“You don’t pay for your sins in church. You pay for them on the street. All the rest is bullshit.”
Mean Streets (1973) is not Martin Scorsese’s first film, but it is the film in which he came into his own. Passionate, energetic, stylistically inventive and personally driven, it is the first mature, full blooded “Martin Scorsese Film.” Inspired by the stories of friends and his own experiences from stories of growing up in Little Italy around small time mobsters and young toughs and would-be operators, it’s the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his mobster uncle whose ambitions to rise in the family business are complicated by his friendship with an unpredictable, self-destructive childhood buddy, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakthrough performance), and a secret affair with a cousin (Amy Robinson, who went on to produce Scorsese’s After Hours and many other films) who rejects his culture of Catholic guilt and male machismo.
But for all the violence of the streets, this is less a crime film than a character piece, a love letter to the streets of New York’s Little Italy and the young men rattling around like tough guys and fantasizing about becoming the real thing It’s not autobiographical in any narrative sense – no street thug, the young, asthmatic Scorsese was considering the priesthood when he became gripped with what was then the completely unrealistic dream of making films – but in Scorsese’s own words, “Mean Streets was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract.”
Scorsese’s barely contained energy drives the loose plot and his rich sense of place and culture gives it a home. And his use of popular music on the soundtrack was revolutionary at the time. Not that rock and roll was anything new to the movies. It’s the way Scorsese used familiar songs to establish tone (“Be My Baby,” which opens the film, offers a nostalgic innocence that contrasts with Charlie’s world of guilt and violence), suggest character (Charlie enters the strip club to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), describe the culture, pace the editing and, in general, create an aural personality and energy. It’s a culture where doo-wop and rock are as present as opera arias. All of those ideas were immediately appropriated by other filmmakers and are so woven through our modern film culture that it’s hard to fathom just how fresh and innovative it was in 1973.
David Proval and Richard Romanus complete their neighborhood quartet (Proval, who made a name for himself decades later playing Richie Aprile in The Sopranos, is unforgettable in a tender moment with a caged tiger), and David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Scorsese’s mother Catherine Scorsese, and Martin Scorsese himself make brief appearances.
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