"You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bulls--t, and you know it." Returning to the autobiographical milieu of his 1968 debut Who's That Knocking at My Door? for his third feature, Martin Scorsese examined the daily struggles of a wannabe hood to keep his morals straight on the streets of Little Italy. Driven equally by his wish to become a respectable gangster like his uncle (Cesare Danova) and his desire to live his life like St. Francis, Charlie (Harvey Keitel ...
"You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bulls--t, and you know it." Returning to the autobiographical milieu of his 1968 debut Who's That Knocking at My Door? for his third feature, Martin Scorsese examined the daily struggles of a wannabe hood to keep his morals straight on the streets of Little Italy. Driven equally by his wish to become a respectable gangster like his uncle (Cesare Danova) and his desire to live his life like St. Francis, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) takes on his energetically unhinged friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) as his own personal penance, intervening to get Johnny Boy to pay off a debt to the local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus). Despite his promises to his epileptic girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson) that they will move out of Little Italy once he strengthens his position in his uncle's world, Charlie's involvement with Johnny Boy further ensnares him in the neighborhood. When Johnny Boy decides to mouth off to Michael rather than pay him, Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa try to flee Michael's murderous anger (and an assassin played by Scorsese), forcing Charlie to realize that the rules of the streets do not mesh with absolution. Whereas fellow "film school generation" director Francis Ford Coppola transformed the Hollywood gangster movie into metaphorical epics about the Mafia and capitalism in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Scorsese revised the genre in the opposite direction, focusing on the gritty minutiae of daily life and drawing from personal memory. Combining documentary-style realism (even though most of the film was shot in L.A.); kinetic editing and camera movement; and expressionistic lighting, angles, and film speed, Scorsese presents an intimate picture of the trivial incidents and latent violence of Charlie's and Johnny Boy's world, naturalistically unfolding their experiences rather than simply explaining what motivates them. They lead a claustrophobic, petty existence that Scorsese and screenwriter Mardik Martin witnessed growing up in Little Italy, complete with a soundtrack of hit songs like "Be My Baby" and "Jumping Jack Flash" that had poured out of neighborhood radios. Mean Streets opened at the New York Film Festival to excellent notices and played strongly in New York but failed to duplicate that level of business elsewhere. Even so, Mean Streets established Scorsese and De Niro as formidable young talents and marked the beginning of a long-running and fertile collaboration that continued in such films as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese's exceptional grasp of the texture of day-to-day life, the rhythm and cadences of street talk, and cinema's visual and aural possibilities makes Mean Streets one of the pivotal films of the 1970s, as well as of Scorsese's career, and an influence on such future filmmakers as Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, among many others. Lucia Bozzola, Rovi
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Martin Scorsese's early film "Mean Streets" (1973) tells a story of religious redemption and of loyalty set in the criminal world of New York City's Lower East Side in the 1960s. The movie featured brilliant acting debuts by its two main characters, Robert DeNiro (Johnny Boy) and Harvey Keitel (Charlie), both of whom played leading roles in later Scorsese films.
The movie has a thin plot, or tangle of thin plots. Charlie is a young, rising petty criminal in the Mafia who has strong Catholic convictions together with guilt about his apparent path in life. He is a faithful friend of another young man, Johnny Boy, headstrong, selfish, impulsive, and half-crazy. Johnny Boy is deeply in debt to another rising and menacing young criminal, Michael (Richard Romanus). At great risk to himself, Charlie tries to help out Johnny Boy. Charlie is also involved with a young epileptic woman, Teresa, (Amy Robinson) related to Johnny Boy. Charlie's boss, his uncle and a higher figure in the criminal ranks, Giovanni, (Cesare Danova) warns his young protege to steer clear of both Johnny Boy and Teresa. The film builds to a violent epiphany of a conclusion which reminded me of the ending of Henry Roth's novel, "Call it Sleep".
The film is difficult to follow for viewers with the expectation of a linear, straightforward story. The movie rewards more than one viewing. With careful viewing, the film has a powerful, cumulative impact.
"Mean Streets" is set in the bars, restaurants, go-go clubs, apartments, and, in particular, the streets of Little Italy. Most of the action takes place at night. The movie is improvisatory and episodic. It consists of a number of small, carefully developed vignettes which at first may seem unconnected to one another. The different themes develop slowly and indirectly. The religious themes are suggested throughout as the movie explores Charlie's tormented character. Each individual scene has a great deal of tension and atmosphere, as the characters alternate between camaraderie and barely suppressed violence in the unforgiving world of Little Italy. The cinematography and lighting add immeasurably in defining the action and were unusual for their time. The movie includes an insightfully appropriate musical score consisting largely of doo-wop songs from girl groups of the early 1960's.
The film offers a rough, raw picture of streets and of crime, combined with a hovering feeling of religious grace. Scorsese explored these themes in many subsequent movies. "Mean Streets" stands on its own without needing comparison to his latter efforts. "Mean Streets" is a tough, suggestive film for viewers with a passion for exploring the meaning of American urban life.