Mean Streets (1973) Directed by Martin Scorsese
New York has become such a safe city. It's full of wealthy college kids and millionaires. It's somewhere where everyone from Finland can go for a visit and comment "it's so safe, it feels safer than Helsinki". Scorsese's energetic Mean Streets shows a time when New York was buzzing with danger. Small time crooks hustle for the mafia in Little Italy. In some sense this should have been the terrain Coppola covered in Godfather III, this shows how drugs became taking care of business. This is an unglamorous picture of New York and the mafia. People are racist, selfish, honest, real. Streets are dirty, dangerous, 24-hour-crazy and no-go.
Charlie and Michael are mafia hoods on the streets, selling drugs and collecting payola. After a day on the streets they usually convene at their friend Tony's bar where they get drunk and watch strippers. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) has taken interest in Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is a reckless young firecracker who owes everyone money in Little Italy, especially Michael (Richard Romanus). Charlie promises Michael that Johnny Boy will repay him his money, but Johnny Boy constantly misses the repayments, causing tension and violence among the group.
Scorsese gives us The Shirelles, The Ronnetes and The Rolling Stones and much more eclectic music on his best soundtrack use ever. The dialogue is over compressed, it's brash and loud. Catholic guilt, small time gangsters, sharp dressers, slick camera work, all the usual Scorsese attributes are on show in his first breakthrough picture. But still Mean Streets bristles with an excitement that Scorsese has lost over the years.
The camera work and editing have an edge that Scorsese over time has smoothed out and replaced with technical expertise. The friendship between De Niro and Keitel is natural, the affair that Keitel has with secret lover Teresa (Amy Robinson) is tender and touching. These are real people and the emotional involvement for the viewer is deep. Scorsese has misplaced this aspect from his film making, we can marvel nowadays at the bravura of his movies but we are rarely moved by them anymore.
But the reason you should watch this amazing film is Robert De Niro. Not only does he look like the coolest mod rock star throughout, this is one of the most exciting acting displays you'll ever see. He is mad and dangerous, funny, unpredictable – the legend starts here. Johnny Boy embodies the film's attitude and prevailing despair, the essence of the times when he says: "I fuck you right where you breathe, because I don't give two shits about you or anybody else."
If this has passed you by, if Mean Streets has not featured in your life, you're missing out. It's still essential, groundbreaking cinema.
This is a film about Italian-American criminal culture without the usual glamorizing. Maybe it is more about being lost as a young adult and Little Italy is just a backdrop.
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) looks super cool in his hat and his various jackets, but he is volatile and placeless. He is pure energy with no respect for social convention, no direction and hardly any brain. He relies on other people's kindness and has nothing to offer in return.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) knows how to behave in his immediate surroundings, he plays by the rules and is thus advancing quickly in the Family. Within his bad-boy crust he is a life-pondering, god-fearing nerd. A lot of his time goes on sorting out Johnny Boy's messes and the rest on having an affair with another cousin of his, the beautiful epileptic Teresa.
Mean Streets describes the mafia as a bunch of average guys with a violent streak and not much savvy for business either. There are no fast routes to richness here. Ignorance prevails, for example epilepsy is thought to be a mental defect and everyone is very racist.
Young people are directionless and lost, this comes with the intense feeling of potential. Some die that way. To others this lostness slowly becomes a facet of who they once were. Something to look back on. This could be my favorite movie situated in the genre of mafia films. It looks effortlessly good and portrays New York as the cruel and narrow machine that it sometimes feels like.