. This just about works on par with Sidney Levin’s editing job, which cuts between each scene exhaustively. While lacking real precision, its intentions are still clear as it never tries to linger too long on violence or nudity to avoid being gratuitous. A couple moments also involve freeze frame, which gives leeway for Charlie’s narration of his thoughts. Although, there are a handful of moments where it’s hard to figure out who’s saying what, but that just adds to the immersion of this world. Mean Streets is a bumpy but solid start to a great auteur’s career. Although I’d never rank it alongside his best work, Martin Scorsese still manages to paint a unique picture of crime in an environment that seems familiar yet alien. With actors that would later become his own regular collaborators, it could certainly be argued that this served as the basic blueprint for his films to follow. It gets very rough around the edges and probably not worth watching more than twice, but if it helped lead to the director’s later masterpieces, than I am content with it.

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