Tuesday, January 17, 2012

#519. Mean Streets (1973)

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 De Niro. 

Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time New York gangster, is a deeply religious man, and 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 (De Niro), a wildly unbalanced hoodlum who owes money all over town. 

Charlie, who is 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 quickly becomes a very tense situation. 

With a wise-ass attitude that drives Charlie to despair, De Niro’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 drops a package into a street corner mailbox, then 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. Still, Charlie knows better than anyone that Johnny is a selfish punk, one capable of turning 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 De Niro have made some of the greatest films in motion picture history. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas, from Raging Bull to Casino, 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.


Klaus said...

While Scorsese's later films definitely owe something to Mean Streets, I really like the film on its own terms - as a gritty rough around the edges production (which feels more realistic than some of his later more widely acclaimed films).

"While its competitors were dedicating the majority of their shelf space to the “hot new releases”, this particular store offered titles like..."

Sounds like it was a fun store to have in your neighborhood!

DVD Infatuation said...

Klaus: Your point is well-taken: MEAN STREETS is much grittier than Scorsese's later works (a reason I, too, love it).

And that video store was a Godsend for me! We had 5 of them in about a 3-4 mile radius (this was the mid-80's, the "Video Boom"), and it was the ONLY one that branched out from the standard movies you'd find everywhere. I loved it, and would usually go up there 3-4 times a week.

Thanks for stopping by!

Ty said...

Excellent review!

That is very cool about your local video store. We used to have a similar super cool mom n' pop one in CT.

DVD Infatuation said...

Ty: Thank you, sir! I do miss those small video stores. You could always find a number of gems hidden on their shelves!

Thanks again for the kind words, and for stopping by.