In 1973, the year between Godfathers I and II, Martin Scorsese gave us our first look at his version of organised crime. Less polished and romanticised than Coppola’s masterpieces, Mean Streets is no less dazzling and a compelling look at life on the streets.
Set in Scorsese’s childhood neighbourhood of New York’s Little Italy (although largely shot in LA), Mean Streets, tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), nephew of a local mobster and on the verge of making a name for himself. His ascent is threatened, however, by his friendship with the erratic, irresponsible Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), as well as a secret relationship with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson).
Johnny Boy’s gambling has left him seriously in debt, which he’s both unable and unwilling to pay off. Charlie, a devout Catholic, struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with his criminal activities, and looks to redeem himself by saving his friend from himself.
Keitel is typically excellent in one of his best performances, injecting the conflicted Charlie with a real sense of humanity and pathos. De Niro, who has the showier role, is equally memorable in one of his most atypical parts. Johnny is both too stupid to fully realise the trouble he’s in and too arrogant to care. He also possesses seeds of the same hair trigger psychopathic behaviour Scorsese would memorably assign to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino. The pair share a remarkable on-screen chemistry, which they’d display again three years later in Taxi Driver. Mean Streets was Scorsese’s first collaboration with De Niro, and the pair would go on to make no less than eight features together; one of the most remarkable director/actor partnerships in cinema history.
For a director so early in his career, it’s amazing how many of Scorsese’s trademarks are present and correct here. Catholicism, New York, organised crime, unpredictable bursts of violence, the Rolling Stones and cinephilia all feature heavily, as does the director’s innovative use of camerawork. Check out Charlie’s drunk scene, shot in slow motion, with the camera strapped to Keitel’s face. Has anyone ever captured the feeling of drunkenness better?
It was also the first instance of Scorsese’s uncanny knack for choosing the perfect pop song to accompany a scene – only Tarantino comes close to matching him. Here we have one of his best examples, juxtaposing the violence of a fight scene with the chirpiness of The Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman.
Whilst Scorsese would return to this world many times over the years, Mean Streets remains one of the director’s key films. He grew up around this world, and the result is a believable, intimate portrait. It may be scuzzier and less polished than his later mob films, such as Goodfellas and The Departed, but it’s all the richer for it. Essential.
Special Features: Director’s commentary / Contemporary featurette / Trailer
INFO: MEAN STREETS / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE / SCREENPLAY: MARTIN SCORSESE, MARDIK MARTIN / STARRING: HARVEY KEITEL, ROBERT DE NIRO, DAVID PROVAL, AMY ROBINSON, RICHARD ROMANUS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW