Mean, Moody, Magnificent
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Third up is 1973’s Mean Streets, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Cesare Danova, Richard Romanus, Amy Robinson
Harvey Keitel piercingly glancing in the mirror in his pokey bedroom, and then we cut to the opening credits – the Ronettes blasting away on the soundtrack, juxtaposed with grainy home movie footage of Keitel’s lairy chums mugging for the camera, religious iconography, food, family, and above all the gaudy streets of early 70s New York. Three films in, and immersive, intoxicating Scorsese-ville is here. Filmmaking with gusto and edge, and of course Robert De Niro, an instant icon in the Brando mould. The arrow flies.
Although this was Robert De Niro’s breakthrough movie, it is Keitel who is the main protagonist here. He plays Charlie, a young yet conservative Italian New Yorker who is torn between helping De Niro’s loose cannon Johnny Boy and remaining loyal to his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), a hardened neighbourhood Mafioso who commands heavyweight respect. Johnny Boy, who progressively becomes more and more unstable throughout the picture, develops a lethal feud with Michael (Richard Romanus) that eventually descends into violence. Charlie, meanwhile, is dating Johnny Boy’s cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson), a lady who is desperate to escape Little Italy due to being universally shunned for having epilepsy.
The film bristles with unspent energy, where even the most casual encounter can quickly flip into fistfights or worse. Scorsese’s portrayal of the young Italian New Yorkers who inhabit dive bars and staid restaurants is definitive and was hugely influential – the pace rarely slackens from the panoply of Little Italy parades, drunken melees, trash talking, old country deference and Catholic angst. Only occasionally, when Charlie and Theresa discuss their fractious relationship, either on the beach or in the bedroom, do we witness another side of this life, but it is perpetually underpinned by the menace, hostility and politics that persistently encroach. Charlie can barely let his guard down even during such intimate moments and can’t help but revert to type despite his affection for Theresa, and has no concern about being faithful. Both Keitel and Robinson are excellent in these sequences, which are almost a picaresque and skewed retread of Who’s That Knocking at My Door’s romantic solemnity.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Mean Streets is that despite its focus on a subculture’s hidebound and doomed soldiers and their world of casual violence, it is so kinetically uplifting. Even in the particularly brutal scene in which David Carradine’s drunk is shot repeatedly by an assailant looking to score points with the mob, the onlookers, including seen-it-all bar owner Tony (David Proval) nonchalantly accept it as just another episode, joking about how Carradine, despite being bullet-ridden, kept coming, zombie-like, at his attacker. Such gory, hyperreal moments seem to explode out of nothing in this movie, yet never undermine the film’s heart.
And at the film’s epicentre is De Niro’s Johnny Boy, a dervish of deranged psychosis and existential flakiness, whose general arrested behaviour tests Charlie at every turn. He symbolises the film’s disinterest in providing a message, his charming yet self-destructive attitude appealing and human, unlike the cold-hearted sociopaths he would undertake in later Scorsese projects. His devil may care demeanour is very rock ‘n’ roll, the streets he wanders hermetic yet beguiling – sauntering as he does across rooftops and fire escapes from building to building to avoid creditors, a regular Jack The Lad. Unlike his sharp-suited and immaculately coiffured cronies, he is unkempt and long-haired.
Essentially Mean Streets covers all the bases of the Italian New York demi monde with brio, authenticity and affection, with a mise en scene that Scorsese knew inside and out (both he and his mother have cameos). It never shies away from the rank unpleasantness, but is still respectful and never patronises, either in the pool hall or its portrait of senior mobster Giovanni, masterfully played in a subdued, lugubrious manner by Danova. Many commentators have asserted that it was the first movie to frame New York as naturalistically as it did, although I would say that William Friedkin’s French Connection from two years earlier was also very important in this regard. However where it trumps all predecessors is its detailing of experience, culture and mores, its rock and doo wop juke box providing the woozy dreamscape to New York’s gritty, disconnected backdrop. And Scorsese’s brilliant use of hand-held cameras and fidgety close-ups to denote loss of control became not just a signature of his canon but of many other filmmakers. Still a wonderfully entertaining and beguiling slice of early 70s Americana.
Here’s the film’s trailer