by Cormac O
On the surface, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is a crime film about New York hoods. But at its core, it’s so much more than that. It’s heaven and hell, good and evil, sin and redemption. Mean Streets is Scorsese’s first big critical hit and his most personal film. Some critics, upon its release in 1973, even hailed it as one of the most original American movies ever made. Pauline Kael called it “a triumph of personal filmmaking”. Mean Streets doesn’t have the lavish style or ultra-violence that would appear in his later films. It doesn’t doesn’t portray the glamorous gangster lifestyles like Goodfellas or Casino. It’s stripped of all the gloss. It’s gritty, grainy and bursting with organic energy from its performances and realism.
When I saw it as a young teenager I didn’t get it. I had seen his later films and had become accustomed to his bigger budgets, blood splatter and glitz. The rawness of Mean Streets and its deep religious themes of Catholic guilt went straight over my head. After revisiting it years later, I have come to believe that it is a true masterpiece. It’s better than Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed (God forbid!). And I love those films, they’re great, but they don’t possess the emergence and raw vitality of Mean Streets. It’s also a film that gives hope to all young independent filmmakers, who don’t want to abide to studio rules and want to make something personal. Now the majority of those filmmakers will produce dog shit, but for every one hundred films, you get one masterpiece.
The film stars Harvey Keitel as Charlie, who might appear to narrate, but that is in fact Scorsese. Charlie is a small time hood, who runs numbers for his Mafioso uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova). The film opens with a black screen and Scorsese’s voice – “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. All the rest is bullshit and you know it” – Charlie wakes up in the middle of the night, looks at himself in the mirror, and falls back into bed while The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ plays. This would be the beginning of Scorsese’s source music trademark. From Phil Spector hits, to the Stones, to Pietro Mascagni. Scorsese’s trademarks of red lighting, slow-motion and long tracking shots can also be seen, even if not as fluid as his later films.
Charlie is at war with himself. He’s a collector for his uncle, who is willing to let him manage a restaurant if he stops hanging around with his cousins, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Teresa (Amy Robinson). De Niro plays Johnny Boy with a sense of danger, unpredictability, who could just explode at anytime. He’s unstable and Charlie feels responsible for him. He believes he should look out for him and help him. He looks to Francis of Assisi for emphatic guidance. Charlie is also sleeping with Teresa and is wracked with guilt. He believes he should be accounted for his sins. He holds his finger above a candle at church, again over a match at a bar. His guilt erupts from sex (pun intended). He feels guilty for having sex with his cousin Teresa. He feels guilty when he is attracted to a black dancer named Diane. He tries to repent by helping Johnny Boy with his debt. For Charlie, this is like a form of redemption from his sinful ways.
The film is predominately shot indoors, and for the majority, in the darkness of bars. The best shot of the film is when Johnny Boy, with two girls hanging from his arms, enters a red-lit bar in distorted slow-motion. Noise and voices become lurid, accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. It’s as if he is descending into hell. And it’s this tightrope between heaven and hell, good and bad, that Charlie walks upon. He tries to balance both worlds, he makes excuses and looks for forgiveness from both sides. Alas, you can’t have your cake and eat it, the streets and the church eventually catch up to Charlie.
Although Mean Streets delves deep into themes of Catholicism, violence and guilt, it still has great comic timing. In fact if you listened to a recording of an audience watching Mean Streets, or even Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, you’d swear you were listening to an audience watching a comedy. The chemistry between Keitel and De Niro is great, the way they bounce off each other. In an earlier scene, the two actors improvise in a discussion about Johnny Boy’s payments. They both eat up the scenery and you can tell that they’re loving it. The “mook” scene at a bar before all hell breaks loose with a brawl, scored by The Marvelette’s ‘Please Mr. Postman’. Scorsese demonstrates organised chaos throughout the film. The performances are clumsy, the look of the film is gritty documentary, but all the while the director has a stylized vision of what is unfolding in front of you.
Scorsese’s youth lay somewhere in between crime and church and Mean Streets depicts that thin line as Charlie tries to keep his head above water by juggling his faith, his lover, his family and his career. Before having a career in film, Scorsese had ambitions of becoming a priest. The theme of Catholic guilt is drenched throughout his filmography, which was prevalent among Irish not too ago. During the 1970s, directors such as Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola, who came from Catholic backgrounds, conveyed this sense of condemnation within their films. Even the richness of the colours within their films – blood red (Mean Streets, Carrie) and chalice gold (cinematography in the Godfathers) – were influenced by the opulence of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. This atmosphere of sin and guilt in these movies raises the stakes on their characters (Michael Corleone/Charlie/Carrie), who don’t just fear for their lives, but who fear for their eternal souls.
Scorsese would go on to make more great films and even today carries the vitality to keep up with audiences and technology. The majority of his films embodied themes of religion, redemption and guilt, but not with the same personal anguish as Mean Streets. The film put him on the map and he’s made more watershed films since, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever make a movie that will capture such raw personality again.
Note: If you haven’t seen Mean Streets or want to revisit it, it’s screening in 35mm at Lighthouse Cinema next Tuesday and Saturday