Warner Bros. // 1973 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // July 19th, 2012
You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.
We hear those words over a black screen. The voice doesn't belong to anyone in the film, but the thoughts are Charlie's, a young man living in Little Italy. When the words stop, we see Charlie, waking from what seems a bad dream. We hear traffic and police sirens coming from outside. He gets out of bed and looks at himself in the mirror, as if to make sure he's really there. He gets back into bed, and as he lays down, we hear the iconic opening beats from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," a close-up of Charlie's troubled face timed with those beats. Next, we cut to home movies, capsulized moments of Charlie's life in his neighborhood, all scored to Ronnie Spector's perfectly-pitched and plaintive wail.
This is Mean Streets -- the most exciting film of 1973, and the breakout work of one the screen's great artists.
Facts of the Case Charlie (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) is a product of Little Italy. He's lived there his entire life, and so, likely, have his parents; like many unmarried young men, he still lives with his mother. The neighborhood, these streets, are home to him, these people are his family. Charlie's Little Italy is not a place of day jobs: loansharking, numbers running, and backstreet card games are the lifeblood here.
But, it's still a place where honor -- often torturously defined -- is valued.
"Torturous" might also describe Charlie's relationship with Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, Goodfellas), who's as reckless as Charlie is responsible. In fact, Johnny Boy, with his debts and his excuses, is more street punk than honorable man, and he's dragging Charlie down.
It's a story oft-told, but bears telling again. Martin Scorsese had two features under his belt -- the student project/art film/exploitationer, Who's That Knocking at My Door and the Corman-produced drive-in fodder Boxcar Bertha. He'd also been fired from The Honeymoon Killers. He was ready to go forward in the Corman schlock stable when his friend John Cassavetes convinced him to basically follow his heart and create something more personal and ambitious. Perhaps as homage, a poster for Cassavetes' Husbands appears in one scene.
Thus, Mean Streets was born. Thus, Scorsese, one of the great directors of all time, a product of that time of great directors, the '70s, and relevant still, was "born." Thus was also born one of the greatest of actor-director collaborations, Scorsese and De Niro.
Mean Streets is an episodic film, a brash mosaic of moments in the life of Charlie -- Charlie, the tormented soul who wants to believe salvation comes from the Church, but knows he'll only find it on the street; Charlie, who wants to be his own man, but can't admit to being in love with epileptic girl who lives next door (Amy Robinson); Charlie, who's still living at home, still getting money from his mother, who collects debts for his mobster uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova, Chamber of Horrors), and whose only chance seems to be the opportunity to take over a failing restaurant when the owner falls behind in his payments.
It should be Charlie's world, this place, but it's not Charlie's world, and it never will be Charlie's world. Charlie has respect, he has honor, but he has no real power, and he never will have the kind of power his uncle has -- and this being the '70s, we know that gentleman gangsters like Giovanni were even then a dying breed. Charlie makes an effort to be a gentleman; he's a peacemaker -- at several points, we seem breaking up (or attempting to break up) fights and altercations -- but he's also a boy, a grown-up man-boy in a man-boy enclave, where everyone drinks at the same bar, men wear suits, and movies and Chinese food constitute a cool night out.
Despite the nights out drinking, the frequent fights, and the tensions that come from such close confines, it's a pretty humdrum life, but it's all Charlie knows. He's ingrained, and even small attempts to break free -- like setting up a date with a beautiful go-go dancer, who happens to be black, and then standing her up -- prove futile. Even his romance with Teresa, who's Johnny's cousin, is something he has to keep quiet, since her epilepsy makes her something of an "undesirable."
But more than anything, Charlie is driven by guilt. The cause is vague -- some connection between Catholicism and the easy-going criminality he sees every day? Guilt because he's not a more "productive" person? Or just some undefined, existential guilt? Whatever the case, it makes Charlie one conflicted young man. It's also a big part of his connection to Johnny Boy; the guy is literally Charlie's cross to bear.
While life in Little Italy might not be exciting, Scorsese's filmmaking certainly is. Mean Streets is as fresh and thrilling today as it was when it was released nearly 40 years ago. The kinetic editing, the beautifully constructed long tracking shots, the relentlessly dangerous atmosphere, the overtly tortured spirituality, the gritty New York backdrop -- all the Scorsese hallmarks are on display, just in more raw form than his later works.
While Scorsese has arguably made better films and inarguably made more technically ambitious ones, Mean Streets might be his most passionate work. Part of it might be the film's autobiographical nature -- Scorsese grew up in Little Italy, he knew these people, he was these people. Part of it might be that he was hungrier then, that a young filmmaker working on a personal project has to be fueled by passion. The exuberance he must have experienced making this is there in every frame; there is so much life to this film that at times, it all but threatens to burst off the screen.
Decades before Quentin Tarantino made pop classics cool soundtrack material, Scorsese was sourcing his own collection of albums and pulling songs like "Please Mr. Postman," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and "Pledging My Love," along with some opera selections, to score Mean Streets. That Scorsese uses his own music -- and spent a huge chunk of the budget securing rights -- adds to the personal feel of the film.
Mean Streets is a violent film, but there's little bloodshed. The violence is there, it's all over, it's physical, it's emotional, it's incipient -- grown men having fistfights like kids (particularly in one raucus and hilarious scene set in a pool hall), people lunging at each other, a couple of shootings, a man being smacked in the face for insulting a woman and his best friend, someone climbing on a roof and shooting a gun -- just because. It's the "just because" nature of much of the violence, coupled with Scorsese's visceral direction and editing, that makes this film so explosive.
Besides being a great film, Mean Streets is a great movie -- exhilarating, exciting, sexy, and affecting. It fits as well with a bag of popcorn as it does with a book of criticism.
As the conflicted Charlie, Keitel brings his usual intensity, creating a complex character who's as likeable as he is ultimately pitiable. It's a strong central performance.
But the film belongs to De Niro in the showier role of Johnny Boy. A 30-ish arrested and disturbed adolescent, Johnny is a heaping pile of poses and posturing, a double-talking con with a story for everything; every part of him drips street cred, but without any kind of substance to back it up. The first time we see him, he's slipping something into a mailbox. He walks away, briskly, then breaks into a run just as the mailbox explodes. That's Johnny Boy -- and De Niro nails him with a fascinatingly feral portrayal that's up there with his best.
Offering strong support are Robinson, Danova, and Richard Romanus, the young loan shark who finds doing business with Johnny Boy to be a less-than satisfactory proposition.
While the 1080p image on this Warner Bros. release looks overall very good, and the audio is considerably better than the 2004 disc, Mean Streets (Blu-ray) offers no significant new supplemental material. The 2004 Special Edition included a scene-specific by Scorsese and Robinson; for the Blu-ray, co-writer Mardik Martin has been added, so the commentary runs through the entire film, meaning you can toggle the audio to listen to it rather than having to select it from the Special Features menu and skip the scenes where Scorsese and Robinson aren't speaking. Also ported is the vintage featurette "Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block," a studio-produced puff piece (but not without interest), have been ported from the 2004 release. A French Blu-ray of Mean Streets released in 2011 came fully loaded with supplements, including Scorsese's entertaining and equally personal short film, Italianamerican.
This might seem like an awfully picky complaint, but fans of the film might find this a little grating.
As noted at the beginning of this review, the film opens (after the Warner Bros. logo) on a black screen; we then hear Charlie's thoughts (or dream). For this Blu-ray, those words begin while the WB logo is onscreen, rather than over black. So the darkly iconic line, "You don't make up for your sins in church" is spoken over a bright, blue WB logo; the subtitles also ascribe the line to Charlie, which isn't exactly correct -- it might be his thoughts, but it's someone else speaking them (Scorsese himself actually voiced those lines); the 2004 DVD (rightly) just offered the line without attribution.
Not a gigantic problem, I'll grant, and not a game changer. But Mean Streets is a film that grabs you at that first, black frame with that powerful opening line, and losing those few seconds of black frame and sticking the line over a stupid logo undeniably dilutes the effect.
A landmark film, not only for serving as the introduction of one of the great directors, but for helping reimagine how we look at movies. As Judge Dan Mancini noted when reviewing the 2004 Special Edition, "Mean Streets may not be the first picture by Martin Scorsese, but it's the first Martin Scorsese picture."
What are you, a mook?
A great American movie is given a so-so Blu release; I can't say that the
improved tech and addition of Martin to the commentary warrant an upgrade, and
the early-start audio is a problem. Still, Mean Streets is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Vintage Featurette