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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.
Marlon Brando here perfects the portrayal of an upper class Englishman that
he first essayed in Mutiny on the Bounty. His British agent, Sir William
Walker, is patrician, duplicitous, sardonic, manipulative, charming - the
embodiment of perfidious Albion. This exploration of colonialism is one of
the better films Brando made in the sixties, if not the best. In it he was
able to realise his long-expressed wish to make films of a serious,
political nature and this one, which charts Britain's involvement in a
Portugese colony in the Antilles during the mid 19th century, offers an
unequivocally Marxist analysis of the struggle for freedom on the part of
the black sugar cane workers. Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian director, had
previously made the much admired Battle of Algiers on the theme of French
Walker is sent to the island of Queimada on two occasions in furtherance of British interests in the sugar trade. Initially he is employed by the Admiralty to incite a rebellion against the Portugese and install an independent government. Ten years later he returns, this time on behalf of a major sugar company, to destroy the rebel leader he himself has created.
Walker, however, is an ambivalent figure, only too aware of the contradictions in his nature. His stance is that of the professional who tries 'to do a job well, and to see it through'. At the same time, he admires Jose Dolores, the rebel leader, and is contemptuous of those not fighting alongside him. ('Why aren't you up there with them on the Sierra Madre?' he asks a bemused government soldier.) When his successful counter-insurrection leads to Jose Dolores' capture, Walker offers him the chance to escape execution, and is then puzzled by his refusal. As a man without political conviction, Walker cannot comprehend it in others.
The film is not without its flaws. Some fairly ruthless cutting leaves the plot difficult to follow on first viewing. The middle section, accounting for the intervening years in Walker's life, is unconvincing. If he is a disillusioned man, reduced to drinking and brawling (through self-loathing?) there is no sign of it on his return to Queimada. And whatever happened to his next assignment in, ironically, Indo-China?
The rest of the multi-national cast are no match for Brando, who has most of the dialogue and is seldom off screen. Jose Dolores, for example, is played by a young Colombian who had never seen a film before, let alone acted in one, and the imbalance between the two performances is all too evident. Pontecorvo orchestrates the big crowd scenes well, and they have the documentary feel of Battle of Algiers, but they cause the film to swing unevenly between action and ideas.
Making the film was apparently an unhappy experience for all concerned. Shot mainly in Colombia, working conditions were appalling with the cast and crew subject to illness, bad weather and threats of violence. With Italian, French, English and Spanish speakers involved, there were major problems of communication. Brando and Pontecorvo had different views on the main character - the director wanted him portrayed as an unmitigated force of evil while Brando pushed for more light and shade - and relationships between the two deteriorated rapidly. Filming was finally completed in Morocco after Brando, who was at a very low ebb in his life, walked off the set and threatened to quit the production altogether.
Despite its flaws, it remains a fascinating film, with a literate script, a strong anti-racist message and a central performance of great intelligence and wit. Why has it never been released on video in the UK?