Mean Streets

Review No. 380


The Bottom Line: It’s good, but it’s not GoodFellas.

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin
Charlie: Harvey Keitel
Johnny Boy: Robert De Niro
Tony: David Proval
Teresa: Amy Robinson

Distributed by Warner Bros. on October 2, 1973. Produced in English and Italian by the United States. Runs 112 minutes. Rated R by the MPAA (graphic violence; strong language; graphic nudity; infrequent sexual situations).

Mean Streets was watched on December 28, 2012.

“The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart…your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know…the worst of the two is the spiritual.” –Charlie (Harvey Keitel)

The southern pole of filmmaking is full of the feeblest people, those who would so ambitiously dare to call themselves filmmakers. Perhaps they know how to call shots and snap fingers, but once they know the film is going to have an audience, they tend to shy away.

At the northern pole stands Martin Scorsese, the cinema’s answer to Jerry Lee Lewis. The vast majority of the time, he’ll have everyone discussing how he viciously swept his fingers over the eighty-eight keys, played Devil’s Advocate with the style everyone was used to, and even knocked off eight or nine keys—but kept the film going, no matter what.

Also like Lewis, not all of Scorsese’s works are memorable as the others. Mean Streets is undoubtedly a good film. It’s savvy, fun, and hardboiled; although it is forty years old, it doesn’t seem so at all. But as far as remembrance, it’s not much more than a condiment in a GoodFellas-and-Raging Bull sandwich.

Crime is a prominent subject in the Scorsese canon, handled with swift caution and precision. Mean Streets was released in 1973, being one of his earliest stabs at the genre. But even a low budget can provide the style we’re used to with him, the style that has yet to disappear from his namesake. Under the $500,000 set aside for production, Scorsese is still able to add notions of symbolism to the low-key camerawork; as well as musical selections that represent ‘60s-‘70s crime life through a fusion of blues and rock. You have your Rolling Stones, your Eric Clapton, your Miracles, you name it.

Perhaps that style makes up for the story that never excels much beyond the surface. Starting up, this is a highly enthralling story: Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a devout Catholic living in New York City. A young, streetwise fellow, he’s an Italian-American with reckless friends who are members of an Italian Mafia. On one hand, it’s alluring to him. On the other, there are problems; mainly that he would be forced to give up his religion to indulge in the violent lifestyle.

Act two is merely a semi-interesting continuation: somewhere around an hour of loud, violent chaos, as the decision begins to tear Charlie apart. This culminates in one of the cheesiest endings I’ve ever witnessed out of Martin Scorsese.

Mean Streets is an enjoyable drama. Although partial to style over substance, and certainly not as remarkable as its director’s other work (he also narrated, co-wrote, and co-produced this one), there are noteworthy elements that establish a solid recommendation.

One of such is the acting. Harvey Keitel delivers Charlie as a fascinating character. He’s faithful, but also burdened and spiritually lacerated by what he feels deserving of his faith. “Crime or God?” is his choice. At that level it doesn’t seem that difficult a decision, but Keitel nails his character. “Heaven I do believe in, or Hell I won’t believe in?” he seems to say.

Only to assist this tour de force is Robert De Niro, in his first actor-director collaboration with Scorsese. De Niro plays Charlie’s best friend, Johnny Boy, and slyly tries to lure him into the crime life. Careless, reckless, yet overall alluring and unpredictable. At that, you could argue that De Niro sublimely represents how Mean Streets often plays out.