BY CHRISTOPHER HASKELL
OCTOBER 5, 2010
Martin Scorsese delivers his first major feature-length film in the gritty and future-making “Mean Streets.” In his first collaboration with Robert De Niro, Scorsese sets the wheels of success for everyone involved, including fellow friend and (at the time) aspiring actor Harvey Keitel. With intense imaginary and breakthrough performances from De Niro and Keitel, the film speaks a language that has transcended into all that Scorsese is known.
“Mean Streets” was not Robert De Niro’s first day on the job, but pull up his filmography, and you notice that all his significant roles come directly after his part as Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” The next film De Niro does is Copalla’s “The Godfather Part II,” followed by another of Scorsese’s masterpieces, “Taxi Driver,” which both remain arguably De Niro’s best performances. On the other hand, I believe Johnny Boy ranks at the top of De Niro’s arsenal of personas, showing the rambunctious thirty-year-old that few people remember in this generation. Johnny Boy is a loose cannon with debts to pay but no ambition to work towards paying off the angry loan sharks. With the regular bailout from Keitel’s character, Johnny runs without guidance or rules. The antics that transpire provide for the most entertaining portions of the film, and any segments without De Niro appear lacking and empty-handed.
Do not get me wrong, Harvey Keitel is a supreme actor, but compared to the character that De Niro supplies, Keitel falls flat. Charlie is a tough character to portray, however. Charlie wants nothing more than to please his wealthy uncle, so he collects debts. But however stingy Charlie is, his willingness to break the rules with both Johnny Boy and Johnny’s cousin, Teresa, a suffering narcoleptic whom he harbors feelings for, you start to wonder if a single human being could be as conflicted as Charlie. Throw Catholic guilt on the other burdens the character bears, and you have one complicated labyrinth of emotions to portray. Not for lack of effort, Harvey Keitel fails to drive the character of Charlie to its full potential.
Martin Scorsese wrote the film while scouring the streets of Little Italy to enhance the film’s authenticity, and that effort shows. Gritty and anti-ostentatious, “Mean Streets” is raw and compelling. A movie from the 70s carrying the weight and feel of a modern New York drama proves the reality that Scorsese drives into every scene on the dirty streets and in the grimy bars. There is a true art to how Scorsese develops a film about New York, compared to that of the Woody Allen of the dramatic thriller.
“Mean Streets” must be seen to fully appreciate Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro since first stepping foot into the film industry. My respect for Robert De Niro grows with every one of his performances, and with Martin Scorsese bringing out his best, there is no comparison. The image of Johnny Boy threatening a loan shark with a gun behind a bar will forever instill itself when viewing a Robert De Niro film, and for that, “Mean Streets” becomes not only a classic but a personal favorite.
October 2, 1973
Warner Bros. Pictures
(for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language)
Kent L. Wakeford
Robert De Niro
Jonathan T. Taplin