THE STORY – A slice of street life in Little Italy among lower echelon Mafiosos, unbalanced punks, and petty criminals. A small-time hood gets in over his head with a vicious loan shark. In an attempt to free himself from the dangers of his debt, he gets help from a friend who is also involved in criminal activities.
THE CAST – Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Victor Argo, Richard Romanus & David Carradine
THE TEAM – Martin Scorsese (Director/Writer) & Mardik Martin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
All great filmmakers have a breakthrough release. It’s rarely their first. For every Orson Welles or Sidney Lumet, there are two dozen Christopher Nolans or Paul Thomas Andersons who follow up excellent debuts with era-defining classics. Martin Scorsese did it on try number three. “Who’s That Knocking At My Door” (1967) and “Boxcar Bertha” (1972) had their moments, but “Mean Streets” (1973) was the first time Scorsese made a “Scorsese picture,” and it would go on to set the template for the rest of his career.
It’s telling how much of the filmmaker we know and love today is present in “Mean Streets.” The opening sequence is an absolutely bravura showcase for the thirty-year-old and a microcosm of the themes and aesthetics he would explore in nearly every subsequent film. We get narration (from Scorsese himself), an immaculately placed needle drop (The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”), and credits set to grainy home movies of the neighborhood, the families, and the men who regularly mix business with pleasure. Or at least try to ascertain pleasure despite their business. As far as filmmaking manifestos go, it’s one of the most succinct you’ll ever see.
The film’s protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), is one of Scorsese’s most outwardly conflicted characters. The Roman Catholic guilt that exists in the filmmaker and functions as subtext in his later gangster narratives is positioned as text here, with Charlie being formally introduced in a church. He’s constantly looking for ways to justify his criminal activities, and when all else fails, he resorts to criticizing the behavior of his knucklehead pals, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Tony (David Proval). Charlie is the only character who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. He hasn’t accepted the fact that he’s a mook, too, and it’s riveting to watch the layers of Keitel’s mannered, subtly arrogant performance slowly peel away.
Admittedly, Keitel’s performance is something I’ve come to appreciate more with repeat viewings. De Niro, in his first-ever Scorsese collaboration, chews up the scenery the first couple of times you watch the film. Johnny Boy is a force of nature from the moment he stumbles onscreen and stuffs a firecracker in a mailbox. It’s impossible to know what he’s going to do next, and De Niro’s wiry frame, paired with his juvenile haircut, communicates the fact that Johnny Boy is so wet behind the ears he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next either. He’s pure id and too dense to worry about things like damnation or his eternal soul.
Scorsese (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mardik Martin) knew he had tapped into something special between his two leads. Some of the best scenes in the film are the ones that feel as though Keitel and De Niro are riffing. There are long stretches, particularly early on, where it feels like they’ve been allowed to go completely off-book, and we’re witnessing in real-time an attempt made by one of them to make the other laugh or make the other angry. The chemistry between the two men is palpable, which, given their characters’ lifelong bond, only furthers the film’s sense of authenticity.
Unfortunately, the screenplay falters in other areas. The plot comes into focus in the second act, but the repetitiveness with which it is depicted slows the momentum, as does the absence of Johnny Boy. There are some compelling scenes between Charlie and Tony or Charlie and the woman with whom he’s having an affair, Teresa (Amy Robinson). Still, the secondary characters are not given nearly as much attention or depth as the two leads. This is especially glaring about Tony, who gets a title card alongside Charlie and Johnny Boy in the opening but proceeds to fade into the background throughout the film.
Scorsese’s narrative instincts would improve (as would the writers he collaborated with), but his visual brilliance is fully displayed throughout “Mean Streets.” The tracking shot that follows Charlie through their local hangout walked so that the Copacabana shot in “Goodfellas” (1990) could run. The oner in which a camera is attached to Keitel’s chest as his character devolves into a drunken mess is so effective that Darren Aronofsky revived it for “Requiem for a Dream” (2000). There’s ingenuity in nearly every frame, whether it be the dense rendering of real locations in Little Italy or the visceral, handheld finale, in which Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa are gunned down in a car. The gunman is none other than Scorsese himself, who must’ve taken great delight in shooting his actors both onscreen and off.
“Mean Streets” established Scorsese as a force to be reckoned with, and fifty years later, he’s yet to relinquish the mantle. It lacks the precision of the films that followed, and some screenwriting decisions dampen the pace, but the highlights, whether through acting or directing, are undeniable. “Means Streets” is a film that’s proud of the fact that its edges are rough, and one can’t help but respect the confidence.