Martin Scorsese’s gritty Mean Streets is an unlikely buddy film, chronicling the day-to-day lives of a small group of first-generation Italian Americans. Mean Streets invites the viewer to take part in the day-to-day rather than letting them in a one single large event. The result is a modern masterpiece where the setting is the star, even among a cast that is highlighted by Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.
Keitel plays Charlie, a young ladder-climber in the mob. Much of the film is spent with Charlie and his small group of friends, who include Johnny Boy (De Niro), Tony (David Proval) and Michael (Richard Romanus). They drink together, go to the movies together, laugh together and rip off kids from the rich side of looking for firecrackers together. Organized crime ties aside, they’re a gang unto themselves.
The plot is really quite loose, with the majority of it centering around Charlie playing the middleman between Johnny and Michael. Johnny’s got himself into a little too much debt and Michael wants his money back with a little added respect for good measure. On the streets, respect is everything. There’s other loose bits and pieces, but – as the title suggests – the streets are what Mean Streets is about.
Much of the film takes place in the nooks and crannies of New York’s Little Italy. There’s low-lit bars, hot apartments, stairwells, rooftops – all of which work together to paint a deep portrait of growing up in an ethnic neighborhood. Charlie and company are all finding their way in a new world, one that mixes the traditions of the homeland with the modernity of America. There’s influences for Charlie to see him grow up properly, such as his uncle and the rest of the local mob, as well as the Catholic Church. However his real influences are his friends.
Mean Streets is a film about friendship. It would have been easy for Scorsese to focus on the organized crime elements of the film, but instead they’re largely overlooked parts of the backdrop. Scorsese has openly spoken about the movie being semi-autobiographical, a retelling of his own growing up. As a result, the film’s best moments are the small, intimate moments, the ones that couldn’t have been made up because they have so many details that make the scenes feel authentic.
Scorsese’s third feature, Mean Streets showcases him going from emerging filmmaker to trailblazing voice. His camera continues to be creative and his use of infusing popular music into the soundtrack only helps to enhance the film’s setting.
Mean Streets remains one of my favourite Scorsese films. Its focus on friendship and place are timeless to any generation anywhere in the world. However, it’s the specifics of Scorsese’s own experiences that gives Mean Streets that feeling of a true masterwork.
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