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Mean Streets (1973)


OMG the barrel is a plastics factory!
OMG the barrel is a plastics factory!

Genre: Crime Drama

Starring: Robert De Niro (Taxi DriverRaging Bull), Harvey Keitel (Reservoir DogsBad Lieutenant)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese (CasinoCape Fear

Overview: Charlie is a small time hood who works for his uncle. His hopes of owning a restaurant could well come to fruition, but his girl and his friends are not respected by the uncle who could hold the cards of his future. Then there's Johnny Boy, the impetuous friend who causes Charlie so much trouble.


a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person - Merriam-Webster
archetypal young males who act like moronic boneheads... self centered simpletons - Urban Dictionary
A few slick shots, sure

Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese's third feature, after the documentary Street Scenes, and a depression-era tale named Boxcar Bertha. Looking through Scorcese's filmography is like climbing a steady slope of films that become ever more popular than the last as one follows his career. Mean Streets has a young and completely arrogant Robert De Niro character as well as a young and ironically wiser than usual Harvey Keitel. But youth doesn't mean grace, and, if you'll allow me to continue with the climbing analogy, watching Mean Streets feels more like a warm-up than a work-out.
We begin by immersing ourselves into these nigh-underworld characters. We learn of Charlie, his dreams of owning a restaurant and his secret girlfriend, a relationship frowned upon by his rich mobster uncle because of her epileptic fits, not to mention his uncle's hatred of his friendship with her cousin Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy has a way of borrowing money from people and never quite having it when it's time to pay up, while still always seeming to have enough for a night on the town. Charlie is a bit of a soft touch, perhaps too trusting and loyal to those around him than those who could offer him a better, tamer future. From here the story follows a mostly slice-of-life character arc as opposed to one with a dramatic plot.
My lukewarm reception of this film stems from that same youth I spoke of earlier. The cinematography shows signs of inexperience and the scenes are often rote. The most disappointing of all is that the end played out exactly as I had expected it would half way through the story. We open with a quote, a wise one, "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." Charlie has a thing about reminding himself of the pain of Hell by putting his hands over flames, and though his reasons are well known to us, this theme of Hell and sin doesn't ever become relevant or poetic, remaining merely a reminder to the audience of Charlie's internal code of failed morality.  
Of course, as is true of any cinephile, there's plenty to like. Being a fan of grand entrances, I was glad to see Johnny Boy introduced with a flourish - his first scene had him blowing up a mailbox in a New York City Street in broad daylight. Also it's Robert Goddamned De Niro, and no matter how bad a movie is, if he's in it, well, Hell it's ok... mostly. Every word he speaks is idiotic, stupid, brash, smart-mouthed and... mookey. And hey, there's even a young David Carradine playing a bit part as a raging drunk.
Keep looking up that hill, Scorsese!
Keep looking up that hill, Scorsese!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 5 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 68% (And Rough Around The Edges)
That being said, Scorsese is one of those directors that everyone eventually learns is extremely important, and potentially worthy of a completist study. Those embarking on a quest to watch his films in chronological order will get a certain grin on their lips when they watch Mean Streets, the same way I did watching early Kurosawa and seeing Mifune for the first time, the same way I did when I watched my first real defineable Hitchcock. Those movies weren't great, but they were signs of an auteur developing their craft, and even if it's not that great, it's still effin' Scorsese.

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I definitely see your point on Mean Streets - that it "feels more like a warm-up than a work-out" - and would have wholeheartedly agreed with you after my first viewing a couple of years back.

I've re-watched it a couple times since then, and most recently for the 1001 Club reviews and perhaps filled in the missing pieces without really knowing it.

In comparison to Scorsese's later work, this is a raw barebones film - which is why I think it has grown on me. 

Great review Squish! This is exactly why I think the 1001 Club is so much fun!

I totally agree. it's nice to be able to share thoughts at the same time! You are quite right about the bare bones-ness of Mean Streets, but in the end, EY! Wassamadfdafayou! it's Scorsese!

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