Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson
Tag line: "You Don't Make Up Your Sins in Church. You Do It In The Streets"
Trivia: Despite it's New York setting, many of the scenes in this film were shot in Los Angeles
Just off the main drag of the town I grew up in was a small video rental store, one that was different from all the others. While its competitors were dedicating the majority of their shelf space to the “hot new releases”, this particular store offered titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.
It was here I first found Mean Streets.
Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the gut for a teenager from the suburbs. A marriage of violence and chaos the likes of which I had never seen before, Mean Streets offered a glimpse into a lifestyle I found all too real, and more than a little frightening. With street-wise characters in a New York setting, this film also signaled the start of an era for director Martin Scorsese, and provided a glimpse into the style he'd perfect over the course of the next several decades. Yet what truly stands out isn’t its exceptional design, or its gritty depiction of urban life. What stays with you is the character of Johnny Boy, as played by a young Robert DeNiro.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time New York gangster, is a deeply religious man who can’t shake the feeling he should be doing more with his life. Riddled with guilt, Charlie decides to “do penance” by watching over Johnny Boy (DeNiro), a wildly unbalanced hoodlum who owes money all over town. Charlie, who’s secretly dating Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), does what he can to make sure Johnny pays back what he owes, especially to Michael (Richard Romanus), a local loan shark who’s growing impatient with Johnny's excuses. But Johnny Boy may just be too wild to tame, forcing Charlie to take sides in what's fast becoming a very tense situation.
With a wise-ass attitude that drives Charlie to despair, DeNiro’s Johnny Boy is a loose cannon: a thug with a sharp sense of humor and a violent temper to match. The first time we see him, Johnny's dropping a package into a street corner mailbox, after which he turns and quickly walks away, as if nervously waiting for something to happen. A few moments later, the mailbox explodes into a hundred pieces. Yet, despite his anarchistic tendencies, Johnny Boy has plenty of character, and can tell a good story. When explaining to Charlie how a card game left him with no money to pay back Michael, Charlie is understandably frustrated, yet also more than a little amused by Johnny Boy’s witty account of what went down. But Charlie realizes Johnny is a selfish punk, one who'll turn on anyone, even him, without a moment’s notice. It’s this very aspect of Johnny's personality that Charlie hopes to change before it’s too late.
Together, Scorsese and DeNiro have made some of the greatest films in motion picture history. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas, from Raging Bull to The King of Comedy, their collaborations read like an honor role of the Cinematic Hall of Fame. And each one of those masterpieces owes a little something to Mean Streets.