Mean Streets is third feature from legendary director Martin Scorsese which marks his entry into Cinema. The film follows the Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a small time member of Little Italy trying to work his way up into the business like his friend Tony (David Proval), despite the fact he might not be cut out for business due to him being too nice. Charlie works for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local mob boss who tries to guide him in the crime business, but warns him that “honorable men go with honorable men”.
The problem is that Charlie’s good friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is near psychotic causing all sorts of trouble in the streets and not paying his debts to the local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus). Asides from that problem; Charlie is secretly involved with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whom his Uncle also doesn’t approve of because “she’s sick in the head” with epilepsy. From seeking forgiveness from Giovanni, Michael, Teresa, and even God, Charlie winds up failing to make an escape to Brooklyn, leaving his future looking rather grim.
It’s apparent that Martin Scorsese is still perfecting his craft here, but when it was first released I could only imagine how exhilarating the film must have been due to the great acting accompanied by fine dialogue and a lively soundtrack. This film is the start of the collaborations between Robert De Niro, who follow up with Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver three years later. Asides from wanting to watch this film solely for that reason, I wanted to see a younger Harvey Keitel and some mob action take place. However the film doesn’t work so much with a lot of violence but follows Keitel’s struggles with a spice of violence here and there.
I wasn’t able to fully grasp the aspect of sin in this film which I know plays a big role in Charlie’s life, however I was aware that he struggled with his religion. To further his problems, he was struggling to gain forgiveness from everyone he cared for, the simple solution would to tell them all the truth about his relationships with certain people, but that’s not how it works for his occupation. To even further the complications he has to deal with Michael trying to gather his debt’s from Johnny who apparently blows up mailbox’s for the sake of sheer fun. There’s a lot going on in this film that is interesting but I think that’s where things become a problem.
The focus on this movie seemed unclear, and I believe that was down to the the “short” run time, or because it was simply Scorsese’s earlier film. For the first hour of the film I wasn’t really sure where this movie was going, and it finally become clear which had me fully invested in the characters, however even the last 5 minutes it still felt like that movie had another hour left. To what is referred to as it’s cousin, Goodfellas covers all these aspects of Mean Streets; but does this more efficiently through 148 minutes rather than 112 minutes. To it’s credit what Goodfellas lacked that this film had was Keitel.By no means is Mean Streets a bad movie because it was fun as hell to watch, but had me wanting so much more out of it. Fortunately Scorsese kept up with film-making after De Niro convinced him to recover from his drug addiction and make Raging Bull which ultimately may have saved his life. Imagine a world if Scorsese may have had stopped making films in the early 80s.
In terms of acting Harvey Keitel is great here. He is very comfortable with his dialogue and persona of Charlie. I wish he could have been in Goodfellas because he was on top of his game here. Robert De Niro was ecstatic as Johnny Boy, and demonstrates his range of acting capabilities early on in his career. I enjoyed David Proval and Richard Romanus as well; they fit the part well. Pleased with Martin Scorsese’s brief but violent cameo in the final moments of the film.
Mean Streets is a good movie for a director making his way into the industry, but leaves you wanting more from it. A little more clarity in the plot could have made this film have a stronger lasting impression. Nevertheless, the director, actors and soundtrack alone are worth giving this film a look.
My Rating: ★★★½ / ★★★★★
Dir. Martin Scorsese
IMDb 7.5/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 98%
Won NYFCC Best Supporting Actor
National Film Registry 1997
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
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