Mean Streets (1973)
Written by Martin Scorsese & Mardik Martin
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets was not the first film made by Martin Scorsese, but it certainly is the first Scorsese film. By that, I mean it is the first movie he wrote & directed that begins to explore the themes and types of characters that would turn up in his work for the next nearly five decades to the present. You can see the seeds of future projects like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas beginning to emerge. Scorsese’s signature use of music explodes from the opening scenes, and his ambition far exceeds the modest budget of this film. Mean Streets was a significant sign that new talent was emerging from the 1970s shoestring moviemaking culture, an auteur whose work would resonate for generations.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is an Italian-American who ambitions within the mafia, mentored by his uncle. He has a weight around his neck in the form of Johnny Boy (Robert Deniro), a hot-headed young man who owes a life-threateningly large amount of money to loan sharks in the neighborhood. Charlie also seeks redemption through his Catholic upbringing, pinballing between the thrill of his criminal activity and the sobering guilt that sets in later. He’s also secretly in a relationship with Johnny’s cousin Teresa. Charlie is headed toward a moment of confluence where all these elements affecting his life are going to explode.
Mean Streets is an incredibly fragmented film, and that’s what keeps it from being in my personal upper echelon of Scorsese pictures. It’s forgivable because he is still honing his craft and figuring out what he wants to say with movies. But, he was always a heavily studied student of cinema, and that is also palpable. There are moments where the music, visuals, and performances come together to make a scene that just shines as a piece of art on its own. Scorsese is very confident with his camera. He knows the shots he wants, and he gets them, delivering some beautifully composed slow-motion scenes that set a standard for pictures that came after.
Thematically, Scorsese was already diving headfirst into examining toxic masculinity and violence. Charlie and Johnny regularly perform for other men in their presence, posturing and making macho declarations. Charlie is at least contemplative of his status in life, taking a measured and respectful approach to the mafia hierarchy. Johnny is just like the cherry bombs he loves to stuff in mailboxes and toss off roofs, a volatile element headed for self-destruction. He continually shows off to impress women and to show men he isn’t intimidated by them.
We are reminded that the men who have successfully thrived in this environment are more calculated. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni never raises his voice but exudes authority and the potential for violence. Michael, the bookie we see Johnny clash with throughout the picture, is not as refined as Giovanni but never unloads on Johnny. He takes in the posture the young man has assumed and makes his moves swiftly, and sends a message. Charlie’s arc is to decide which path he will follow, and the film leaves ambiguity around this decision. It could go either way, but Charlie will make a choice very soon.
Mean Streets feels like a collection of interrelated short stories, which keeps it from being a single cohesive narrative. By no means does that mean it is a bad movie. You just need to go into knowing the film is told in episodes like a bildungsroman about the mafia. Teresa doesn’t show up until around halfway through the runtime if that is any indicator of how the story was pieced together. If this was any other director and these were any other actors, I’m not sure Mean Streets would work. Keitel and Deniro immediately remind us why they were such forces of nature in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. These are a new breed of actors who aren’t glamorous Hollywood stars but feel more a part of the story’s environment. Scorsese sends a clear signal he is here, and as we explore his career in the 20th century, he will change American cinema forever.