Mean Streets (1973)

23 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s it like to live in a gangster environment? More important, what’s it like to survive it? Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” presents a portrayal of people going through life in New York’s Little Italy in a way that it’s hardly about gangsters as much as it is about those who have grown up and developed an understanding about that place. Some people are innocent, others strike deals, others are enforcers, and then there are those you really don’t want to cross. One of the characters states it as practically living in a constant state of sin, but continuing through with it because that’s what’s expected of him and his friends.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Those are the opening, narrating words from Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time hood collecting on the mean streets of Little Italy. He’s a Catholic with hints of feelings of guilt, but is too focused on the mob business to feel much guilt for what he does or sees. He’s also not entirely good at this business, and can hardly take care of himself. With the money he can bring in from collecting from his uncle’s protection racket, he’ll be lucky just to open a small business. But what separates him from the other Mafiosos is that he actually does have a conscience, as part of his Catholicism. Sometimes it does make him wonder (he even hovers his hand over a candle while thinking about the fires of Hell).

We meet the people in Charlie’s life, including Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), Tony (David Proval), Michael (Richard Romanus), and Teresa (Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is a special case—being an out-of-control, intense thug, he embraces the criminal street life, takes everything as it comes, and tends to take out his anger and emotions by beating whomever he can find. He is also very pathetic, as he paid his debts to Michael, the local loan shark, in quite a long while, and his extensions are running out. Charlie sometimes feels forced to look out for him and make sure he stays on track with everything, including a pivotal moment in which he must calm him down when he’s shooting a .38 on a rooftop. His constant getting into trouble leads to even more trouble.

Tony is also part of the Mafia community—along with Michael, he co-owns a local bar and is much a Mafioso as Michael. That leaves Teresa, Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin, who is very beautiful and the object of Charlie’s affections. But due to her epilepsy, she is shunned by society and thus her and Charlie’s relationship is kept secret.

These are the characters of “Mean Streets,” and the film’s main focus is on what they do, how they live, how they relate to each other, what they get into, etc. Scorsese takes these fully-realized characters and puts them in a fully-realized world for a film that has something to say about them and we’re interested in knowing what that is. By the time the film is over (to its tragic end), you sympathize with them and hope they continue to survive in this messed-up place, no matter what it takes, and just hope it doesn’t push too far.

When you follow a group of characters in a film that doesn’t have a story in the traditional sense, and just focuses on how they live their lives, it helps the most when they feel real. Charlie, Johnny Boy, Teresa, Tony, Michael, and others around them seem exactly right for this material, and are played excellently by the actors, especially Keitel who brings the sincerity within the budding Mafioso, and De Niro (his very first collaboration with Scorsese; three years before “Taxi Driver,” seven years before “Raging Bull”) who brings a powerful screen presence to his performance. They feel real; the brotherly relationship between Charlie and Johnny Boy feels real; their whole world feels real; the way Scorsese frames them all feels as if we’re eavesdropping on them; the scenes of violence are very well-controlled.

“Mean Streets” came out the year after Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” the gangster film to end all gangster films. While most gangster films released back then would try to imitate that film’s success and grand scale, Scorsese opted to make a dark, small, personal film that was more mature than a good deal of the copycats that “The Godfather” inspired. “Mean Streets” is a great film, and it was the commercial debut of Scorsese, who of course would become later known to us as America’s greatest filmmakers.

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