A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
Mean Streets (1973)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets."
These words from the opening voiceover of Mean Streets echo through the rest of the film. While the plot is generally that of a gangster film, following the struggles of Charlie, a young, small-time mobster in New York City's Little Italy, it is Charlie's preoccupation with sin that lies at the heart of the film. Charlie is Catholic, and wrestles with feelings of guilt as he tries to reconcile his love life and criminal activities with his notions of purity. In one memorable scene, Charlie seeks penance by holding his hand in the flame of a votive candle before a church altar. Later in the film, after dancing onstage with a stripper in a local club, he lights a match and holds his finger above the flame.
Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) works as a collector for the local mob boss, who admonishes him for hanging around with the volatile hoodlum Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in a star-making performance). Johnny Boy owes money to a local loan shark, but Charlie's fondness for his friend causes him to get sucked into Johnny Boy's self-destructive spiral. Meanwhile, Charlie has become involved with the epileptic Teresa, but must keep their relationship a secret due to his boss's disapproval of her.
De Niro is a standout, infusing Johnny Boy with an endearing clownishness and a reckless, childlike energy that makes it easy to see why Charlie is so easily drawn to him. The film's best scene, apparently improvised by De Niro and Keitel, finds Johnny Boy explaining his inability to pay his debts by relating a concocted story about a raided poker game. The expert give-and-take between the two actors in this scene shows why they have since become frequent collaborators.
While it was not the first feature film Martin Scorsese directed, Mean Streets was the film that launched his career. It has an unpolished rawness that is lacking in his later work, but this only adds to its power. Even in this early film, many of the signatures of his directorial style are present, including the distinctively stylized camera movement, the use of slow motion, and the popular music soundtrack. While Scorsese has since become well-known to viewers as a director of gangster films such as Casino, The Departed, and the incomparable Goodfellas, Mean Streets was his first real cinematic foray into this world. The film's depiction of the day-to-day struggles of low-level hoodlums was relatively novel at the time of its release, and stands in marked contrast to the more opulent Mafia lifestyle depicted in the previous year's The Godfather.
If you're unfamiliar with Scorsese's earlier films, you might also want to check out his feature film debut, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), which is also available on DVD from Reeves Memorial Library.