Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets (1973)

Genre: Gangster and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

Release Date: October 14th, 1973 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, David Proval, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova, George Memmoli

 


 

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pening spectacularly with the booming, upbeat “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes – a perfectly contrasting tune for the dark events to come, especially as it segues to a seedy bar with a man sticking a needle into his arm – “Mean Streets” centers on the world of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and the various wannabe crooks who inhabit his circle of friends and acquaintances. Tony (David Proval) runs a bar; Michael (Richard Romanus) deals with stolen goods; and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) experiments with explosives and can’t seem to pay the debts he owes all over town. They’re each involved in illegitimate dealings and scams, which inevitably draw Charlie into problematic situations, as he must sort out feuds brewing and monies owed – primarily to the local mafia, run by his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova).

As with director Martin Scorsese’s other works, music plays a major role here, guiding the mood but also narrating character actions and attitudes, as if substituting for descriptive conversations. It’s consistently more peppy and easygoing than the onscreen activities, giving the smalltime gangsters a lighter, funnier presence, especially as chirpy songs preside over bar fights and other sorts of minor scuffles – augmented by comically short tempers and corrupt authorities. Very few scenes unfold without noticeable musical accompaniment.

The setting of New York – and its criminal underbelly – is a similarly integral component. The lead character and the premise are terribly comfortable here, exhibiting an authenticity and realism amid the conspicuously unglamorous depiction, which works nicely against the unsubtle criticism of religion (and the meaninglessness of mere word-based penance) and the romance between Charlie and Teresa (Amy Robinson), an aspect marginally removed from the death and destruction at the picture’s heart. There’s a certain emphasis on ugliness, and surely an effort to mar the stars, generating a cast of largely unsympathetic people, doomed to endure the tragedies associated with their choices and professions.

As an early Scorsese work, the film is rough around the edges, though it contains the hallmarks of the auteur’s eventual graduation to gangster masterpieces (there’s obvious potential, despite pacing and construction issues). Partly due to the budget, technical elements tend to lack, from the choreography to the lighting to scene transitions to editing decisions to sound quality. And though it may be a purposeful option, the frequent handheld camerawork is somewhat discombobulating, jerkily following roles around as if an unseen entourage member. Yet it’s still evident that Scorsese is cozy with the subject matter (quite personal and partially autobiographical in nature), artistic sequences and other moments of unusual serenity, and his performers – chiefly De Niro, who gives an exceptional turn as the hotheaded, volatile, invariably reckless pal in need of guidance (or who just might have it all figured out as a master manipulator).

Ultimately, however, there isn’t much of a story, instead resorting to the lens simply loitering around the minimal enterprises of an Italian hood and his connections. And it’s Charlie’s cohorts who prove to be more interesting as they navigate unseemly conduct and exchanges. Plenty of attention is given to trivial matters, such as shooting pool, drinking, partying, driving, troublemaking, and spontaneous roughhousing, meandering a bit as the one significant confrontation looms, escalating toward a showdown to determine whether or not Charlie and Johnny survive their foolhardy misadventures and misguided friendship. But it’s not much of a resolution; “Mean Streets” captures a time and place and a couple of relationships, very genuinely, yet with an open-ended close and an unshakeable sense of dissatisfaction.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10