Mean Streets showcases Scorsese’s artistic strengths and weaknesses as they stood at the outset of his career, here in his first feature foray into his childhood stomping ground of Little Italy. In the thirty-plus years since, the balance of his talents remains largely the same, though in his later gangster movies like Goodfellas we certainly find marginal improvement in the areas of narrative cohesion and momentum. Scorsese and Martin’s script never quite binds tightly together, cohering rather in slack, easy strands as it chronicles the struggles of Charlie Cappo (Keitel), a well-meaning but hapless small-time hood in the service of his loan shark uncle — a local big shot. Charlie aspires to Catholic goodness, but that never squares with a life spent whiling away at the local dive and prowling the streets recovering debts owed to his uncle. He longs to escape the crime and grittiness of Little Italy so badly, and to climb into the ranks of entrepreneurial respectability that he keeps his relationship with (and feelings for) a strong-willed and affectionate neighbor girl, Teresa, well guarded. Charlie’s worst problem, though, is his close friend, the hotheaded ne’er-do-well Johnny Boy (De Niro), prone to rash violence and gun-toting shenanigans. Charming but feckless, always trying to sidestep the local racketeer to whom he’s in debt, Johnny gives De Niro — a roaring talent on the rise at the time of Mean Streets’ making — just the powerhouse role with which to brand himself into our movie-going consciousness. Keitel, though in a more understated role, holds his ground against De Niro, and ably serves as Scorsese’s morally-conflicted alter ego as his Charlie edges out onto the precipice of life, reputation, everything he values, just to adhere to his deeply held creed to protect his friend.
While Keitel and De Niro dominate the cast, the balance of Mean Streets’ performances are terribly uneven (with Robinson outclassed all the way). And in spite of a story that finds itself only in fits and starts, Scorsese’s verve with visuals, with editing, and, particularly, his filmic command of a rock-and-roll soundtrack (brought to consummate perfection 17 years later in Goodfellas) compensate for Mean Streets’ narrative doldrums. Indeed, it’s clear that in Mean Streets (Scorsese’s first adventure into the realm of personal filmmaking, at the urging of mentor John Cassavetes), the filmmaker brought into prime focus all he mastered from his prior experience as an editor (on Woodstock) and as an aficionado of pop music to create what was, especially in its time, a scintilla of visceral movie making. A must-see for all budding Scorsese acolytes.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Cast: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus