|October 2, 1973|
|Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Action, Crime, Drama
Rated R violence, nudity, language
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 into the motion 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 for.
Mean Streets was not Robert De Niro’s first day on the job, but pull up his filmography and take notice that all his major 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 of this generation have any recollection of. Johnny Boy is a loose cannon with debts to pay but no ambition to work towards paying off the angry loan sharks. With the constant bail out from Keitel’s character, Johnny is left to run amuck, with no guidance or set of 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 rich uncle and to do so he collects debts. But however stingy you take Charlie to be, 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 possibly be as conflicted as Charlie. Throw Catholic guilt on top of the other burdens the character bears and you have one complicated labyrinth of emotions to portray. Not for a lack of effort, Harvey Keitel fails to drive the character of Charlie to its full potential.
Apparently Martin Scorsese wrote the film while scouring the streets of Little Italy to enhance the authenticity of the film and that effort shows. Gritty and anti-ostentatious, Mean Streets is raw and compelling. For a film from the 70’s to carry 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 the way Scorsese develops a film about New York, comparably to that of the Woody Allen of the dramatic thriller.
Mean Streets must be seen to fully appreciate the extent that both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have come 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 really is no comparison to the duo. The imagine 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.