Gangster Movie Month: "Mean Streets" Review

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A small-time hood struggles to succeed on the "mean streets" of Little Italy.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Mean Streets" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 1973
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Crime/Drama

"Mean Streets" is a crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese, who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Mardik Martin. It was filmed entirely on location in New York. The Library of Congress added this film to the National Film Registry in 1997 due to its cultural and historical significance. Robert De Niro also earned an award for Best Supporting Actor from the National Society of Film Critics for his performance."

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a young man working for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), a gangster in the New York Mafia. His primary job is collecting debts, but his efforts to move up are hampered by his attempts to protect his friend John "Johnny Boy" Civello (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is a reckless gambler who owes money to various loan sharks in the Mafia. Charlie's life is further complicated by his affair with Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy's sister. The affair must remain a secret because Teresa has epilepsy and has been ostracized by their relatives, especially by Giovanni.

The primary theme in "Mean Streets" is Charlie's growing conflict between his desire to advance in the Mafia and his devout Catholicism. He is unable to receive redemption within the church, so he tries to achieve it by helping Johnny. This attempt at redemption becomes more difficult as Johnny's self-destructive tendencies increase, causing him to show less respect for his creditors.

This behavior comes to a head when Michael (Richard Romanus), a loan shark who has loaned Johnny money, tries to collect on the debt. Michael attacks Johnny, who pulls a gun. Michael backs down after a brief standoff, but Johnny, Teresa and Charlie decide to leave town until things cool off. They borrow a car and try to cross a bridge that goes into Brooklyn, but Michael and his henchman find the trio. The henchman shoots Johnny and Charlie during the car chase, and Charlie crashes the car. Police and paramedics arrive in the final scene to take Johnny and Charlie away.

"Mean Streets" was Scorsese's third feature film, after "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" in 1967 and "Boxcar Bertha" in 1972. His first two films aren't as well known, but "Mean Streets" is without doubt a first-class film. It is thoroughly realized, and rivets the audience with its heartbreaking narrative. Scorsese's childhood in Little Italy is evident in "Mean Streets," which takes place almost entirely within this part of New York. This is also the case with "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" Scorsese later reported that he and Martin wrote the script by driving through little Italy. They would park in a neighborhood and write, while immersed in the scenes that would later appear on-screen.

Charlie is an appealing hero as a clean-cut hood filled with conflicting emotions that include profession, ambition, religious devotion, and a sense of fatalism. He is a second-generation Italian-American and lacks the cold resolve of his uncle, who frequently gives Charlie advice about his life. It is apparent early in the film that Charlie does not have the ruthlessness needed to succeed as an underworld thug in the Lower East Side. Furthermore, his love for the disabled Teresa makes Charlie a sympathetic figure, as does his willingness to do almost anything to protect the simpleminded Johnny Boy.

"Mean Streets" pushes its characters, never allowing them to look over their shoulders. It doesn't take a position of superiority over the characters, which might have let the film place some sense of moral relevancy on the story. Scorsese uses only the action in the film to suggest the mystery of the characters motivations. This is a deceptively difficult task in filmmaking, as many poor films rely on a narrator to tell their story.

"Mean Streets" uses a series of seemingly unrelated incidents in the characters' lives to develop the story, including a barroom meeting, a lovers' quarrel or a fight. It also has brief introspective moments that let the characters reveal more of themselves to the audience. It's only at the end of the film that these individual scenes can be seen to be part of a driving narrative.

De Niro makes the most of his flashy character in a manner reminiscent of his role in "Bang the Drum Slowly," in which he appeared prior to "Mean Streets." Keitel is also effective as the honorable and modest would-be mobster, who is doomed to failure as a man who can't help but do the right thing by his friends.

Rating: 4 out of 5