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Mean Streets

January 14, 2017

 Mean Streets (1973)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Richard Romanus

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Synopsis: Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time hood in Little Italy, going round the community collecting takings for his mafia uncle. On the side, Charlie hangs out with his pals in a late-night bar, and is also looking out for his volatile friend, Jonny Boy (Robert De Niro), who owes money to countless loan sharks.

Review: Mean Streets is right up there as one of the best films Martin Scorsese ever made: an utterly electric, jazzy, freewheeling saunter through the lives of a motley crew of young men on the “mean streets” of Little Italy in Manhattan.

Among numerous stellar features, Mean Streets is one of the great cinematic expositions of voiceover: allowing us into the torn mindset of struggling Catholic, Charlie, as he tries to hold onto some sense of sanctity and morality amid the wild, seedy canvas around him, while the technique conjures a feeling of fluidity and poetry in its own right (it’s as much an assault on the senses as the quite brilliant use of Rolling Stones tracks “Tell Me” and “Jumping Jack Flash” to intoxicate the scenes in Tony’s Bar).

Mean Street‘s opening best exemplifies all that is admirable about Scorsese’s rawness both of style and emotion. Charlie wakes up, opining against a – as yet – black background that you “don’t make up for your sins in the street, you do it on the streets, you do it at home, the rest is bullshit and you know it”, before looking at himself enquiringly in the mirror, laying himself back to bed with a Godardian jump cut, before the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in to an utterly authentic Super 8 reverie (long before this technique became clichéd) which sketches in all that is at stake for Charlie.

Other immemorial facets to Mean Streets are Robert De Niro’s wildfire bar room entry with two girls he’s picked up in Greenwich Village, a chaotic pool hall brawl because of the slur of a “mook”, and an incredible piece of further, intuitive voiceover from Charlie which symbolises his intoxication and that he is almost an aesthete for the lure of the red-lit ambience of his lifestyle when he submits himself to the attractiveness of one of the strippers, “You know something? She is really good-lookin’. I gotta say that again. She is really good-lookin’.”

Also great is that Scorsese saw no need to over-determine his narrative. The movie ambles amiably around its array of characters, building to some form of nominal crescendo regarding Jonny Boy’s loan shark debts, but even then, Scorsese’s decision to move the camera away at the climax reveals his complete command of his story – how this is an ongoing snapshot of a intertwined milieu that will endure way past the transient politics of those particular players. (January 2017)

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