Pros: Harvey Keitel, Robert Deniro, Action
Cons: Story - what story?
Mean Streets (1973)
This was Martin Scorsese's first big success that got him noticed by critics like Roger Ebert and led to Goodfellas, Casino, and other successes showing the various flavors of organized crime a New York City street guy could get involved in.
Mean Streets is a very personal film to Martin Scorsese. The setting depicts his home neighborhood of Little Italy with all its dilapidated sites peppered with ethnic glory. The characters are ones like Scorsese knew as a boy and he eagerly tells about all the little connections in his commentary that accompanies the DVD. I have to note from listening to his commentary, it sounds more like characters he wish he knew because Scorsese, in his worshipful comments, frankly sounds way too mesmerized and geeky to actually have hung around a gang of street hoodlums on the fringes of organized crime. Certainly his language is not like the street people, it is that of an educated outsider, but that is OK. In any case Mean Streets is a good look at the boredom and loose ends young guys without much ambition or guidance found themselves at in city neighborhoods in the early 70s.
Catholicism is a strong story thread and the main character, Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, is always thinking back to his religious training in voice-over mostly but sometimes in knowing comments he makes to his also Catholic buddies. A lot of the movie takes place around St Patrick's cathedral which is in the heart of Little Italy. The pomp and circumstance of the Catholic ceremonies, vestments, candles, and incense are never far from the minds of the characters.
Charlie has selected Johnny Boy (Robert Deniro) as his personal burden. Johnny Boy is a loner with a terminally dumb attitude who is continually on the dodge from people he owes money to, including a loan shark who tries to get Charlie to help squeeze the money out of the slippery yewt.
The story follows Charlie's efforts to square his buddy's account and stay in good with his agenda to rise into a made man in the mob. Charlie has his own problems including his uncle, a mob boss (Cesare Danova), who warns him to stay away from Johnny Boy and also an epileptic woman (Amy Robinson) who happens to be Keitel's girl, secretly of course. Charlie, of course, seems to believe he can keep juggling all these detriments and still keep the wool pulled over everybody's eyes.
If anything can be said about the story, it is weak and fragmented but has its moments and could best be classified as a morality play that first of all shows you can't change anybody; and secondly, cheaters always get paid back, and it's ugly.
The movie is a good one to show some of Scorsese's early use of gimmicks or techniques that would become his trademarks - 1) pop music instead of a score with heavy emphasis on the Rolling Stones - he used Jumpin Jack Flash in this one as well as a couple other movies. 2) Robert Deniro gets a big part and has gone through several full length films with Scorsese, as has Harvey Keitel who is another of Scorsese's discoveries. 3) Male bonding between street guys with little future. Of course, this was the beginning of the Scorsese Deniro combination that would bring much acclaim with Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull. I also think the movie ran too long for the amount of story, which is another Scorsese trademark - bloated running times.
The Warner Bros DVD is presented in color, in 1.85:1 format, with a running time of 112 minutes. The movie is digitally remastered showing as good as new and comes with a featurette showing Scorsese and two friends walking through Little Italy punctuated with clips of the movie and a commentary by Scorsese and female lead Amy Robinson on a few of the scenes. The commentary is talky and gives insight into Scorsese's thought process vis a vis his movie.
This one has been given high marks by critics and I think it shows some good moments but it has not aged all that well because we have so many more like this, maybe that copied it but came out better. Harvey Keitel was my favorite character here while Deniro was a whack job I couldn't relate to very well.