The future is set for Tony and Michael - owning a neighbour- hood bar and making deals in the mean streets of New York city's Little Italy. For Charlie, the future is less clearly defined. A small-time hood, he works for his uncle, making collections and reclaiming bad debts. He's probably too nice to succeed. In love with a woman his uncle disapproves of (because of her epilepsy) and a friend of her cousin, Johnny Boy, a near psychotic whose trouble-making threatens them all - he can't reconcile opposing values. A failed attempt to escape (to Brooklyn) moves them all a step closer to a bitter, almost preordained future. Written by
Dave Cook <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Mean Streets has all the characteristics we have come to associate with Scorsese - the fluid camerawork, the expressionistic lighting, the sudden explosions of violence, the eclectic soundtrack. In later films, he took cinema to new heights with the flowering of his technical skills and the broadening of his material, but Mean Streets remains unsurpassed for the emotional intensity which only a young director, passionate about film and intent on making a personal statement, could achieve.
The theme of the film is contained in the famous first line 'You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets' (a Scorsese voice-over). An extended preface which delineates the nature of the film and its characters before the narrative begins includes brief cameo scenes introducing the four protagonists (a much copied device: see, for example, Trainspotting).
Scorsese's alter-ego is played as in the earlier 'Who's That Knocking At My Door?' by Harvey Keitel, giving the performance of his young life. He is Charlie, a junior member of a Mafia family who collects debts and runs numbers, but who also has aspirations to sainthood. The other key figure is his anarchic friend, Johnny Boy, played with ferocious energy by de Niro.
Charlie is introduced coming out of confession, dissatisfied with his penance. Reciting words doesn't mean anything to him and he can't believe that forgiveness could come so easily. Deliberately burning his hand in a candle flame is a more effective reminder of the pain of hell. The camera follows Charlie from the altar into Tony's bar, a red-lit inferno, and when Johnny Boy comes in, to the tune of Jumping Jack Flash, Charlie recognises that this is the form his penance will take. Johnny Boy is the cross he must bear. 'You send me this, Lord' he says resignedly.
Johnny Boy's irresponsibility and impulsiveness make him everything Charlie, with his controlled, anxious, guilt-ridden persona, is not. The argument which follows in the back room about Johnny Boy's debts deserves its reputation as one of the great scenes in seventies cinema.
Charlie's life moves in well worn, claustrophobic circles. Hardly anyone outside his immediate circle appears in the film and other ethnic groups are viewed with suspicion. The characters seldom appear outdoors or in daylight. Charlie inhabits a world of bars, pool halls and cinemas. In the one scene he appears in sunlight, he looks ill at ease. The suit and heavy overcoat he wears (reflecting his Mafiosi ambitions) look distinctly out of place on a beach. It's significant that in this scene Teresa, his girlfriend, scorns his small-time gangsterism and challenges him to join her in moving away to a new life. But Charlie is trapped by his desire to please his uncle.
Scorsese has said that his choice in adolescence lay between becoming a priest and becoming a gangster and that he failed on both counts. Mean Streets allows him to explore that choice to devastating effect.
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