Mean Streets (1973)

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cinematography Kent L. Wakeford

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a young Italian-American man who is trying to move up in the local New York Mafia but is hampered by his feeling of responsibility towards his reckless younger friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a small-time gambler who owes money to many loan sharks. Charlie works for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local caporegime, mostly collecting debts. He is also having a secret affair with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), who has epilepsy and is ostracized because of her condition—especially by Charlie’s uncle. Charlie’s uncle, a dignified man who takes his role as caporegime seriously, also wants Charlie not to be such close friends with Johnny, saying “Honorable men go with honorable men.”

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Charlie is torn between his devout Catholicism and his Mafia ambitions. As the film progresses, Johnny becomes increasingly self-destructive and disrespectful of his creditors. Failing to receive redemption in the church, Charlie seeks it through sacrificing himself on Johnny’s behalf.

At a bar, a local loan shark named Michael (Richard Romanus) comes looking for Johnny to “pay up”, but to his surprise, Johnny insults him. Michael lunges at Johnny, who retaliates by pulling a gun on him. After a tense standoff, Michael walks away, and Charlie convinces Johnny that they should leave town for a brief period. Teresa insists on coming with them. Charlie borrows a car and they drive off, escaping the neighborhood without incident. But then a car that had been following them suddenly pulls up alongside, Michael at the wheel and his henchman, Jimmy Shorts (Martin Scorsese), in the backseat. Jimmy fires several shots at Charlie’s car, hitting Johnny in the neck and Charlie in the hand, causing Charlie to crash the car. The film ends with an ambulance and police arriving at the scene, and paramedics take them away.

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Mean Streets is a 1973 American crime film directed by Martin Scorsese and co-written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin. The film stars Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It was released by Warner Bros. on October 2, 1973. De Niro won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as John “Johnny Boy” Civello.

Apart from his first actual feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and a directing project given him by early independent film maker Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha, this was Scorsese’s first feature film of his own design. Director John Cassavetes told him after he completed Boxcar Bertha: “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” This inspired Scorsese to make a film about his own experiences. Cassavetes told Scorsese he should do something like Who’s That Knocking At My Door, which Cassavetes had liked, and then came Mean Streets, which was based on actual events Scorsese saw almost regularly while growing up in New York City’s Little Italy.

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The screenplay for the movie initially began as a continuation of the characters in Who’s That Knocking. Scorsese changed the title from Season of the Witch to Mean Streets, a reference to Raymond Chandler‘s essay “The Simple Art of Murder“, wherein Chandler writes, “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Scorsese sent the script to Corman, who agreed to back the film if all the characters were black. Scorsese was anxious to make the film so he considered this option, but actress Verna Bloom arranged a meeting with potential financial backer Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the musical group The Band. Taplin liked the script and was willing to raise the $300,000 budget that Scorsese wanted if Corman promised, in writing, to distribute the film. The blaxploitation suggestion was to come to nothing when funding from Warner Bros. allowed him to make the film as he intended with Italian-American characters.

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Quintessential early Scorsese, and one of De Niro’s most convincing and varied roles.

Author: MovieAddict2016 from UK
23 September 2004

The first time that Robert De Niro appears up-close in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It’s from this point forward that the movie leaves the realm of being a ‘good film’ and becomes ‘one of the greatest films of all time.’ Simply put, the energy of Mean Streets is fantastic. De Niro’s flamboyant entrance is one of many iconic moments in the film, which has influenced just about every crime film made since – for good reason.

And yet ironically Mean Streets is rarely acknowledged as the masterpiece that it is, perhaps because a number of people actually forget about it. Everyone remembers Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas in particular, but Scorsese’s breakthrough remains one of his most important and honest pieces of work, given little recognition apart from the praise by movie critics who do remember it.

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Harvey Keitel, giving one of his most realistic and three-dimensional performances of all-time, plays the lonely and worried Charlie, a 20-something New York City Catholic who is haunted by his friend, Johnny Boy (De Niro), the local loner who has to jump off the sides of streets in order to dodge the local Mafia thugs he owes money to.

Mean Streets has been accused of lacking a point, and one critic calls it ‘too real,’ but I’d take this over most recent films any day of the week. Mean Streets doesn’t have a dynamic arc like most motion pictures do – sure, there’s the rising action leading up to the climax, but it doesn’t move from one frame to another trying to figure out the easiest way to end the movie while managing to stress all its points in such a manner so blatant that a four-year-old could pick up the themes.

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It respects its audience enough to study its characters in such a way that they are given ten times as much depth as those seen in modern films released through Hollywood. As Johnny Boy, De Niro paints the ultimate portrait of a typical street loner – a dumb kid who ‘borrows money from everyone and never pays them back.’ Charlie, much smarter and wiser, takes Johnny under his wing and tries to help him get a job, so that he can pay back what he owes to a local kingpin. However, Johnny is so irresponsible and stupid that he doesn’t show up for work and begins fighting with the mob – leading up to an inescapable conclusion that features some very ancient themes colliding together. It’s the classic tale of redemption and escaping one’s past, and if the film has a point it is that some people can’t change and you’ll get what’s coming to you, even if you’ve got other people helping you out.

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The film does have its technical flaws, such as poor dubbing, inconsistency, and the occasional goof. It’s a raw movie, filmed on a low budget by a young and far more naïve Martin Scorsese. But all his typical elements are in place, to be expanded upon later in his career.

Keitel and De Niro are superb, particularly De Niro who shows great range very early on in his career. Almost unrecognizable in shabby clothing, hats and a scrawny figure to boot, this is a role that would typically be more suitable for Christopher Walken or other charismatic character actors – but De Niro pulls off the role with intense talent, proving once again that he can handle any type of role. He’s known for his psychotic roles, but in Mean Streets, he plays the opposite of Travis Bickle. Johnny Boy isn’t unstable or psychopathic – he’s just wild and stupid.

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Keitel channels all the thoughtful consciousness of an older child, considering Johnny Boy to be a brother of sorts. He feels that if he fails Johnny, he will somehow fail himself.

Mean Streets is a careful character study that never resorts to cardboard cutout caricatures or the standard clichés of the genre. Dialogue does not exist to move action forward towards the next adrenaline-packed sequence; Mean Streets focuses on its inhabitants with such strong emotional power that it’s impossible not to be caught up in its grasp. A true classic from start to finish, and undeniably a very moving film.

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A Scorsese original.

10/10
Author: Michael DeZubiria (wppispam2013@gmail.com) from Luoyang, China
15 February 2005

One of the things that I love the most about watching the old classics is when you can so clearly see the beginnings of what later became such trademarks of a director, actor, even a genre. Martin Scorsese begins a long line of films about the gangs of New York with Mean Streets, a gritty look at the underside of New York City that foreshadowed much of the same stark realism portrayed in Taxi Driver a few years later. It reminds me of the minimalist realism of films like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, another urban classic.

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Robert DeNiro plays Johnny Boy, the fast talking kid who owes money all over town and never seems to care to pay anyone back. We meet other characters who owe people money, and their apologies at not being able to pay are genuine, they realize that they’re not going to get late fees added to their debt or Last Notices, they’re putting their lives on the line. There is genuine fear on their side and genuine malice on the side of the people they owe money to, but Johnny Boy just doesn’t seem to care.

Harvey Keitel plays Charlie Cappa, who is constantly trying to get Johnny Boy to shape up and pay off what he owes, knowing the danger that he is in and frustrated at Johnny’s lack of interest or care in the fact that he owes so many people so much money. Johnny and Charlie live in the same environment but completely different worlds. Johnny holds himself in and laughs everything off, occasionally venting his frustration in quick bursts of violence, Charlie is much more contained but is tormented spiritually. While Johnny gets himself into endless debt with people that collect by any means necessary, Charlie goes to confession and holds his fingers over flames to remind himself of the dangers of the afterlife should he mess up in this one. Catholicism is a major character in this film.

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Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and George Memmoli in Mean Streets (1973)

The movie is set in New York City in the late 1960s, where Scorsese grew up in presumably something of a similar environment. Something must have gone differently, since he ended up one of the most famous directors in the world rather than dead like so many characters in his movies do, but he creates this environment in Mean Streets that gives an incredible view into the dangers of the life that so many people lived and continue to live there. I’ve never even been to New York, but having seen so many of Scorsese’s films I think I can understand why the environment could have had such an impact on him that it dominated most of his career as a filmmaker.

There are some classic scenes in this movie that would have been much more widely quoted were it not for the even more quotable lines from Taxi Driver. Mean Streets, for example, is where you find the classic speech by Robert DeNiro, I’ll call it the “I borrow money from everybody so I owe everybody money so I can’t borrow money no more so I borrow money from you because you’re the only jerkoff around here that I can borrow money without paying back!” speech. I love that one, especially the expression on his face, he’s having such a great time.

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But considering the world that he lives in, it’s almost understandable the way he cares so little about placing himself in danger. In a life as bleak and unpromising as the one that is portrayed in this movie, it is to be expected that someone will display passive suicidal behavior. Johnny knows he’s never going to go to college, he’s never going to be a doctor or a businessman or drive a nice car, he’s going to grow up working menial jobs and live an obscure and meaningless life, in his eyes, and that’s what the movie’s about.

Charlie seems to have similar feelings, looking to the Catholic Church not only as a means of salvation and spiritual fulfillment but for meaning as well. Granted, that is a very common goal for people getting involved with religion of any kind, but even more in Charlie’s case. He is certainly the level-headed one between him and Johnny, but his future is not a whole lot brighter. Regardless of how much more responsible Charlie is than Johnny or how hard he tries to get Johnny to straighten out and pay off his debts, they both live in the same world, and so do their debtors. It is a world that is described in the lyrics of one of the songs in the movie –

“Have you ever had a wish sandwich? It’s the kind where you take two pieces of bread and wish you had some meat.”

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Redemption on the Lower East Side

Author: judy.dean from St Andrews, Scotland
3 May 2000

Mean Streets has all the characteristics we have come to associate with Scorsese – the fluid camerawork, the expressionistic lighting, the sudden explosions of violence, the eclectic soundtrack. In later films, he took cinema to new heights with the flowering of his technical skills and the broadening of his material, but Mean Streets remains unsurpassed for the emotional intensity which only a young director, passionate about film and intent on making a personal statement, could achieve.

The theme of the film is contained in the famous first line ‘You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets’ (a Scorsese voice-over). An extended preface which delineates the nature of the film and its characters before the narrative begins includes brief cameo scenes introducing the four protagonists (a much copied device: see, for example, Trainspotting).

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Scorsese’s alter-ego is played as in the earlier ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ by Harvey Keitel, giving the performance of his young life. He is Charlie, a junior member of a Mafia family who collects debts and runs numbers, but who also has aspirations to sainthood. The other key figure is his anarchic friend, Johnny Boy, played with ferocious energy by de Niro.

Charlie is introduced coming out of confession, dissatisfied with his penance. Reciting words doesn’t mean anything to him and he can’t believe that forgiveness could come so easily. Deliberately burning his hand in a candle flame is a more effective reminder of the pain of hell. The camera follows Charlie from the altar into Tony’s bar, a red-lit inferno, and when Johnny Boy comes in, to the tune of Jumping Jack Flash, Charlie recognises that this is the form his penance will take. Johnny Boy is the cross he must bear. ‘You send me this, Lord’ he says resignedly.

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Johnny Boy’s irresponsibility and impulsiveness make him everything Charlie, with his controlled, anxious, guilt-ridden persona, is not. The argument which follows in the back room about Johnny Boy’s debts deserves its reputation as one of the great scenes in seventies cinema.

Charlie’s life moves in well worn, claustrophobic circles. Hardly anyone outside his immediate circle appears in the film and other ethnic groups are viewed with suspicion. The characters seldom appear outdoors or in daylight. Charlie inhabits a world of bars, pool halls and cinemas. In the one scene he appears in sunlight, he looks ill at ease. The suit and heavy overcoat he wears (reflecting his Mafiosi ambitions) look distinctly out of place on a beach.

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It’s significant that in this scene Teresa, his girlfriend, scorns his small-time gangsterism and challenges him to join her in moving away to a new life. But Charlie is trapped by his desire to please his uncle.

Scorsese has said that his choice in adolescence lay between becoming a priest and becoming a gangster and that he failed on both counts. Mean Streets allows him to explore that choice to devastating effect.

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A must for Scorcese/De Niro fans

10/10
Author: mljhughson (mljhughson@yahoo.co.uk) from Glasgow, Scotland
21 April 2000

This film has been overshadowed with all the praise heaped on other Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro films, but this is a classic which is as good as Casino or Goodfellas. It’s more rough around the edges and less tightly plotted than those films, but less cold hearted, and De Niro and Keitel are amazing in these early roles. The sense of tension and danger towards the end, when the situation is spinning out of control, is done perfectly. You can see the influence of this in the films of Danny Boyle and especially Quentin Tarantino. A must for Scorcese/De Niro fans.

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