“I swear to Jesus Christ on the goddamned cross, that kid thinks he’s makin’ a jerkoff outta me, I’m gonna break his leg!” That’s what loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus) hisses at one point in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie, Mean Streets, and the line encompasses nearly everything that distinguishes Mean Streets—indeed, it encompasses nearly everything that defines Scorsese as a kingpin of New York crime cinema. The line blends Catholicism with macho swagger, vulgarity, violence, and the moral code of the Italian-American underworld. All of those themes pervade Mean Streets, which was Scorsese’s first “real” feature after helming the grungy black-and-white indie Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and the lurid Roger Corman production Boxcar Bertha (1972). With its bravura camerawork, naturalistic performances, and thundering soundtrack, Mean Streets put Scorsese on the map.
The picture was also his first collaboration with actor Robert De Niro, because even though the star of Mean Streets is actually Harvey Keitel—who also had the top role in Who’s That Knocking at My Door?—De Niro gives the picture’s most flamboyant performance, and his live-wire energy is the film’s pulse.
Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, the movie tells a simple story about Charlie (Keitel), a low-level mobster whose ascension through the Mafia’s ranks is impeded by the destructive behavior of his best friend, Johnny Boy (De Niro). Arrogant, immature, and impulsive, Johnny Boy flagrantly rips off one loan shark after another, displays contempt for underworld authority figures, and relies on Charlie—whose uncle holds a position of power in the Mafia—to bail him out of trouble whenever things get too intense. Complicating the dynamic between the men is Charlie’s romantic involvement with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson). As the movie progresses, Charlie wrestles with his various obligations—to Johnny Boy, to Teresa, to his uncle, and to God (since he’s a devout Catholic), trying and failing to be everything to everyone.
Mean Streets is a movie of unassailably noble intensions, because Scorsese is after nothing less than defining the soul of a community. By examining various characters who represent different facets of New York mob life, the director ponders the enigma of men who treat each other with honor while stealing from the rest of the world. Furthermore, Scorsese’s camerawork and direction of actors are consistently remarkable. The camera whips and whirls around scenes to accentuate the volatility of situations; the quick editing and imaginative use of pop songs and classical music on the soundtrack gives the movie a unique rhythm; and the performances all feel so naturalistic that many scenes seem as if they were improvised. All of Scorsese’s preternatural gifts are on full display here.
Unfortunately, so are his weaknesses.
The depiction of women in the film is outrageously sexist (both by male characters and by Scorsese, who needlessly includes leering nude scenes); the show-offy auteur flourishes, like scoring a fight scene with the peppy Motown song “Please, Mr. Postman,” are fun but distracting; and the constant barrage of “fucks” within dialogue gets tiresome. The biggest shortcoming of Mean Streets, however, is also the film’s key virtue—the fact that the picture is an anthropological study of assholes. Dimensional though they may be, the characters in this film are still inherently awful people, criminals driven by greed, id, and a lack of social conscience. Scorsese captures these people better than anyone else, but the question remains whether low-rent scumbags actually deserve this sort of close attention.
Mean Streets: GROOVY