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Our review of Mean Streets (Blu-ray), published July 19th, 2012, is also available.
You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets.
Following on the heels of the Roger Corman-produced exploitation flick Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets proved a turning-point in the director's career. The young Scorsese had a fondness for the deeply personal style of Italian neorealist and French New Wave cinema, but also harbored aspirations of becoming a successful director of Hollywood programmers until directors John Cassavetes (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence) and Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill, Scarface) each came begging he resist the lure of Tinseltown and make a film that meant something to him. Cobbled together on a shoestring budget but benefiting enormously from the practical know-how he'd acquired working under Corman, Mean Streets is the seminal Martin Scorsese picture. In many ways, the greatest films of his career revisit its psychological landscape.
Facts of the Case
Set in New York's Little Italy neighborhood during the Feast of San Gennaro, Mean Streets follows the life of Charlie (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs, The Piano), a young man with aspirations of running a restaurant controlled by his uncle Giovanni, a local gangster. A practicing Catholic, Charlie struggles to do right by those around him despite the often harsh realities of life on the streets. His greatest challenge is running interference for Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, Once Upon a Time in America), a violent-tempered kid whose reckless gambling has left him deep in debt to local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus, Wizards), who is fast running out of patience with the kid. Giovanni's disapproval of Charlie's involvement with the ignoble Johnny Boy forces the young man to hide his romantic relationship with Johnny Boy's epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson, producer of Scorsese's After Hours) and jeopardizes his dream of running the restaurant.
Mean Streets is about a man's ejection from the insular community in which he was bred and lives (Scorsese refers to it as a "tribe" in this disc's commentary) for violating its ornate rituals, codes of honor, and rigid social hierarchy. As such, the picture is the prototype for nearly all of Martin Scorsese's best films. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Casino all cover similar territory from various angles. 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a sort of feminized take on Mean Streets's basic themes, focusing on the isolated life of the lead character after the communal bond has been broken. The Age of Innocence—Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, set in turn-of-the-century New York—is a romance that appears out of step with the director's usually gritty and violent films until one realizes its tragedy is also driven by violations of social propriety. The picture most directly analogous to Mean Streets, though, is 1990's Goodfellas. Both turn on a conflict between their leads' loyalty to the tribe and to a violent and erratic friend—De Niro's Johnny Boy in the former and Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito in the latter.
Mean Streets's Charlie is a unique Scorsese hero because he's an essentially decent guy trying to make the best possible life for himself in a rough-and-tumble environment. His goal of running a restaurant is a far cry from Henry Hill's desire for the wealth, prestige, and adventure that go with the gangster's life depicted in Goodfellas. Charlie deals with the mob because he doesn't have any choice. As a matter of fact, gangsters are such an integral part of the environment in which he's been raised, he doesn't have a second thought about the morality or possible consequences of dealing with crooks—it's just the way things are. There's no swagger in his attitude, and he's not a murderer or a thug. We never even see him get violent in his capacity as a collection agent for his uncle. Instead, he always strives to make everyone happy. He does his best to work out conflicts between his friends and associates. He is the peacemaker. That he suffers for it in the end gives insight into the darker natures of Scorsese's later anti-heroes: Making peace in a corrupt world is a dicey proposition at best. Charlie's Catholicism provides us a philosophical framework through which to view his dilemma. His relentless struggle for atonement and his repeated extensions of grace to Johnny Boy (sometimes aggravating for a viewer) can be read as compensation for the taint of original sin or Catholic guilt, depending on one's perspective (Scorsese's too clever to be concrete). Either way, Charlie tries to live out his faith on the streets, but discovers too late it's impossible to protect the conflicting interests of Johnny Boy, Michael, and his uncle Giovanni—loyalty to one means betrayal of the others. It's this paradox that eventually leads Scorsese to the moral bankruptcy and me-first gangsterisms of Goodfellas.
Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni was a major source of inspiration for Mean Streets, hence the naïveté of Scorsese's childish male protagonists. Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Michael are stunted adolescents, goofing their way through life, essentially unaware they've reached an age at which behavior has life-altering consequences. Throughout the film, we watch them hang out at bars, rip off punk kids looking to buy illegal fireworks for a lark, and talk incessantly about girls and going to the movies. Even Michael, the most sinister of the trio, is diminished as a villain and criminal at film's beginning when we see him trying to pawn what he thinks are stolen camera lenses, only to discover they're filter attachments of no use to his fence. These are boys pretending to be men, posturing, strutting, but all the while avoiding adult responsibility. Johnny Boy is, of course, the most childish. Violent, reckless, and completely unable to empathize with those around him, we recognize immediately he's on a collision course, though he's too much a boy to see so himself. Robert De Niro's work in Mean Streets and his Oscar-winning turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II the following year proved the one-two punch that established him as a star and a substantial and dynamic actor. It's no wonder he steals the show from Keitel, whose even-keeled Charlie is the only male character in the film who aspires toward adulthood and legitimacy, even if he never achieves either.
This new Special Edition release of Mean Streets finally does justice to this important film, responsible for kick-starting the careers of one of America's most important directors as well as one of its most talented actors. The anamorphically-enhanced transfer is framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the image is excellent overall. Source materials were cleaned and restored, and the picture offers beautiful color and acceptable levels of grain. The image is slightly soft but that appears to be a source issue, and I'll take some softness over excessive edge enhancement any day.
In lieu of a score, Scorsese opted to purchase the rights to pop music by The Rolling Stones, The Ronnettes, and others, as well as traditional Italian music. The mix of musical styles helps establish the mixed culture of Little Italy, the psychological landscape in which these second-generation Italian-American boys live. It was also cheaper than financing an original score. Scorsese weaves the music so intricately into the film that the clever and stylish combination of image and music obviously pre-sages the work of younger generations of filmmakers, most notably Quentin Tarantino. In this disc's commentary track, Scorsese notes that much of the music was recorded from his personal collection of LPs. Unfortunately, the DVD's mono audio track shows it. Music is uniformly distorted, and dialogue is thin and often artificial. These flaws are the result of deficiencies in the source and the DVD probably offers the best presentation possible. The track may not sound great, but its true to Mean Streets's 30-year-old, low-budget roots.
Supplements include a commentary by Scorsese and actress Amy Robinson. The track covers only selected scenes, covering about 1 hour and 20 minutes of the film, and the disc automatically skips past those portions of the film not discussed. Scorsese and Robinson were recorded separately but their offerings are so carefully edited it sometimes sounds like they're having a conversation with one another. Scorsese gives much background on his career, including his association with Roger Corman and friendships with John Cassavetes and Brian De Palma, as well as discussing Mean Streets's themes and the inspiration he drew from growing up in Little Italy. Robinson offers more detail about the film's production, including entertaining anecdotes about the actors and director.
"Back on the Block" is a vintage featurette that appears to have been made after Mean Streets had been released theatrically and was blossoming into a hit. It focuses on the autobiographical nature of the film, and Scorsese's return to his old neighborhood in order to shoot it. In addition to the promotional featurette, the DVD preserves the film's original theatrical trailer.
Mean Streets may not be the first picture by Martin Scorsese, but it's the first Martin Scorsese picture. It's seminal, providing a first glimpse of the great films in the director's future. What it lacks in technical precision, it makes up for with that special brand of exuberance and vitality peculiar to young filmmakers discovering their artistic power.
Warner's Special Edition DVD offers a significant improvement in video quality over the previous barebones release, as well as a few substantive extras. It's a must-own, and well worth the price of an upgrade for those who own the original disc.
You think I'd find Mean Streets guilty? Whaddaya think I'm a mook? Get outta here!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Martin Scorsese and Amy Robinson
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