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The first time that Robert De Niro appears up-close in Martin
Scorsese's Mean Streets is to the tune of the Rolling Stones' Jumpin'
Jack Flash. It's from this point forward that the movie leaves the
realm of being a 'good film' and becomes 'one of the greatest films of
all time.' Simply put, the energy of Mean Streets is fantastic. De
Niro's flamboyant entrance is one of many iconic moments in the film,
which has influenced just about every crime film made since for good
And yet ironically Mean Streets is rarely acknowledged as the masterpiece that it is, perhaps because a number of people actually forget about it. Everyone remembers Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas in particular, but Scorsese's breakthrough remains one of his most important and honest pieces of work, given little recognition apart from the praise by movie critics who do remember it.
Harvey Keitel, giving one of his most realistic and three-dimensional performances of all-time, plays the lonely and worried Charlie, a 20-something New York City Catholic who is haunted by his friend, Johnny Boy (De Niro), the local loner who has to jump off the sides of streets in order to dodge the local Mafia thugs he owes money to.
Mean Streets has been accused of lacking a point, and one critic calls it 'too real,' but I'd take this over most recent films any day of the week. Mean Streets doesn't have a dynamic arc like most motion pictures do sure, there's the rising action leading up to the climax, but it doesn't move from one frame to another trying to figure out the easiest way to end the movie while managing to stress all its points in such a manner so blatant that a four-year-old could pick up the themes.
It respects its audience enough to study its characters in such a way that they are given ten times as much depth as those seen in modern films released through Hollywood. As Johnny Boy, De Niro paints the ultimate portrait of a typical street loner a dumb kid who 'borrows money from everyone and never pays them back.' Charlie, much smarter and wiser, takes Johnny under his wing and tries to help him get a job, so that he can pay back what he owes to a local kingpin. However, Johnny is so irresponsible and stupid that he doesn't show up for work and begins fighting with the mob leading up to an inescapable conclusion that features some very ancient themes colliding together. It's the classic tale of redemption and escaping one's past, and if the film has a point it is that some people can't change and you'll get what's coming to you, even if you've got other people helping you out.
The film does have its technical flaws, such as poor dubbing, inconsistency, and the occasional goof. It's a raw movie, filmed on a low budget by a young and far more naïve Martin Scorsese. But all his typical elements are in place, to be expanded upon later in his career.
Keitel and De Niro are superb, particularly De Niro who shows great range very early on in his career. Almost unrecognizable in shabby clothing, hats and a scrawny figure to boot, this is a role that would typically be more suitable for Christopher Walken or other charismatic character actors but De Niro pulls off the role with intense talent, proving once again that he can handle any type of role. He's known for his psychotic roles, but in Mean Streets, he plays the opposite of Travis Bickle. Johnny Boy isn't unstable or psychopathic he's just wild and stupid.
Keitel channels all the thoughtful consciousness of an older child, considering Johnny Boy to be a brother of sorts. He feels that if he fails Johnny, he will somehow fail himself.
Mean Streets is a careful character study that never resorts to cardboard cutout caricatures or the standard clichés of the genre. Dialogue does not exist to move action forward towards the next adrenaline-packed sequence; Mean Streets focuses on its inhabitants with such strong emotional power that it's impossible not to be caught up in its grasp. A true classic from start to finish, and undeniably a very moving film.
One of the things that I love the most about watching the old classics
is when you can so clearly see the beginnings of what later became such
trademarks of a director, actor, even a genre. Martin Scorsese begins a
long line of films about the gangs of New York with Mean Streets, a
gritty look at the underside of New York City that foreshadowed much of
the same stark realism portrayed in Taxi Driver a few years later. It
reminds me of the minimalist realism of films like Spike Lee's Do The
Right Thing, another urban classic.
Robert DeNiro plays Johnny Boy, the fast talking kid who owes money all over town and never seems to care to pay anyone back. We meet other characters who owe people money, and their apologies at not being able to pay are genuine, they realize that they're not going to get late fees added to their debt or Last Notices, they're putting their lives on the line. There is genuine fear on their side and genuine malice on the side of the people they owe money to, but Johnny Boy just doesn't seem to care.
Harvey Keitel plays Charlie Cappa, who is constantly trying to get Johnny Boy to shape up and pay off what he owes, knowing the danger that he is in and frustrated at Johnny's lack of interest or care in the fact that he owes so many people so much money. Johnny and Charlie live in the same environment but completely different worlds. Johnny holds himself in and laughs everything off, occasionally venting his frustration in quick bursts of violence, Charlie is much more contained but is tormented spiritually. While Johnny gets himself into endless debt with people that collect by any means necessary, Charlie goes to confession and holds his fingers over flames to remind himself of the dangers of the afterlife should he mess up in this one. Catholicism is a major character in this film.
The movie is set in New York City in the late 1960s, where Scorsese grew up in presumably something of a similar environment. Something must have gone differently, since he ended up one of the most famous directors in the world rather than dead like so many characters in his movies do, but he creates this environment in Mean Streets that gives an incredible view into the dangers of the life that so many people lived and continue to live there. I've never even been to New York, but having seen so many of Scorsese's films I think I can understand why the environment could have had such an impact on him that it dominated most of his career as a filmmaker.
There are some classic scenes in this movie that would have been much more widely quoted were it not for the even more quotable lines from Taxi Driver. Mean Streets, for example, is where you find the classic speech by Robert DeNiro, I'll call it the "I borrow money from everybody so I owe everybody money so I can't borrow money no more so I borrow money from you because you're the only jerkoff around here that I can borrow money without paying back!" speech. I love that one, especially the expression on his face, he's having such a great time.
But considering the world that he lives in, it's almost understandable the way he cares so little about placing himself in danger. In a life as bleak and unpromising as the one that is portrayed in this movie, it is to be expected that someone will display passive suicidal behavior. Johnny knows he's never going to go to college, he's never going to be a doctor or a businessman or drive a nice car, he's going to grow up working menial jobs and live an obscure and meaningless life, in his eyes, and that's what the movie's about.
Charlie seems to have similar feelings, looking to the Catholic Church not only as a means of salvation and spiritual fulfillment but for meaning as well. Granted, that is a very common goal for people getting involved with religion of any kind, but even more in Charlie's case. He is certainly the level-headed one between him and Johnny, but his future is not a whole lot brighter. Regardless of how much more responsible Charlie is than Johnny or how hard he tries to get Johnny to straighten out and pay off his debts, they both live in the same world, and so do their debtors. It is a world that is described in the lyrics of one of the songs in the movie
"Have you ever had a wish sandwich? It's the kind where you take two pieces of bread and wish you had some meat."
This film has been overshadowed with all the praise heaped on other Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro films, but this is a classic which is as good as Casino or Goodfellas. It's more rough around the edges and less tightly plotted than those films, but less cold hearted, and De Niro and Keitel are amazing in these early roles. The sense of tension and danger towards the end, when the situation is spinning out of control, is done perfectly. You can see the influence of this in the films of Danny Boyle and especially Quentin Tarantino. A must for Scorcese/De Niro fans.
Mean Streets was a brilliant early film by Martin Scorsese. It was his first
ever collaboration with Robert DeNiro. Their very successful partnership has
produced some of the best movies ever made: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull,
Goodfellas, and Casino. It also helped launch Harvey Keitel to
Keitel as Charlie and DeNiro as Johnny Boy deliver great performances. Scorsese's direction is strong. Even close to 30 years ago, these three men show the talent which would eventually place them among the very best in the business. Scorsese uses a great selection of popular music in Mean Streets and that has become a trademark of his.
Mean Streets easily ranks with Scorsese's best. 9/10
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.
MEAN STREETS (4+ outta 5 stars)
Maybe the film doesn't look like so much these days... since most of the story techniques, film stylings and intense performances have been re-done and over-done to the point of cliche... but when I first saw this movie... WHAM! I was blown away! And, now having seen it some half a dozen or more times, I still find it riveting... the dialogue, the camerawork, the way music is utilized... just brilliant! Martin Scorsese directs the first big, big film for Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro... they all did great work here... and, incredibly, got even BETTER as years went by. Keitel plays the good Catholic who feels the need to look out for crazy psycho punk Johnny Boy (DeNiro) who is in debt to every loan shark in town... and shows no signs of paying any of them back. Fabulous quotes galore... most of them laden with profanity: "I f*** you right where you breathe!" "What's a mook?" "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*** and you know it."
- "I f*uck you right where you breathe"
Directed by Martin Scorsese (1973)
Mean Streets came out in 1973 after Scorsese almost had the script under development in a decade. This is one of his first personal movies, describing the raw environment in the streets of Little Italy in NYC. We follow Charlie in the leading role and the bunch of guys around him. The hustler Johnny Boy owes a lot of money to the loan shark Tony and doesn't make his payments to him. Charlie now tries to work out a deal with Tony and is trying to get Johnny Boy to pull himself together, even though this looks like an impossible mission.
Scorsese's first motion picture Who's That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets have many resemblances and contain the typical trademarks that Scorsese is now well known for. He almost always makes a character study of the life of lonely men, who are trying to get the best out of their situation in the asphalt jungle. Hustling, working, drinking, taking drugs etc. are very typical things to do for the persons appearing in his movies.
Mean Streets is photographed mostly with a hand hold camera, which helps create a raw look that fits pretty good to this environment. Also the movie doesn't contain an actual score. Actually songs from the director's personal music collection do work as the background music. The plot is this picture is only secondary. This is like many of Scorsese's other movie primarily a character driven story with a raw environment description.
The movie marks the start of one of the greatest director/actor collaborations ever! The role of Johnny Boy was Robert De Niro's role in a Scorsese picture, and later on he went to bigger leading roles under the director, which gave them both the reputation that they have today. Also this is Harvey Keitel's second leading role in a Scorsese picture, but after this movie Keitel and De Niro kind switched roles (see Taxi Driver).
This movie is not just a good movie - It also is the movie which helped form the foundation of Martin Scorsese's later pictures.
Scorsese's first film, the interesting catastrophe "Boxcar Bertha,"
marked his birth as a director, but it was with his second feature,
"Mean Streets" that we witnessed the birth of an artist. Most of "Mean
Streets" is slightly unfocused with a simplistic plot based around a
lot of machismo grandstanding and long bouts of boring dialog
(occasionally made interesting by DeNiro's off-kilter star-making turn
as Johnny-Boy), with spats of visceral violence (far less gory here
than in later Scorcese pics), and a visual bravado that seems slightly
less disciplined but no less entertaining than your standard Scorsese
Despite its drawbacks (mainly due to youth and inexperience), the template was set. The opening credits (done to the tune of "Be My Baby") suck you right into the film, and the rest of the movie is peppered with Scorsese's loving treatment of popular music that would later become one of his most endearing hallmarks. The basic premise featuring Harvey Keitel as Charlie (the young hood with a heart of gold and conflicted internally by the religion of the Church and the religion of the Streets), Robert DeNiro as Johnny-Boy (the equally loved and hated loose-canon brother figure), and Amy Robinson as Theresa (the woman our hero wants to put on a pedestal as a saint but often treats like a whore), is a trifecta of archetypes we see repeated again and again in Scorsese's films (most obviously in "Casino" with the DeNiro-Pesci-Stone characters, and most subversively in "The Last Temptation of Christ" with Jesus-Judas-Mary Magdalene). The religious iconography, the brotherhood of crooks, the attraction to the gangster lifestyle, the keen eye for depicting violence in artistic and startling ways...these are displayed here in "Mean Streets" in their rawest form.
Though flawed in many ways, "Mean Streets" set the stage and laid the the template for the type of film Scorsese would perfect seventeen years later with "Goodfellas." This heralded the arrival of a new talent and a new genre, and the world of film has thankfully never been the same.
This is a well acted and stylish film which is let down by a poor
Keitel is great in the lead and De Niro steals a lot of scenes as the out of control friend but the good cast are wasted.
Nothing much happens. A little action and violence but that is it. It is a slight character study of a nice guy living in a bad place but that wasn't enough to sustain my interest.
I was expecting a lot having heard the name and read some of then comments on this site as well as seeing the quality of the cast and I was extremely disappointed.
I was bored throughout.
How can you endlessly watch a total screw-up borrow from the mob, annoy the only friend he has, and basically wreck his life without wanting to run away from it all? When the screw-up is played by young Robert DeNiro you are fascinated, you don't want to turn away. MEAN STREETS was not the debut of both Martin Scorcese or his stars Harvey Kietel and Robert deNiro. They struggled in the field for some time. This is the film that told the world, new head-honchos have arrived on the screen! MEAN STREETS tells of low-rent street hoods in Little Italy. Harvey Kietel plays the one hood whose a voice of reason, who doesn't mess up all the time, who is smart enough to avoid trouble. When DeNiro's Johnny Boy is first seen here, he is playing infantile tricks, and is telling his friend how he can't go in half the stores around him because he owes everybody money. Martin Scorcese uses a gritty documentary-shooting style to unfold his movie. It remains probably the best film of 1973 (But 1973 was not one of the best years for movies.)
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