Wednesday, December 4, 2013
(October 1973, U.S.)
Apart from his first actual feature film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and a directing project given to him by Roger Corman, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), MEAN STREETS was Martin Scorsese's first feature film of his own personal design. It was a sign of things to come, because, really, who else other than Martin Scorsese has given us a true insight and feeling inside the world of the Mafia (Francis Ford Coppola being a very close second!)? When you enter the world of MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS and even CASINO, you're not only getting a look inside a world that most of us are ignorant about in real life, but also a strong taste of an environment Scorsese clearly spent some around growing up and in his adulthood, particularly in the city of New York. Unlike GOODFELLAS and CASINO, however, the gangsters we come to know in this film are NOT men of power. These local thugs don't do much more with there corrupt lives than run numbers, lend out money and pretend to sell illegal fireworks to naïve teenagers.
Scorsese begins the film with the intent of clearly wanting his audience to know his characters well. These men are identified on screen by their first name the moment we see them. These are not intelligent men. They live by the rules and language of the mean streets (there - I said it!); language that very often consists of dialogue that doesn't go beyond statements like, "What?", "Whatsa matter wit you?" and "Forget about it!" Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel) is a man who's trying to move up in the local New York Mafia but is hampered by his unavoidable feelings of responsibility towards his reckless friend, Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese), a small-time gambler who owes money to many loan sharks all over the city. It's important to also note that Charlie is a religious man who can't seem to take lesson from the proper teachings of Catholicism. He's a man who sins on an almost daily basis and then seeks penance inside the local church. Yet despite all the "Hail Mary's" and "Our Father's" he recites and accepts, he never repents for his sins and continues to seek out his personal and immoral Mafia ambitions. Yet, somehow, he's determined to convince himself, God, and the audience watching him that's he's sincerely trying his best to move along the path of righteousness. In simpler words, Charlie is the perfect example of pure hypocrisy.
In watching De Niro in the role of Johnny Boy, it's almost a wonder he continued on to have such an illustrious and important career with Scorsese that included TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980), because his character in this film is really nothing more than an unintelligent, twisted and desperate thug who can't seem to realize he's on a suicidal spiral to what will ultimately end in his own death (the man who kills him is played by a young Scorsese in an uncredited cameo role). One can't help but wonder if Charlie's loyalty to keep Johnny Boy out of trouble is admirable or downright stupid. It would seem that there comes a point in life when one must release another person from their life if that person has become too destructive. Friends and family are important, yes, but sometimes they're the first ones who will take you down with them if you hang on too tight.
MEAN STREETS is, indeed, an example of true personal filmmaking with acting and editing that have an original, tumultuous and gripping force behind it. It's the first cinematic look inside a world that we've seen many times under Scorsese's direction; a world filled with crime, violence and quite often, a touch of heartfelt drama and emotion behind it. That, perhaps, is what the Mafia really is like, inside and outside the big movie screen. Scorsese seems to know.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Johnny Boy: "You too good for this ten dollars? It's a good ten dollars. You know Michael, you make me laugh. You see, I borrow money all over this neighborhood, left and right from everybody, I never pay them back. So, I can't borrow no money from nobody no more, right? So who would that leave me to borrow money from but you? I borrow money from you, because you're the only jerk-off around here who I can borrow money from without payin' back, right? You know, 'cause that's what you are, that's what I think of you: a jerk-off. You're a fucking jerk-off! You're laughing 'cause you're a jerk-off. I'll tell 'ya something else...I fuck you right where you breath, because I don't give two shits about you or nobody else!"