So it’s time once again to start doing my blind spot reviews and, keeping the tradition from last year going, I’m bookending the year with the films of Martin Scorcese. For this year, I wanted to start the year with one of Scorcese’s earlier films and, considering the strong reputation it has, Mean Streets seemed like the obvious choice.The plot of Mean Streets mainly concerns two Italian-American friends living in New York, Charlie who wants to move up in the New York mafia and Johnny Boy, a small time thief heavily in debt. Over the course of the film we see how the friendship between the two is fractured, with an extra element in play as Charlie is having an affair with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa. There’s a great theme of responsibility that pervades throughout the film. Charlie embodies those with responsibility, feeling this way towards Johnny Boy, Teresa (especially since she suffers from epilepsy) and his uncle in the Mafia. He also has this feeling towards his devout Catholicism, feeling conflicted about how his life in the Mafia conflicts with his religious leanings and how he doesn’t feel like he is acting penitent for his actions, leading into his feelings of responsibility. Johnny Boy on the other hand represents the lack of responsibility. He is heavily in debt with loan sharks and only pays them when Charlie forces him to (and even then he starts threatening the loan sharks), is constantly getting into fights and these conflicting natures of responsibility collide with each other throughout the film. There are also interesting aspects involving the nature of sin with Charlie, not so much with violence but with sex. Most of the scenes where Charlie feels like he is in sin involve sex in some way and how the relationships he wants are presented as sin (one with a black stripper due to the racism of the other characters and the relationship with Teresa due to he epilepsy, which is equated with insanity). These are all fascinating ideas, ones that would come to define the rest of Scorcese’s filmography (the religious element in particular, most recently with Silence) and whilst the flow of the film doesn’t quite allow for these themes to get the time they deserve (mainly the religious element) the film feeling a bit rambling at times, these ideas are still presented effectively.
This presentation is also effective through the performances of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Keitel does an effective job at showing the feelings of responsibility that Charlie has and his conflicted nature, along with increasing feelings of guilt over being unable to express his feelings or properly help Johnny Boy. The best performance though comes from De Niro as Johnny Boy. He shows his laid back, fun nature throughout the film, along with a violent streak that makes him dangerous to be around (such as when he starts a fight in a pool hall after being called a mook) and his capacity for lying which gets him in trouble quite a few times. The chemistry that Keitel and De Niro have is excellent, elevating both of the performances whenever the two are on screen, most of De Niro’s best moments in the film and the best character work coming when he plays off of Keitel.
Scorcese’s direction, along with the cinematography and editing, whilst a bit rough around the edges due to the low budget, is still great. The use of handheld cameras does a good job of putting you in the viewpoint of the characters, particularly one scene where we see Charlie get drunk, along with showing the chaos present throughout the film effectively. There’s great use of music, mainly the use of Be My Baby during the opening credits and Please, Mr Postman during a well directed fight at a pool hall (the choreography highlighting the disorganised nature of the fighting). There’s effective use of colour as well, mainly for the bar Charlie and Johnny Boy frequent, the dark red used highlighting that the bar is a place of sin.
Overall, whilst it is a bit rough around the edges and is a bit rambling at times, Mean Streets is still a very effective film and shows that even with a tiny budget, Martin Scorcese is still one of the best directors working, the strong thematic weight and the excellent performances from Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro cementing it.
My Rating: 4/5