“Honorable men go with honorable men.”
The film that launched Martin Scorsese into a lifelong career of success, shot on a meager budget and featuring some of the biggest rising stars of the 70s – it’s Mean Streets. This straightforward crime flick is one of Scorsese’s most fascinating gangster creations. It really demonstrates his directorial ability for the first time and marks the first of his endless string of crime movies. While his later work may outshine Mean Streets for its scope of vision, Mean Streets is not a film to be discounted. I find that it works on a more subtle, sharper level than most films of the same genre, and it’s quite an innovative work for its time.
Harvey Keitel and Robert deNiro stand at the forefront of a gripping story in New York’s Little Italy. Charlie (Keitel) is a small time loan collector working his way through the ranks, dragged down by his irresponsible, unreliable friend Johnny Boy (deNiro) who owes money to lenders all across town. As Johnny becomes more reckless with his debtors and business mixes with personal, Charlie finds himself at odds with his closest friend. As always, a romantic interest finds its way into the mix as Charlie has secretly been seeing Johnny’s epileptic cousin, Teresa (played by Amy Robinson). I saw the story as a sort of gangster-style Of Mice and Men, with Charlie as a hard-working figure constantly undermined by the faults of his incompetent friend to the point where it compromises his ability to make a living. It’s a neat idea with a lot of fun moments that keep the script grounded and make the film capable of a fairly light viewing.
While Keitel and Scorsese had actually worked together previously on what had been the debut for both of them, Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967), this is really where the both of them hit their stride. Keitel brings the perfect up-and-coming gangster portrayal that has been repeated for decades: hard working but frustrated. You can’t help but root for him against Robert deNiro, who brings a silly, immature type of performance that is surprisingly fun and out of character for the types of roles he would go on to play. While the supporting cast is sharp and hits their marks, the real show is the relationship between Keitel and deNiro. They both want respect, and you feel for both of them because of this, but they chase after it in different ways. This is the first film in which Scorsese perfectly casts his gangsters and directs them to show some humanity and ambition underneath the shady dealings they undertake, and this is what makes his crime films so great. Although The Godfather had already done it the year before, Mean Streets is still one of the first gangster films that feels full of real human beings. I’d much rather watch Mean Streets or Goodfellas over something like Scarface, where the one-dimensional nature of the criminals leads the film to be about spectacle over substance.
One of the funnest things about Mean Streets are the little faults or weaknesses that spring up, indicative of Scorsese’s relative inexperience as a director or simply the lack of funds and production capability he was working with in 1973. The bar fight scene in particular has some strange cuts where the action seems awkward, but it’s an ambitious project for such a small budget, and these mistakes seem more like relics of an older time and signs a rookie director than they do actual flaws. I’m also always interested in how directors shoot for longer run times as their careers progress, with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (1975) both under 2 hours and almost none of his later work meeting this criteria, with most of his crime films spanning 2 and a half to 3 hours. Mean Streets is a cleaner, simpler story that doesn’t span much story time at all compared to Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, or any of these other more epic films. While I do prefer watching Goodfellas because it accomplishes so much more, it’s nice to enjoy a more focused story such as Mean Streets. In this film, Scorsese isn’t spanning the life of a character to show their rise and fall. It’s a simple back and forth over a conflict. We get a piece of these characters’ lives instead of the whole story, and there is undoubtedly a place for this kind of movie alongside the epics. For this reason, I’m sure Mean Streets was somewhat of an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino, who even cast Keitel as the front man in Reservoir Dogs for his own debut work.
I’ve never been sure what to tell people when they ask for an introductory film to a director. I suppose the best thing to do is go in order, but do you really want to risk losing someone on a great director because they started with a more sophomoric film? It’s a tricky question, but thankfully for Scorsese, Mean Streets serves as one of his earliest works and is also a really strong piece of cinema. While I didn’t start with it personally, I don’t think anyone would be disappointed if they did. It’s a sharp, fun crime movie with some strong actors and thrilling direction. There are films that do it better, but it’s one of the first to do it well, which certainly makes it worth watching.
Films Left to Watch: 936