Mean Streets” is Martin Scorsese coming out swinging.
“Who’s That Knocking At My Door” was a strong first film, but you could still more or less consider that to be a student film. “Boxcar Bertha” is fine, I guess, but nothing terribly memorable. But if “Who’s That Knocking” was the first rumblings of a promising career, “Mean Streets” is what showed he could actually deliver on the promise that first film projected.
This could almost be a sequel to “Who’s That Knocking.” Harvey Keitel once again plays a young man quickly rising through the ranks of the local mob in Little Italy, trying desperately to reconcile his lifestyle to his rigid Catholic faith. His relationship isn’t looked upon well by those above him and he has reckless friends. So while it’s not a direct sequel, it’s certainly a spiritual one that builds on the texture and themes Scorsese kept at the forefront.
It’s also a refinement. One of my biggest issues with “Who’s That Knocking” is that it felt largely unfocused, with two disparate halves that never seemed to come together in a satisfactory way. With “Mean Streets,” Scorsese wisely keeps the relationship elements more in the background and makes this more a film about Charlie (Keitel) and his life as an up-and-coming mobster.
There’s not much of a story to tell, though. That’s not what Scorsese is after. This is, instead, a film about a place and a very specific sect of its inhabitants. According to Scorsese, the script was written as he and his friend and co-writer, Mardik Martin, would drive around Little Italy, eventually parking in a spot so the two could write with the sights and sounds of Little Italy surrounding them. That unique bit of immersion comes through in so much of the finished film, even if we don’t spend much time out and about. There’s simply a certain vibe that has been captured here that reverberates throughout.
That quality is found throughout the whole film, though. This thing moves and breathes with a fierce energy. It may not have a defining narrative, but it is populated with characters that pop. Keitel continues to bring us into the mind of Scorsese, again acting as a sort of avatar for the writer/director. The Catholic imagery and iconography is toned significantly down this time out, but it is no less a part of what Scorsese is trying to communicate, as Charlie’s lingering guilt and convictions are constantly at odds with the life he chooses to live. Such a focus makes this a more personal film than most mob movies of its kind.
The standout, though, is Robert De Niro as the impetuous, hot-headed and churlish Johnny Boy. This was the first of his many storied and acclaimed collaborations with Scorsese and it’s not difficult to see why they formed such a productive partnership. De Niro blends so well with this world Scorsese has created here and he bursts onto the screen with a volatile and borderline dangerous mischievousness that lingers in your mind. It’s a dynamite performance and only continues to make me lament the fact that De Niro mostly only coasts through roles anymore.
What’s also remarkable is how confident Scrosese is here. Most directors take a few films to really figure out what kind of voice they have and establish a distinctive style. “Mean Streets” shows that Scorsese not only knew precisely what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be, but how to achieve that — something made all the more remarkable in how he’s maintained that voice throughout the years.
Next week I’ll continue my series on the early films of Martin Scrosese with a review of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” followed by “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.