Movie Review: MEAN STREETS Represents the First Triumph from Filmmaker Martin Scorsese

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1973’s Mean Streets marked the emergence of Martin Scorsese, Master Filmmaker.  What Scorsese did in the film is something he’s been doing ever since, in movies as diverse in their ambition as The Last Temptation of Christ or The Color of Money or The Departed: he’s fusing the personal with the theatrical.

On one hand, Mean Streets feels culled from the deepest recesses of Scorsese’s subconscious; his hero, Charlie (a very young and very brilliant Harvey Keitel), feels the torments of the world in exactly the same way Scorsese did (does?).  The Mob surrounds Charlie’s Little Italy neighborhood, and he is both seduced by its influence and power and terrified by its amorality and potential for violence.  Fiercely Catholic, he believes unhesitatingly in the fires of Hell and is convinced his own sins (drinking, whoring around, some mob collection work) have consigned him to an eternity’s damnation.  He loves a young epileptic girl (Amy Robinson) but can’t commit to her; he commits to her screw-up brother (Robert De Niro, in the role that made him a star) but doesn’t love him.  It’s no accident that Scorsese provides the scant bits of voiceover narration we hear from Charlie – these two men share the same head, the same desires, the same concerns.

But Scorsese doesn’t just want to flay his own psyche for the entire world to see; he wants to sell tickets, too, so he holds Mean Streets to the conventions of that most venerated of Movie Genres, the Gangster Movie.  His inspirations are White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces, a little The Roaring Twenties thrown in for color, albeit if those example utilized the kinds of freewheeling movie magic made possible during the here-and-now: attaching a camera to Keitel during a particularly raucous evening, giving De Niro a slow-motion entrance set to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” and giving the end shootout a lurid, gruesome hue.  Still, these tricks only distinguish an example of familiar pulp fiction – an examination of low-level mob flunkies and their shifting fortunes.

Charlie’s in one corner, and as scumbags go, he’s decently responsible and conservative, careful not to incur the wrath of his Mafioso uncle (Animal House‘s Cesare Danova).  De Niro’s Johnny Boy is Charlie’s polar opposite, and if Charlie’s signature moment is holding his hand over a votive candle to test himself against Hell’s torments, Johnny Boy’s is blowing up a mailbox (just because) and then laughing like crazy afterwards.  He’s all impulse, borrowing money he can’t repay from the local loan shark (Richard Romulus), starting fights with made men, ignoring Charlie’s pleas to keep a low profile.

Anyone who’s ever seen a gangster movie knows the kind of trouble these guys bring, and just as he would do in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas with Joe Pesci’s hyperviolent thug, Scorsese ratchets up the tension when Johnny Boy’s self-destructive behavior starts to affect everyone he knows.  The amazing thing is that even though we know Scorsese is telling us a story we’ve heard many times before, it seems fresh because of the director’s personal connection.

There’s such verisimilitude – he makes us smell Little Italy (ironic, given that Scorsese shot most of Mean Streets in Los Angeles), makes us feel the heat in a nightclub during a night out with Charlie, makes us kin to his characters, from Romulus’ slick bookie to David Proval’s eternally beleaguered bartender Tony to Robinson’s sweet, sad Teresa – and these details get form and purpose through the genre mechanisms.  Mean Streets sustains itself on action, on humor, and on Scorsese’s impeccable eye for details.

Warner’s Blu-ray makes Mean Streets look about as good as one could hope; Scorsese shot on 16mm, so the image will forever have a gritty patina.  Still, it looks better than the VHS version ever did, and the monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track is surprisingly robust and immersive.

Extras are few but informative.  Scorsese, Robinson, and co-writer Mardik Martin contribute a detailed commentary track, and the Back on the Block featurette is an interesting – though dated – look at the film’s production.

Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese’s first triumph, a master class in marrying personal filmmaking with pure cinema entertainment.  Any self-respective film fan needs this Blu-ray.

Mean Streets is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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