Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

27May11

Harvey Keitel (Charlie), Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy). Screenplay by Madrik Martin and Martin Scorsese. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 18. Running time: 112 minutes.

Scorsese’s debut, De Niro’s debut, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That’s Mean Streets, and following its main character Charlie and his spiritual inclinations, we should probably thank God it was made and worked so well. I read that it very nearly didn’t happen, Scorsese toying with the idea of entering Priesthood and making a ‘career’ out of his religion. If he had done so, this path would never have unfolded, and with it all of those untouchable films that have come since, we would never have known.

That’s not to suggest Mean Streets‘ value is purely instrumental. Not at all. In fact, it’s a debut as bold and admirable as Godard’s Breathless. It conveys so similarly the impression that we have a young and enthusiastic director on our hands drunk on his first chance to play with a camera, laying down the themes and stylistic touches that will come to characterise his career, whilst he simultaneously carves out his first masterpiece.

Mean Streets doesn’t quite feel like a Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or GoodFellas, but I do wonder why not. Perhaps it’s because of its obvious rough edges, every scene having been filmed in a friend’s bar or bedroom, whatever they could get for free. There’s no suave sets and high-class gangster life here. The world is equally criminal, but it’s at the street level, and that means it’s dirty and dangerous.

Perhaps it’s also the irrational feeling that De Niro wasn’t a legend just yet, so Johnny Boy can hardly be revered like Travis Bickle, even though he’s equally well (flawlessly) embodied, and often just as interesting.

Most of all, though, I think it’s the music and cinematography. Both feel firmly on their way to being mastered without quite making it at this early stage. The soundtrack’s as memorable as in all Scorsese films, but the thumping Be My Baby during the opening credits is hard to make sense of. Jumpin’ Jack Flash, too, whilst of course always great to hear, just feels odd in its positioning. Maybe the combination of a song that distinctive and the slow-motion camera work was a slight overkill in its attempts to be original.

The same cannot be said of the story. On this front, Mean Streets is arguably the best Scorsese we have, and I really mean that. I love GoodFellas for its effortless style, Raging Bull for its frighteningly bare machismo. But Mean Streets is truly about a human character, rather than one of Scorsese’s madmen. Charlie is one of those confusing people: a criminal and a Catholic, an Aristotelian akratic who’s conscious of his sin and the superficiality of penance, yet somehow incapable of being moved to act otherwise. The result is a feeble attempt to make up for his shortcomings by looking out for Johnny, a wild-card hot-head owing money to everybody in Little Italy and destined to live a life of trouble. There’s a scene towards the end when the two men clash, and the energy is explosive, an early indicator of what De Niro was capable of.

The ending, again, is quaint to say the least. I’m not sure what effect Scorsese is trying to produce, but it’s confusing, alienating. Yet this can be forgiven. Charlie tried to make up for his sins by being better on the street. Scorsese has never really sinned in his filmmaking, but the minor defects here were soon amended, and the excellences already present only added to as time went on.

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