Mean Streets

(USA - 1973)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova, Victor Argo
Genre: Drama
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese & Mardik Martin based on the story by Martin Scorsese
Cinematography: Kent L. Wakeford
Composer: Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, etc.
Runtime: 110 minutes

"You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it"

These words that define Charlie's dilemma are spoken by Martin Scorsese over a black screen to open his first classic film. They initially scare Charlie (Harvey Keitel) by waking him up in the middle of the night to the sound of police sirens, but they'll haunt him throughout the rest of his life because they are his truth. Scorsese delivers them like a priest, but only the priest or more likely the God of Charlie's unique form of Catholicism would speak in such an honest, direct, and "vulgar" manner.

The penance given by priests is useless to Charlie. Words don't punish him enough. They don't give him a taste of the eternal hellfire he's going to have to endure if he can't stop himself from sinning. Charlie explains his ideology on penance to God, "Okay, I just come out of confession, right? Right. And the priest gives me the usual penance right, 10 Hail Mary's, 10 Our Father's, 10 whatever. Now, you know that next week I'm gonna come back and he's gonna just give me another 10 Hail Mary's and another 10 Our Father's and…I mean, you know how I feel about that shit. Those things, they don't mean anything to me; they're just words. Now that may be okay for the others, but it just doesn't work for me. I mean, I do something wrong I just want to pay for it my way. So, I do my own penance for my own sins. What do you say, huh? Ah, it's all bullshit except the pain, right? The pain of hell, the burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite, and you don't fuck around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. 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 you know the worst of the two is the spiritual." In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Charlie proceeds to put his finger to the flame of a candle to redeem himself in his eyes and hopefully the eyes of God.

Even the pain of the flame is not a strong enough deterrent to prevent Charlie from sinning. In fact, Charlie is drawn to hell's fire as if he was trapped in the devil's traction beam. It's not the act of sinning - that can't live up - it's the mystique of it. After Charlie burns his hand on the candle - while he's still talking about the spiritual side - Scorsese goes right to a scene of Charlie entering the strip bar he regularly frequents. All the scenes in the bar are filmed in a red gel that suggests sins of the flesh and wounds to the body. The best scenes are varying speeds of slow motion with the camera mirroring Charlie's every move as he glides along in ecstasy dancing, drinking, greeting friends, and embracing women. As soon as Charlie sits down after dancing on stage with the African American stripper he's attracted to, he immediately lights a match and puts his finger to it. His life is a constant cycle of sinning and repenting.

It's true that Charlie can't stop sinning, but neither can his fellow gangsters in training. They see him as a saint. At one point, Charlie enters Joey Clams' (George Memmoli) bar and Joey calls him St. Charles and tries to get his pals to join him in doing the benediction. Surrounding Charlie with characters that sin more and don't know or care that they are doing so is perfect. They don't comprehend Charlie's dilemma or even see it since he hides his true self from the world. To them, Charlie is a levelheaded person who is on top of his life and doesn't do anything wrong other than hang around with that loon Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). We really don't see the bad things Charlie does that are business related. Instead, we see him smoothing over problems between mobsters and debtors. The problem is it doesn't matter what values Charlie tries to instill in Johnny Boy (What's the matter with you Johnny? You can't go around bullshitting people that way. You give your word about something you gotta keep it"), he's only capable of saying and doing whatever comes to his mind at the time.

Charlie is the only hood who appears to take anything seriously. What separates him from his friends is he realizes he's a sinner and it really bothers him. He's totally guilt ridden, but the people around him can't see it because he's put up so many blockades. Little Italy is one of those old neighborhoods where everyone has known each other since either immigration or birth. People who live a few blocks away or are different in color or creed are looked upon with considerably skepticism. Charlie is not only one of their own, he's the pride of their young adult generation, yet no one really knows Charlie.

Charlie's life is full on conflicts. The biggest is his religion and his life of crime. However, every relationship he has or would like to have causes a problem with someone else. His Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local mob boss, doesn't want him to associate with his best friend Johnny Boy because he's a crazy screw-up. He also doesn't want him anywhere near Johnny's epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) because in Giovanni's mind epilepsy is a form of lunacy. Charlie has a better position in the crime world than his friends due to this relation, and is about to be given control of a restaurant. Teresa is secretly Charlie's partner. She loves him, but he's more drawn to her because she's the one single Italian girl he can't have. He seems more attracted to the stripper he can't have because Italians and blacks don't mix, but that could be because he's had Teresa several times and never had a black woman.

Charlie's life of conflicts results in a life of seeking forgiveness and redemption from those that surround him. The person that's not only always in trouble, but also always getting Charlie into trouble is Johnny Boy. There's an early scene where Johnny Boy shows up a few minutes after Charlie finishes defending him against the local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus). Like everyone else, Johnny Boy owes Michael a lot of money that he has no intention of paying back. There's barely a street that Johnny Boy can walk, and even in those he's always turning his head away or ducking behind a parked car. The thing is Michael is one of Charlie's best friends, so Michael is forced to hang around with Johnny Boy sometimes. Charlie gets stuck in the middle because no one else likes Johnny much, and Charlie believes he's the only one that understands Johnny. Charlie is the kind of friend that would stick up for you regardless, but it goes way beyond that. When Charlie sees Johnny come styling into the bar dressed up in his fancy new clothes with a girl on each shoulder like he's some kind of rich pimp, Charlie gets it in his head that God is suggesting Johnny Boy as the meaningful penance Charlie is always praying for. The camera trucks in toward the intense stare of Harvey Keitel while the narration explains where the movie is going to go. "Alright, okay, thanks a lot lord, thanks a lot for opening my eyes. I talk about penance and you send this through the door. Well, we play by your rules don't we? Well, don't we?"

Scorsese is the filmmaker who popularized using popular music to set the mood of a film. One of the best examples of him creating a memorable sequence to such music is the use of The Rolling Stones "Jumping Jack Flash" right after the narration. The key to the scene is not the decadence of Johnny Boy, who looks all snazzy walking past the bar and taking his hands off his women to wave to his friends. His image is established by association with the famous song, which allows Scorsese to focus on the reactions of Johnny's friends to this character he's trying to play. The first shot we see is similar to the earlier shot that goes in on Keitel's stare, establishing his interest in and focus on Johnny's actions, which allows for a cut to shot from Charlie's point of view of Johnny Boy walking toward him. We see that the happy go lucky bar owner Tony (David Proval) finds Johnny Boy's change (and seemingly everything else) amusing. He approves of it because he's about having fun, and isn't thinking about or even concerned with Johnny Boy's wellbeing. On the other hand, Charlie cares about Johnny Boy and has just vouched for him again, so Keitel looks as disgusted a look as he can look knowing that Johnny Boy can see him before giving him the big best friends greeting that he wishes he could be more sincere about.

Michael isn't that concerned that Johnny Boy pays his debt back. Obviously no loan shark wants to give money away, but what Michael cares about is his image. He can't allow anyone, even the best friend of his best friend, to make him look foolish and inept. Loan sharking is just a business to Michael that he'd love to graduate from, but business is business and you can't effectively operate in that one if people are allowed to trumpet the fact that they have your money and are spending it elsewhere.

Johnny Boy is a crazy gambler and risk taker. He lives in the moment and looks at everything from his selfish point of view at that time. He is totally irrational and can't be tamed. The key scene that shows he's hopeless has him going along with Charlie to Joey Clams to straighten out Jimmy's (Lenny Scaletta) unpaid winning bet with Joey's guy Sally. Johnny Boy swears he "won't say nutin'." Of course, that lasts about 5 seconds. Charlie has it all taken care of, but Johnny Boy has to complain about stupid things like the music being to loud and Joey's customers not being attractive enough to call girls. Joey decides he's not paying giving the reason that Jimmy "is a fuckin' mook…and we don't pay mooks." Everyone is mystified about what this mook thing is, but they assume it's a very bad thing they should have heard of. Jimmy can't allow his good name to be smeared like that. When he asserts that Joey can't call him this mook thing, Joey punches him and a lame girlfight breaks out. Mean Streets isn't a bloody movie. These small time hoods aren't passionate about their business and willing to die for the mob or a buck. They are more like poseurs. They talk a good line, but when it comes to backing it up they are more concerned with not breaking a fingernail or ripping their clothes. Johnny Boy standing on a pool table with a broken pool stick demonstrating some "martial arts" he probably saw in a movie is hilarious. What I also like about the scene is when the police have to break up the sloppy fight, Joey is forced into paying a cop off so he doesn't cite Charlie for illegal possession of what Charlie claims is a "nail file" that's "gotta toothpick in there." Joey is going to pay the cop "car fare," and after the cop sees what he gets he switches his destination from New Jersey to Philadelphia. After Joey gives them the drink he promised before and pays, Jimmy starts to count it, which turns the tables because now Jimmy is insulting Joey's honor. Johnny Boy insists Jimmy count it and calls Joey a scumbag when he touches him, so once again Joey starts a fight with a punch to the face. While it's true that hothead Joey was responsible for both fights, neither would have happened if Johnny Boy didn't provoke him for no reason whatsoever and neither would have happened if Charlie had simply went with Jimmy & Tony.

The brilliance of De Niro's performance is that he's so spontaneous and uninhibited. At one point he spurts out this wild story about how he suddenly came into enough money to buy a new suit and buy the interest of a couple girls that is pretty outrageous. The thing is he goes on so fast for so long in a manner that confuses you on even the most basic details that you can't even decide which parts might be true. Of course, after a while Johnny Boy's thoughts get so jumbled that even he loses track of his own narrative.

What gets Charlie & Teresa in trouble is the illusion of their relationship with the person they care the most about. Charlie believes his "misunderstood" friend can be saved, and he's the one God has bestowed the burden of doing it upon. Teresa believes Charlie's Uncle and the promotion are the only things standing in the way of them really being together. She wants more than secret rendezvous; she wants to spend the rest of her life with him. She can sense that he's always making excuses and bullshitting her, but she can't comprehend the essence of his character. She believes Charlie will fall in love with her if she can get him out of the neighborhood where he can forget about all the barriers that keep them apart. She stands by Charlie when Johnny Boy gets in big trouble because she believes she has to, it's her one chance to get him into a setting where he can love her.

Mean Streets isn't a heavily plotted film. What it does is thrust you headfirst into the life of the street hoods in Little Italy, a world Scorsese understands and portrays so intimately and realistically based upon his memories of growing up there. This life is not romanticized in the least, but it's not condemned either. You can understand why it appeals to these people, but you also understand that it's just work to them and their life is rather empty.

The film follows Charlie, the "voice of reason" character who is good at keeping everyone but himself out of trouble. However, it's loaded with unconventional characters that Scorsese immediately makes interesting and understandable. Much of the fun of the picture is simply following the hustlers as they aimlessly pass their time. Scorsese constantly injects his brand of humor like Johnny Boy telling the bartended to put the drinks on the small tab so it can begin to balance out the big tab.

One of my favorite scenes has a couple of teenagers that had no luck in Chinatown approach Michael & Tony about buying fireworks. Once Michael hears they have $40 he starts getting interested. The scene shows he's a good con because even though he's yesing them to death he still pauses once to think if he has an item and instead of getting trapped when one kid says women he calls the kid a comedian. Michael comes up with this line about having to let the kids off at the corner because they can't let anyone know where their fireworks are stored. This sounds acceptable until he asks the kids for the money. The "comedian" seems to think he's being had, asking if they take a check. Again, the movie goes back to the territorial aspect of the neighborhoods being so exclusive to those who live there. Unfazed, Michael firmly responds, "Take a check? Where you guys from?" When the comedian answers Riverdale, he says, "Maybe that's what they do up in Riverdale, but down here we gotta take cash. Now you got it or ya don't got it?" They drive off with the money and no intentions of giving the kids anything, but what's funny is Michael starts complaining when he realizes he got stiffed by the kids because they only gave him $20. With that little, Michael can only give Tony $5 for being the driver so he says, "tellya what, I'll write you a check," but Tony forces Michael to treat him and Charlie to a movie. At the movie, the first thing we see Michael say is "You guys better enjoy yourselves. This is costing a lot of money." Tony can't stop laughing because by the way these guys operate, the kids "stiffing" Michael has resulted in him and Charlie theoretically getting more out of the incident than Michael did.

Scorsese, Keitel, & De Niro were all in their infancy here. Scorsese & Keitel started off together with Who's Knocking at My Door in 1968, with Keitel staying on for all Scorsese's films through 1976's brilliant Taxi Driver with the exception of the Roger Corman exploitation flick Boxcar Bertha. De Niro's started working for Brian De Palma in 1968 with Greetings and appeared in two of the directors other features - The Wedding Party and Hi, Mom! - as well as a few others like Corman's Bloody Mama before beginning his prolific collaboration with Scorsese. Although De Niro was memorable in Hi, Mom!, all three were still learning on the job here. Their work isn't polished, but scenes like the bar fight benefit from the low budget rawness. In any case, they are such amazing talents that not many others can surpass the still improving level they showed here. These three were so opposite from the characters being portrayed in the film. They were so passionate about their craft, enlivened by it, and intent on making a statement that it wasn't work. They were so talented you could tell their drive would lead them to quickly surpass this film's greatness.

What makes Mean Streets such an important film is the new style and technique that Scorsese displayed here isn't limited to his own work. The many good low rent gangster is their job movies like State of Grace & Donnie Brasco are rooted in Mean Streets. Also, so many directors incorporated the new techniques utilized in this film. Even almost 30 years later, you can still see its influence in the work of current cool filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, & Guy Ritchie.

The introduction of the main characters is probably the most imitated aspect of the movie. The credits are shown around a home movie of the main characters wandering around and having fun in Little Italy that's chopped to "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. The streets don't look very mean, and with Charlie being so glad to get filmed shaking the priest's hand and everyone always smiling for the camera, you might even think these he's a nice wholesome people. When the footage enlarges to full size (signifying the end of the home movie and the beginning of the real story), we get one scene that demonstrates the true life and times of each key hood. They swear, fight, deal in stolen if not illegal merchandise, and so on. The most telling scene is the introduction of Johnny Boy. He blows the US Mail collection bin on the corner of the street to bits with a powerful firework. We don't know why he does it because he doesn't either. His only motivation for doing anything is he felt like it at that particular moment. While Tony, Michael, & Johnny Boy don't get their name put up until they've done something wrong and their scene is about over, Charlie merely walks to the front of the church, makes the sign of the cross, kneels down, and clasps his hands in prayer. Although the scene winds up being one of the most important of the movie by the time it's done, what the difference in the introduction does is establish Charlie as the wholesome one.

The most interesting cinematic technique Scorsese introduced in Mean Streets is creating a heightened sense of awareness for the scenes where Charlie is contemplating all his problems. The moving camera, gliding slow motion sequences, and narration come together to enhance the idea that Charlie can't stop himself from sinning and is thus in perpetual search of redemption.

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Keitel's performance is not as refined as his later classics, but he shows the strengths he would become known for. He is one of the greatest improvisational actors (I wouldn't exactly recommend Blue in the Face but it's the movie to see if you are looking for proof of this statement), and his ability to play off the other characters is the key to so many scenes. In particular, the early scene where he pulls De Niro to the backroom of the bar and makes him explain why he hasn't paid Michael when he obviously has money to spare. The scene would be funny for De Niro's wild story, but the little expressions, smirks, and just the way he says something like "eeh" makes it so much funnier because we know he doesn't believe Johnny's b.s. for a minute but is going to make Johnny work before he does whatever he can to ensure Johnny pays Michael. As usual, Harvey puts up a totally believable front that his character is cool, calm, and collected. He seems to always be in control even though that's hardly the case. Harvey has no problem holding court with De Niro. I think his performance here is very underrated because the super charged De Niro gets the eccentric and wacky stuff that stands out. Meanwhile, Keitel has to hold our interest with a smile or a stare, which in many ways is more difficult.

Aside from De Niro & Keitel, the acting is not of the highest quality, especially for a Scorsese film. This was before he'd made his name as a director. Scorsese had to reacquire the rights from Corman to avoid Mean Streets turning into one of those nudity every 10 pages gems Corman was famous for at the time. He only had $150,000 to work with, so it's not like he could hire the best talent for every role or had built the reputation where a great performer would work way below market value to get the opportunity to work with him. David Proval & Richard Romanus do acceptable jobs, but their roles aren't difficult and their characters aren't the most compelling. As usual, the weakness is with the selection of a lead actress. This was Amy Robinson's 2nd film. I can't say I'm disappointed that she never acted again, especially since she later got into producing where she helped bring such films to the screen as Scorsese's great After Hours, Sidney Lumet's very good Running On Empty, and Luis Mandoki's very good White Palace. Her performance here is more reminiscent of the pathetic quality of the Richard One Gere disgrace she produced called Autumn in New York (how does Joan Chen go from directing Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl to this nonsense?). Robinson swears worlds better than the vaunted and supposedly versatile two-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore, but then again so does everyone else. The only thing that saves Robinson's performance as Teresa is that she's asked to do much beyond being vulgar and classless.

Mean Streets is for Martin Scorsese what La Strada was for one of Scorsese's favorite directors, Federico Fellini. It's the first film that can be called entirely Scorsesesque, introducing us to the themes, images, and many of the techniques he would rework, broaden, and expand upon to create his later masterpieces. Just as La Strada ends with a beaten Anthony Quinn gazing to the sea for answers but receiving none, the final shot of Mean Streets with a bloody Charlie on his knees seeking the lord's redemption not only sums up the film, but also the general essence of the director's fine work.

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