a critiQal film review Mean Streets (1973)

Plot: A slice of street life in Little Italy among lower echelon Mafiosos, unbalanced punks, and petty criminals. A small-time hood (De Niro) gets in over his head with a vicious loan shark (Romanus). In an attempt to free himself from the dangers of his debt, he gets help from a friend (Keitel) who is also involved in criminal activities.

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When looking for a film to review for this week’s #TBT Review, I stumbled across Mean Streets, the early Martin Scorcese pic that started his team-up with Robert De Niro. With Harvey Keitel also playing a big role in the film, this seemed like a classic gangster-style epic I wanted to check out.

But, are the critics praising Mean Streets for what it did for gangster films back in the 70’s, and for it’s obvious influence on later films? Or are they praising the film for the entertainment value it presents? We couldn’t wait to find out.

A young Robert De Niro stars as Johnny Boy, a two-bit gambler who doesn’t seem to care that he’s in debt up to his eyeballs. While the same devil-may-care attitude is present that De Niro perfects in later Scorcese pics, it’s mixed with a bloated sense of self-worth that his character isn’t really deserving off. He’s a real loose cannon, not seeming to care what trouble he’s flirting with, and it’s obvious from the beginning the guy doesn’t give a crap about anyone else. While he is short-tempered, he’s not exactly the threatening presence that Joe Pesci later showcased in Goodfellas. Still, it’s an interesting performance by De Niro, even though most viewers will have a hard time feeling any sympathy at all for this jerk.

While Robert De Niro gets top billing in Mean Streets, it’s really Harvey Keitel who is the main focus of the film. While this role is a lot more understated than his later roles (although his character in Reservoir Dogs (1992) seems to be an homage), he does a solid job of gaining the viewer’s attention. He’s the only character with any real depth at all in the entire film, as he tries to balance his catholic faith with his dealings on behalf of his mafia-connected uncle. And of course, there is his friendship with Johnny Boy, where he sees his aid on behalf of Johnny Boy as a means of redeeming his soul.

And that’s basically where the gist of the story lies in Mean Streets. Despite Johnny Boy’s resistance, Keitel’s Charlie is trying to help him to ease his own tormented soul, rather than really for Johnny Boy’s benefit. It’s an interesting angle to the buddy crook film genre, and provides probably most of the praise this film gets.

Unfortunately, if the viewer goes into Mean Streets thinking it’s going to be Scorcese gangster pic along the lines of Goodfellas or Casino, they are going to find themselves badly disappointed. The characters in Mean Streets are much more small-time than any of the characters Scorcese usually focuses on. These are mostly punks, hoods and lone sharks, and it’s obvious in their every movement. This is most evident in their often comic attempts to try to collect debts (which sometimes break out into hilariously UN-choreographed scrambling fight sequences that lead to no – or very little – injuries). These are all small-time thugs in New York City’s Little Italy, and the biggest guy around is big simply because his uncle seems to have some sort of tie-in to the mafia.

When compared to Scorcese’s later pics, this difference makes Mean Streets much less action-packed and much more mundane. However, it seems more down-to-earth and realistic than most of his later films as well, and the cinematography follows that them through. With a few disjointed cut scenes and a soundtrack that seems to play as a jarring counter-note to the film, this earlier pic from Scorcese has much more of a stage-acted, even slightly documentary feel to it. As in real life, there aren’t that many big events (except for the abridged conclusion), and so the film might seem to drag along more slowly for some viewers.

If you go into Mean Streets thinking you’re going to see some big mafioso types a la The Godfather (1972) or Goodfellas, you’re going to find the film a bit underwhelming. However, as a more gritty down-to-earth focus on lesser thugs in New York City’s Little Italy in the 70’s, Mean Streets gives a more personal look to basically a bunch of wannabe gangsters….and with De Niro’s and Keitel’s help, does it with style.

While I prefer the antics of the made men in Goodfellas to have a bit more entertainment value, it’s interesting to witness the beginnings of Scorcese’s decades-spanning obsession with gangsters…and Robert De Niro.

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