Authentic in feel and immensely personal in subject matter, Mean Streets marked the arrival of one Martin Scorsese and his unique brand of urban filmmaking.
Without a doubt, Mean Streets is an American classic. It was the film that featured breakthrough performances of master thespians Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, and gave its writer/director Martin Scorsese the chance to prove his worth, in the process launching a career that would see him become one of the silver screen’s most revered and popular filmmakers.
A semi-auto biographical crime tale, Mean Streets stars Keitel as Scorsese’s alter-ego Charlie, a young gangster who is making a name for himself as a debt collector for his Mafioso Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova).
Driven by his Catholic guilt and plagued by the threat of eternal hellfire, Charlie has also built a reputation as something of a saint in the mean streets of New York City. When his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) - a two bit punk who owes money all over town – faces danger when he refuses to make his payments, Charlie takes it upon himself to save Johnny from certain death.
Keitel contains a magnetic screen presence which will have viewers drawn to his character, who is a sad soul torn by feelings of loyalty to his friends, his family, the Church, and the streets. All the while he is suffocating in the limitations of his life as an Italian gangster, and the outward racism and homophobia that comes with it.
In a scene stealing supporting role, a young Robert De Niro is simply electrifying in the most animated turn of his career. The lively exchanges between Keitel and De Niro feature these now legendary actors at their most raw and lively.
Mean Streets marks the first time that Scorsese would forego a traditional film score in favour of a vast array of music ranging from rock to classical. This in turn heightens several key scenes such as Johnny Boy strutting to the Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash, and a piss up at the local bar which features Scorsese at his innovative best.
Scorsese also manages to effectively convey the sights and sounds of New York’s Little Italy and the hustlers which inhabit it, despite the fact that the majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles.
The gritty and raw predecessor to Goodfellas, Mean Streets is essential viewing for crime movie buffs and general lovers of cinema.