I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.
So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.
One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.
So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.
Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.