The new movies this weekend looked unappealing. So I did a little catching up on director Martin Scorsese instead.
This is the 1973 breakout movie in Martin Scorsese’s considerable film career. The director spoke its opening words: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”
Effectively this is the challenge for the main character, Charlie (Harvey Keitel,) a Catholic-raised son of New York’s Little Italy neighborhood who seems to have drifted into his job as a collector in his gangster uncle’s crew. Charlie and his friends hang out in bars, play pool, do small heists, get into fights and, when necessary, pay off venal police officers. To the extent he has an ambition, it may be a fantasy wish to take over and perhaps revive a failing restaurant whose owner cannot repay money borrowed from Charlie’s uncle.
Charlie’s world is necessarily a small one, and if he does not seem troubled by the work he does, he does worry about the behavior of his undisciplined friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro,) who is reckless, possibly to the point of insanity. Johnny shoots a gun into the air from a building’s roof, tosses a bomb into a mailbox and, more dangerously, never makes a payment on the large debt he owes to a loan shark, even after Charlie fronts Johnny some cash. Charlie also is involved with Johnny’s cousin, Teresa, perhaps more to protect her than out of love.
Tensions rise, and events lead to an inevitable conclusion.
Seen all these years later, Mean Streets looks less fresh than it must have been in its day, most likely because it has been so imitated. Many films now use pop and rock music as their background. Many movies’ plots involve crime syndicates and their activities — the opportunities for conflict, betrayal and battle are catnip for screenwriters.
If there is a weakness in this movie, it is the character of Johnny, who is crazy for no apparent reason other than to provoke Charlie’s protective nature. In fact, De Niro’s portrayal of Johnny made him a bigger star (Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull followed shortly afterward) than Keitel’s depiction of the more careful and internally conflicted Charlie.
Over his career, Scorsese has delivered films of various types, including documentaries about the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the musical New York, New York, an Edith Wharton story of cultural conformity and sublimated love (The Age of Innocence) and religious narratives (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence) that seemed to matter more to the director than audiences. Virtually every Scorsese film has been applauded by critics.
Still, he is likely to be remembered most for his movies about gangsters — GoodFellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed.
Scorsese’s next movie, The Irishman, is in the same vein. It is based on the biography of a Mafia hitman and stars Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The production is being funded, lavishly, by Netflix, which plans a limited theatrical release later this year, rather as it did with last year’s Roma.