Martin Scorsese’s gritty drama about twisted loyalty to friends, family & God remains one of his strongest films.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
It’s strange how time can alter the meaning of art. Some things lose their shimmer over time, some become wildly offensive, and so on. In the case of Mean Streets, its impact remains. Time has not dulled Martin Scorsese’s jittery guilt riddled breakthough film, his third overall. Instead, it has cast it as an antidote to all the “back in the days” rose-tinted nostalgia that many carry for their old neighborhoods. Mean Streets reminds us that back in the day, well, things were still plenty ugly and rough.
For decades now, the Mafia has gotten the good edit more often than not, depicted as a close knit group of people who, sure, commit crimes but also do their best for the neighbors and their family and value honor above all else. Mean Streets pushes past that good PR to reveal that the Mafia had no golden age. It always was driven by cruel, thuggish men with short fuses, and aided and abetted by selfish, weak men who refused to stop what they knew was wrong.
In the cosmology of Streets, Charlie (Scorsese’s first muse Harvey Keitel) represents the latter. Preoccupied with salvation and damnation, Charlie wants to make everyone happy and that includes God and the Devil. But he also wants what he wants. As a result, he frequently must deceive everyone, including himself. He can’t admit to his uncle that he is dating Teresa (Amy Robinson), lest he not get to run the restaurant he wants. He can’t admit to Teresa that it’s his choice to hide their relationship, shoveling on quick shot excuses to keep her from drilling down. When his friend Johnny-Boy (Scorsese’s second muse, Robert De Niro) spins increasingly out of control, he can neither call Johnny on it, nor admit it to Johnny’s numerous creditors, nor just walk away from the messy situation. Charlie simply cannot make a choice so he dooms himself.
Keitel is excellent at making Charlie a sympathetic lead despite his almost Hamlet-like indecisiveness. He is aided, certainly by the Scorsese/Mardik Martin screenplay, which gives him one of the best voice-overs in film. Frequently sardonic, exasperated, and self-pitying, Keitel feels like he is in conversation with the viewer (as well as God) throughout. By eschewing the often highbrow nigh omnipotent tone of many voice-overs, the script instead makes it feel like Keitel is whispering asides to us as we move together through his world or sit next to him at the bar.
Time has not dulled Martin Scorsese’s jittery guilt riddled breakthough film
However, a viewer can also fully see why Scorsese would soon make De Niro his onscreen doppelganger. Looser than one is likely used to seeing him, De Niro pulls the lens the moment he enters the scene to strains of The Rolling Stones. He is utterly magnetic. In the early going, the role of Johnny-Boy also affords him the opportunity to play something he almost never has since — goofy. While his attitude will soon curdle into dangerous solipsism, at first De Niro instills an almost boyishness is Johnny-Boy. He’s a mess to be certain, but there is a certain silly sweetness to his entrance at the bar that centralizes the movie. Even the scene prior, where he blows up a mailbox, feels less like the action of a sociopath and more like an overgrown kid. On that level alone, it is a noteworthy performance. However, the way De Niro slowly pushes that attitude from silly unawareness to cruel indifference is worth applause.
Even here, three movies into his career, you can tell Scorsese has rigorously considered and executed his options. Already he has a gift for musical selection. His use of girl groups and just past contemporary rock of the moment is inspired and wonderfully grounds the movie in the moment. He also boasts an impressive range of camera tricks in this early moment, including the “drunk cam” effect that has become a staple of demonstrating a character’s lack of sobriety or feeling of being out of control today.
All of this said, however, the film also feels less studied and sure than Scorsese movies would rapidly become. There is a sense that Scorsese knows this is his shot and he’s going to throw everything in. While I love the director Scorsese will become, this early effort is a wonderful example of the film accidentally matching the subject. Charlie is unsure, edgy, and barely in control no matter how hard he tries. Mean Streets, similarly, feels always on the brink of spinning out, of being either all style no substance or too mired in esoteric navel gazing. However, that dancing on the edge is what gives it its energy, what makes it so involving. Mean Streets pulses with the same anarchic energy and desperate fumbling for truth that it is trying to capture within its frame.