3.5 Stars out of 4
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” — Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Simple Art of Murder’
Mean Streets is a 1973 crime tale that is ridden under more realism than plot. These aren’t about punk gangsters exactly, but about a city burrowed under lofty sin and hidden remorse. Joyous festivities occur on the street daily and people move amuck freely as if this is their warm-welcomed home. This is Scorsese’s picture. A director who, while young, creates a film less about a winding, epical, and dominant story and more about the bitter reality of a netherworld. It’s misleading – it’s not necessarily the streets we need to fear, it’s what lurks within.
Generally, we are first introduced to Charlie (regular Harvey Keitel, also from Scorsese’s first major work Who’s That Knocking At My Door?). He says to us in a didactic, yet saddened voice over: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. All the rest is BS and you know it.” I will first note the shocking symmetry to Liotta’s quote in Goodfellas about how living a gangster’s life was a pure managerial matter, and how the rest “were suckers, they had no balls.” That’s the set up, Scorsese is telling us – the exposition of the film. How things will ultimately roll, the epithet of the ‘life’ if you will.
Charlie, knowingly, is a hypocrite. To the extent that we understand it, don’t condemn it. The character is caught up in a fickle dilemma: how does one live a clean, scrupulous life, sinless, while also tarnished by the rough and tumultuous endurance as a street punk? Charlie prays in the church, stating pathetically: “I’m not worthy to drink your blood.” Scorsese’s camera, omnipotently, wanders from above Charlie, in a god-like judgment. We overlook him, observing that he will ask for salvation but will go out to where there is none.
The streets are presented in ordinary colour, how one would particularly perceive them. But when we enter the bars and sketchy clubs, Scorsese’s camera saturates with red, smearing its atmosphere with the red vermillion of blood, sex, and guilt. The leitmotif of red always is a tool for seduction in Scorsese films. Red flashed in dissolves to exemplify lust in The Age of Innocence and red shadowed the rather murky display of After Hours. It’s a perfect fit for Mean Streets because it brings temptation to a rather putrid situation.
But time slows down when we are first introduced to Johnny Boy (first appearance in a Scorsese film by Robert De Niro). He struts down the bar with two girls nestled in his arms. His friends smirk, take a sip of their whiskey, observe. The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash bombasts on the screen, orchestrating a rather exuberant mood. Like how a boxer parades into the rings (which De Niro did seven years later in Raging Bull). Johnny Boy is an impetuous hustler more intent on getting laid than paying off his debts. And he has many. He’s being pressured by a shark/friend named Michael (Richard Romanus). Charlie tries to straighten up Johnny but he keeps getting empty promises.
Mean Streets never follows much of an arc. The inducing aspect of the movie is how all events spiral into clumsy bar fights and quarrelsome verbal disputes. The genius is that the fights aren’t choreographed to resemble Kung Fu finesse. Guys jump on pool tables, swing pool cues foolishly, and grab hold of each other with flailing arms and hefty swings of the fist. Cops march in doors, apprehend them all (while Scorsese’s camera moves in a handheld, realistic frenzy), but are suddenly paid off. I bet no one outside noticed.
Mean Streets seems to be at first about Charlie. His guilt, his wayward dreams, and his inner demons. In which Charlie dreams of fornicating with a black stripper and Johnny’s epileptic sister, Teresa (Amy Robinson). But then the story turns onto a different keel. It becomes less about the characters, our hopes to care for them, and more about the panorama of the streets. Scorsese finally begins to define.
The film is hardly redolent of the antecedent film noir, with films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. At those times the gangster was more of a business man who runs on his own terms while stipulating others. Mean Streets, coming a few years after the Watershed Year, alters the persona of ‘gangster.’ Charlie, Johnny Boy, and their other mate Tony (David Proval) are more middle-class vagrants who are rebels of society’s laden rules, naturally for the worse not the better. We don’t look up to them, we frown upon them. Not from a religious point of view (as Scorsese does) but of their recklessness and need to wreak havoc. They aren’t mean however (which would make them unlikable), the streets are.
Mean Streets was written by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin. It was in fact his first feature film as his previous works – Boxcar Bertha and Who’s That Knocking… – were student projects. It was told Scorsese was oddly encouraged by John Cassavetes to do this film because he had just “spent a year of [his] life making a piece of shit [Boxcar Bertha].” I have not seen Boxcar Bertha, but I am sure it pales in comparison to the tenacity of Mean Streets. This film dictated modern cinema at that time or even better, commenced it. It added reason to its locale, characters, and what really occurs deep within.
Is Mean Streets perfect? Absolutely not. In fact, its second half really expresses Scorsese’s amateur phase of direction. The story becomes too incumbent on city shots and too dependent on Charlie’s unfolding dreams. We have to watch his undramatic relationship with Teresa and also slowly witness Johnny Boy degenerate. Did we need that? Mean Streets loses its balance at the half-way point, but there are still effective scenes that follow. For example: Scorsese plays the racial card through the insecurities of Charlie. Charlie tries to hook up with a black dancer but he bails on their date in fear his friends would spot him. When Charlie dances with a black stripper, he takes a lighter to his thumb and burns himself. Direct penance.
By no means however does this film register as racial impetuousness. Scorsese does not exploit blacks but he puts them in a film to present a time period deluged by racial insecurities and how those prejudices haunt the characters. Later on in Taxi Driver Keitel would play a pimp, which is oddly not a black person. That saved Taxi Driver from a fatal flaw.
Scorsese finds his own state of the art here. Mean Streets is not completely plotless, but its display is entirely realistic. Or honest. It may bore some upon the first view (as it did with me). But after enduring a second view, I began to appreciate it and laud it. Its a story about a director telling, with mere sincerity, a life, a milieu (Little Italy), not nearly as mean as it is real.