One of Martin Scorsese’s earliest big screen directorial efforts, Mean Streets (1973), hit movie theaters nearly 40 years ago. While it may seem terribly dated—it is unequivocally situated in the early 1970s—the performances given by Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in the lead roles are incredibly memorable and truly powerful. By themselves those performances make this a film worth watching.
Keitel is at the film’s center as Charlie, a small time hood whose uncle runs the local crime syndicate. Charlie spends his time hanging out with his friends, making collections, and covering for ne’er-do-well Johnny Boy (De Niro) every time Johnny does something wrong. For his part, Johnny is out for a good time – he gambles, drinks, looks for girls, and generally tries to avoid doing any real work. Johnny owes money all over town including to Michael (Richard Romanus), who is friends with Charlie and who is none-too-happy with repeatedly having to let Johnny slide.
Johnny certainly has personal issues, but the film isn’t interested in exploring them. Johnny is the supporting character and just one of the things Charlie has to manage. The film is interested in Charlie and his desperate attempts to be liked by everyone. In a telling pairing of scenes early on, Charlie talks to Johnny privately, explaining to Johnny how is has to straighten up and fly right, how Johnny can’t continue to lie and be a slacker. Charlie then goes to talk to his uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova), and it is Charlie who starts to act in the same sheepish and chagrined fashion Johnny just did when talking to Charlie.
Rather than serving up some of the more grandiose plots and schemes that Scorsese’s other gangster movies have exhibited, Mean Streets instead is far smaller in tone and feel. These aren’t guys who are at or near the top of the organization, they’re kids on the corner who are just as interested in going to the movies or getting completely drunk as they are in anything else, they just have these particular jobs because of the neighborhood in which they grew up.
It is, as much as any other movie, this gripping thing where one can see it all going bad far before it does. The viewer is left wishing and hoping that these guys are going to find a way out despite the obvious fact that they won’t, that this is their life and that this is all their life is ever going to be.
Part of the reason for that is the way it is shot (we’ll get there in a minute), and part of it is the brilliant dialogue from Scorsese and Mardik Martin and the way that dialogue is delivered. Johnny Boy’s ridiculous stories and Charlie’s dealing with them as well as the wishes of his girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson), is a wondrous thing to behold. The speeches themselves may not feel terribly realistic, but they are entirely personal and human. De Niro and Keitel deliver all their lines with such power of emotion and realism that one can instantly see why these two men became such stars.
Much of Mean Streets is shot in a documentary, choppy style, and, based in part on Scorsese’s own life, the film squarely places itself in Little Italy in New York City with all the color the neighborhood has to offer. If a film can be both bleak and colorful, Mean Streets is that. The viewer lives in the same bars and apartment building and closed-in streets as Charlie and Johnny, experiencing what they experience and, via the occasional voiceover narration from Charlie, getting a good idea of some of what Charlie is thinking. It is a small, brilliant film, with some outstanding performances.
The only thing disappointing about Mean Streets is the way it’s been treated with bonus features on its new Blu-ray release. Outside of a commentary track with Scorsese, Martin, and Robinson as well as an old, short, featurette on the film there are no special features. It is such a powerful, great movie, and one which helped propel careers that it seems impossible to believe that no one who was a part of it would agree to sit down and talk about the thing once more. For a film made by one of today’s best directors and which has received brilliant reviews nearly across the board (it has a 98% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes), one can’t imagine it would be hard to get a few of today’s better known critics to sit down for a few minutes and talk about the film’s influence on the careers of those involved and various other forms of media (okay, another release, not for the United States, does have such stuff).
The Mean Streets Blu-ray release features a decent transfer, but the film isn’t helped by its age. A lot of the nighttime shooting is dark, but it is bright enough still to see what is happening. The level of detail is good in these scenes, but not tremendously high. Details aren’t always as apparent in some of the bar sequences, but one gets the sense that they were probably never there. It is a very clean transfer, with little to no dirt to speak of and all the jump cuts seeming to be directorial choice and not an issue in the transfer. It is a dark, gritty, film and it retains that sense in this release. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound track is solid but don’t expect some sort of spectacular surround presentation. The streets are present, the background noises are present, it sounds like a real place, but it is all mono. The film has some great pieces of music and they, as well as dialogue and effects, come through loud, clear, and clean.
Mean Streets, with its performances by a young Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro and directed by a young Martin Scorsese is not just a small gem of a movie by itself, but it foreshadows the greatness that all three men would experience later in their career. For those who have never seen it, Mean Streets is a treat not to be missed.