Mean Streets was another rewatch for me, this time because I was really distractible the first time I saw it, and I wanted to give it another chance to make an impression on me. And it did. It really, really did.
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.
Harvey Keitel is Charlie, a junior member of the New York mafia, in charge of shaking down local business for protection money. But Charlie, though he’s good at his job and enjoys a good reputation among his peers, isn’t personally invested in moving up in the organization’s power structure, and would rather take a more legit position overseeing a restaurant (one seized from the struggling owner in the mafia’s version of foreclosure). Meanwhile, he’s handling the careless Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), who is always in debt and doing very little to pay off those debts except getting Charlie to convince his creditors to back off. Plus, he’s secretly dating Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), a relationship that would be frowned upon by his superiors.
All three of these characters are kind of outsiders in the family/organization; Johnny Boy because he’s basically a feckless bum, unable to make good in any way and in fact ends up causing a great deal of trouble to everyone, and Charlie and Teresa because they both ultimately want to escape the life, get out of the organization. The tension among the three of them as well as between them and the others in power is as electric as any of Scorsese’s later films, and has an added touch of raw vitality. If The Godfather is the epic story of the upper levels of mob leadership, Mean Streets is the microcosm of how it plays out on the streets.
One of the reasons I was ambivalent toward Mean Streets the first time I saw it is really because I didn’t give it the attention it deserves, and because of that I had difficulty keeping track of characters and their shifting relationships with each other, and difficulty understanding motivations and actions. There’s actually a LOT of subtlety in this film, far more than you might expect for a first-time director doing a relatively low-budget, raw, almost slice-of-life gangster film. But Charlie is a fascinating character, constantly caught between the things his position requires him to do, his own moral compass, his care for his family and friends, his desire to do right by everyone and still not compromise himself, and his intriguing relationship with the church and his attempts to work off his feelings of guilt.
Meanwhile, DeNiro is a live wire as Johnny Boy, almost a bundle of raw nerves, reacting like electricity to the things that go on around him, unpredictable and uncontrollable. I actually just watched The Godfather, Part II for the first time this week (I know, I know), and the contrast between that role and this is astonishing – honestly, DeNiro is one of the few consciously Method-based actors who I find utterly captivating and believable in every role. As Johnny Boy, it’s easy to see both why Charlie wants to help him (he’s often like a child, relying almost naively on the fact that someone will help him), and why Johnny’s actually incredibly dangerous, liable to set off a string of tragic events at any second simply due to his unthinking carelessness and bravado.
Scorsese captures here, as he does so often in nearly every film in his career, the physical space of the setting, in this case the gritty experience of these streets where he grew up, as well as the tender moments that reveal both sides of Charlie’s personality. Yet he does so with incredible artistry, too, using long tracking shots to follow the characters (not as virtuoso in scale as the shot in Goodfellas, but even in this very early film, he’s already well on his way to being a master director) in their environs, and camera filters to give an emotional and aesthetic punch. It’s a combination of reality and artifice that works perfectly, and I’m even more excited now to delve into the rest of Scorsese’s filmography – after I finish with New Hollywood in general, of course!