Mean Streets (1973)


(director/writer: Martin Scorsese; screenwriter: from the story by Martin Scorsese/Mardik Martin; cinematographer: Kent Wakeford; editor: Kent Wakeford; music: Eric Clapton; cast: Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy Civello), Harvey Keitel (Charlie Cappa), David Proval (Tony), Amy Robinson (Teresa Ronchelli), Richard Romanus (Michael Longo), Cesare Danova (Giovanni Cappa), Victor Argo (Mario), George Mammoli (Joey ‘Clams’ Scala), Jeanie Bell (Diane), Murray Moston (Oscar), George Memmoli (Joey), Martin Scorsese (Assassin); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jonathan T. Taplin; Warner Brothers; 1973)

“This film showed the world that a major talent had arrived on the scene.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film showed the world that a major talent had arrived on the scene. Martin Scorsese’s (“Who’s That Knocking at My Door?”/”Boxcar Bertha”) third film is a gritty crime melodrama of small-time hoods in Manhattan, in which he directed from his own story and co-wrote with Mardik Martin. It has a good eye for minute detail in capturing the aimless streetlife of its loser protagonists. Though the film-making still lacks the later polish a Scorsese film is noted for, it makes up for that by its intensity, genuineness, technical innovations and great cast of unknowns at the time who are all superb and went onto fame. This is one of the better films to emerge from the 1970s. It’s also one of the first films to successfully weave contemporary rock music into the narrative.

It follows four punky Italian-Americans from Little Italy, wacko Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), religiously conflicted Charlie (Harvey Keitel), wannabe big shot Michael (Richard Romanus), and the sober bartender Tony (David Proval) who owns the bar where they hang out. The boys have the swagger of gangsters, as if belonging to the same gang; but, they go their separate ways as they struggle to eke out a living by either smuggling, running numbers, loan-sharking, being enforcers or stiffing tourists with scams. In their leisure they childishly horse around, pick up girls, and go to movies. They worship at the shrine of Charlie’s Mafia uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), who runs the neighborhood and demands that Charlie become more responsible and act like a pro. Uncle promises to promote Charlie if he gets his act together, which calls for losing his irresponsible friend Johnny Boy–someone he considers a walking time bomb–and dump Johnny’s cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson). Uncle calls her “sick in the head” because she’s an epileptic. Charlie puts off Theresa’s request to move out of the neighborhood and live with her in their own apartment, by saying it’s more important that he work things out with his uncle as a logical career move.

Charlie vows while in church that he must not get away with his sins by just having the confessional priest make him say a mere 10 Hail Marys. He is filled with Catholic guilt knowing he does wrong, and utters to himself out loud “I mean if I do somethin’ wrong, I just want to pay for it my way.” The guilt-ridden man has a thing about seeing how close he can put his fingers near the flame without burning himself, which he attempts throughout the film. He vows to imitate the life of St. Francis and also be a respectable gangster like his uncle, but is humorless about this contradiction in lifestyles when his girlfriend laughs at him when he mixes religious talk into their conversations. Charlie also believes it’s his obligation to look out for the volatile Johnny Boy, whom he believes is too far gone to look after himself, but is troubled about how far he should go with this misplaced loyalty (confusing his vague ideas of idealistic religion with the reality of street-life). Things get out of hand when Johnny not only doesn’t pay back loan shark Michael the few thousand dollars he owes him, but insults him verbally and gives him as payment only $10.

Capturing the excitement, the noise, the violence and the lure of the streets, the film is charged with energy as it gives these unpleasant sorts a chance to express their racism, homophobia, macho-ism, sexism and mindless yearnings to be gangsters. In contrast, Charlie enjoys the benefits of being connected but is embarrassed by the crudeness of his pals, in how limited his life is, and is wracked with guilt that he might not be the good guy he thinks he is as he’s known in the neighborhood as an enforcer for his uncle collecting protection money from the small-businesses. Charlie questions if he can or wants to escape his fate, if there’s any place to escape to, or if he can go on forever living a life filled with contradictions and secret dalliances that won’t upset his peers and mentors.