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Mean Streets (1973)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A flashy but over-rated study of life on the sidewalk's of New York's Little Italy, Mean Streets sacrifices meaning for authenticity. The action is extracted from a select group of small-time crooks, all of whom know each other well. Central to the story is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an honourable man who has trouble reconciling his religious beliefs with the day-to-day sinning. The problem then is that he's a little too soft on people, disposed to letting situations get out of hand rather than nipping them in the bud. One of these lingering itches is Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), an unstable but fitfully amusing friend who cares only for himself. By vouching for Johnny with Michael (Richard Romanus), the local loan shark, Charlie is stuck in a no-win situation when Johnny continues his usual habit of never paying back debts.

Meanwhile life continues as usual. The gang hangs out in Tony's (David Proval) bar, a fairly low-grade establishment with dancing girls and nightly fights. Sometimes they cruise the streets, looking for easy pickings (such as callow Brooklyn teenagers) before stopping off at the movies. In the daytime Charlie wants to make something of his life, so he collects payments for his Mafia uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). What he'd really like to do is settle down with his own restaurant, although that might mean making things official with Teresa (Amy Robinson). The catch here is that she's Johnny's sister and Giovanni doesn't look highly upon Charlie mixing with either of them. In his dreams Charlie fancies the idea of a low maintenance affair with Diane (Jeannie Bell), a dancer; if he's pragmatic though, Charlie realises that it'll never happen.

In what seems, retrospectively, a defining moment for American cinema, Mean Streets unleashed Scorsese upon an unsuspecting world. While not his first film, it is the one that introduces many of his trademark themes. With Charlie, Scorsese picks at the two conflicting strands that power many of his works: gangster life and religion. On the one hand, Charlie wants to do right by everyone and somehow "save" those who have lost their way (like Johnny Boy). In his mind, you make up for your sins on the street, not in church. The drawback to this code is that it founders if nobody else follows it. Thus, Johnny is content to mess around blowing up post-boxes and infuriating people because he doesn't, and never will, care. Since Charlie regards this behaviour as a temporary aberration, rather than as a manifestation of the underlying persona, he mistakenly believes that change will occur if only he pushes hard enough. The stage is set for a dramatic explosion of frustration, the consequence of misunderstanding.

The knack that Scorsese has for creating an environment, within which he records passing events, is realised with assurance in Mean Streets. Since he intimately understands the neighbourhood, Scorsese doesn't waste time plotting the big picture; instead he concentrates on the minor details, the insults and the worries. These low-level hoods are forever on the edge of the major action, chasing after money in a meaningless merry-go-round. The problem is that while Scorsese conjures up the right atmosphere, he fails to capture, and transmit, the emotional beat of the streets. The main characters are thus superficial and, by default, the performances lack heart. The cast are, however, skilled and manage to make the roles believable (if remote and poorly established).

With this caveat, Keitel is excellent as the decent but torn Charlie. Imbued with qualities both heroic and stupid, Charlie seems determined to make his life as tough as can be, a trial to endure. So, instead of cutting Johnny loose (as everyone else advises), he keeps his hand in the flame. De Niro also attains wonderful heights, though with a diametrically opposed character. Johnny is a real live wire, cocky and abrasive, so De Niro throws himself into over-drive, constantly moving and acting up. However, a sense of self-protection is missing in Johnny, so De Niro plays him with a suicidal and irrational recklessness. The supporting cast is good, especially Romanus, though all are doomed to perform within a narrow range. It's a shame that the female roles get the usual short shrift from Scorsese (Robinson gets to be devoted, angry and writhing) but this is not really a surprise.

Where Mean Streets shines is in the technical virtuosity of Scorsese, as filtered through his command of the camera, lighting, space and music. Typified by the excellent opening sequence, which introduces the major characters with scenes of their own, Scorsese captures exactly what he wants you to see and nothing more. Thus at times the view is from above, sometimes from below and, for the more dynamic scenes, a hand-held camera comes into play. At all times the actors are where Scorsese wants them, placed to achieve the desired balance. Sharp editing then ensures maximum impact. An unusual touch is the incredible use of colour, saturated deep into the red in bars, then over-exposed almost to monochrome elsewhere. By itself this is merely impressive, overall pushing the film stock in this way deepens the tone of the picture. Last, but not least, comes the memorable soundtrack, mixing classical and rock with Scorsese's usual flair.

However, for all his vaunted technical ability, Scorsese doesn't make you care for either Charlie or Johnny. Their characters are so clear-cut and unyielding that there's no room for emotional ambiguity, which removes any opportunity for emotional identification. As hustlers they are, like the screenplay, all surface and no substance. The point is that while Scorsese assembles almost all of the pieces needed for Mean Streets, he doesn't quite marshal them in the harmonious and involving fashion of his later films. As a result Mean Streets is a bit of a con, blinding you with showmanship to the void beneath.

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