out of ****
Streets is a film about wasted potential. It is difficult
to watch, but like many difficult films (particularly when they
are directed by Martin Scorsese), it should be watched regardless.
It is a film that is the epitome of the Nature vs. Nurture debate,
in which promising, potentially good kids are trapped in roles
that their society has given them. The film is difficult to watch
because we as viewers realize the potential of these characters
to excel and do well, but they are so trapped in their own world
that they cannot see beyond it. As they continue to soak in corruption,
selfishness, and, finally, violence and murder, we realize that
they have been defeated by their system not because they are bad,
but because they never consider that there is life beyond New
York City’s Little Italy and its organized crime.
film follows Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his life in Little Italy
and their “mean streets.” Charlie is something of
a drifter and “collector”—a grown man, he still
lives with his mother and has no discernable job except collecting
money that is owned to other businessmen in his circle. By day,
he romances next-door neighbor Teresa (Amy Robinson) and dreams
of starting his own restaurant under his uncle’s (Cesare
Danova) guidance and approval. By night, he collects money, fantasizes
about a dancer at his favorite bar, and hangs out with Johnny
Boy (Robert De Niro), Teresa’s troubled cousin who owes
small-time gangster Michael (Richard Romanus) money that Johnny
Boy refuses to pay back.
five characters make up the world of Mean Streets, and
they are all kind-hearted people with the potential to be good,
honest citizens and businessmen. But because they are living in
Little Italy and have grown up in the mob, they are simply living
their lives as they have been counseled to do so. As we watch
Charlie participating in organized crime, we cannot help but think
that the man has a higher calling. He is completely faithful to
Johnny Boy, despite the man’s habitual lying and total incompetence.
Charlie has clear religious convictions, and he isn’t a
bad businessman. We wonder as viewers why he would want to get
involved with the mafia, until we realize that it is all that
he’s ever known, and that he doesn’t know any better.
the way that Teresa has an epileptic fit outside of her apartment,
but Charlie leaves her in the hall because he knows that unless
he gets Johnny Boy’s money to Michael soon, the gangster
will probably kill his friend. Charlie is a man completely faithful
to fulfilling promises and taking care of his own, to the point
that he leaves Teresa to suffer with her disease alone. He has
the ability to do perform actions noble and good, but he is trapped
in the mafia rules that surround him. He’s clearly a good
kid; he just can’t think outside of the world of Little
Italy. Charlie is not alone in his unrealized potential: Johnny
Boy is a good kid who’s just in over his head, and Michael
makes for a surprisingly affable gangster who even apologizes
when he realizes that he’s come across as too threatening.
the film’s events unfold, often tragically, we remain keenly
aware of the course that director Martin Scorsese is taking us.
Mean Streets offer no solutions for these characters
and their ignorance of a world outside of the mafia. The director
is merely presenting us with the fact of the matter, and pointing
out that this is a sad reality that many potentially good people
have found themselves in. As these characters destroy each other
with greed, hate, and violence, we are helpless to watch it happen,
and all we can ask is, “Why?” The true tragedy of
Mean Streets is that Charlie and the others never even
think to ask, “Why?” themselves.
my review of Scorsese’s The
King of Comedy, I observed that he made two types of
film: biographic and “punch-line” movies, in which
the entire film comes together only in the final, closing scene.
Mean Streets marks a third type of film that I overlooked:
Autobiographical. Along with Who’s That Knocking at
My Door (1969), Mean Streets was Scorsese’s
reflection of his own life, and both films make for brilliant
and sad commentaries. Here, he directs with confidence and an
earnestness to tell his story and make his statements to the world.
His rock soundtrack and his slow-motion, one-hundred-and-eighty-degree
shots make his intention clear: He is presenting us with a world
that is always spinning loudly and madly around its characters,
but he slows it down to give the viewer the luxury of watching
carefully and considering what is happening to Charlie and the
others. I believe that this approach reflects Scorsese’s
own escape from this dark, violent world, as he was able to slow
down from the madness and consider the consequences of growing
up in such an environment, and its potentially disastrous cost.
The red filter that he uses to tint the screen also makes us aware
that violence, even if it is sometimes absent, is never far away.
cannot give Mean Streets a perfect, four-star rating,
because it is really a movie made for a specific audience in mind,
with little room to allow outsiders to understand its message.
That message is made for those like Charlie and Johnny Boy who
live in Little Italy and posses little clue that there is a world
outside in which their potential can be realized. The film is
an attempt to slow the madness down and force them to consider
their lives, the way Scorsese managed to do himself. For people
living in this lifestyle, Mean Streets is a four-star
film because they will understand exactly what the film is saying,
and they will be challenged by its message. Audience members viewing
this film from the outside looking in will be intrigued by the
characters and their tragedy, but they’re not likely to
understand exactly what Scorsese is trying to say.
for those in Little Italy, a more important film has never been
made. Others should watch Mean Streets for an understanding
of this world, but don’t expect to grasp its themes. In
fact, you should be happy that you don’t.
Harvey Keitel: Charlie
Robert De Niro: Johnny Boy
Richard Romanus: Michael
Amy Robinson: Teresa
Cesare Danova: Uncle Giovanni
Warner Brothers presents a
Taplin-Perry-Scorsese production. Written and directed by Martin
Scorsese. Rated R, for violence, language, nudity, and brief sexuality.
Running time: 112 minutes. Original United States release date:
October 2, 1973.