Mean Streets (1973)
May 26, 2018 1:07 PM - Subscribe

A small-time hood aspires to work his way up the ranks of a local mob.

Roger Ebert: Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” is not primarily about punk gangsters at all, but about living in a state of sin. For Catholics raised before Vatican II, it has a resonance that it may lack for other audiences. The film recalls days when there was a greater emphasis on sin--and rigid ground rules, inspiring dread of eternal suffering if a sinner died without absolution.

The key words in the movie are the first ones, spoken over a black screen: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. All the rest is BS and you know it.” The voice belongs to Scorsese. We see Charlie (Harvey Keitel) starting up in bed, awakened by a dream, and peering at his face in a bedroom mirror. The voice was Scorsese’s, but it possibly represents words said to him by a priest.

NYTimes: "Mean Streets,” which has a screenplay by Mr. Scorsese and Mardik Martin, faces its characters and their world head‐on. It never looks over their shoulders or takes a position above their heads in order to impose a self‐conscious relevance on them. There is no need to. It is Scorsese's talent, reflected in his performers, to be able to suggest the mystery of people and place soley in terms of the action of the film.

This may seem simple but it's one of the fundamentals of filmmaking that many directors never grasp. Bad films need mouthpieces to tell us what's going on.

“Mean Streets,” which was shot entirely on its New York locations, unfolds as a series of seemingly caual incidents — bar‐room encounters, pick‐ups, fights, lovers' quarrels and small moments of introspection—that only at the end are seen to have been a narrative of furious drive.

De Niro (“Bang the Drum Slowly”) has an exceedingly flashy role and makes the most of it, but Keitel, modest, honorable and doomed, is equally efective as the hood who goes right, and hates himself for his failure.

Empire: It's safe to say that the chief pleasure to be had from revisiting Mean Streets is De Niro's performance. A whirlwind of random violence and casual mayhem, Johnny Boy is a perfect study of suicidal recklessness, a species of heedless maniac who, you never doubt, would cheerfully treat welching on debts to the local shylocks as if it were some kind of extreme sport. De Niro, improvising without a net and free from the introspective brooding that marks his later roles (the good ones, at any rate), invests him with equal parts menace and irresistible charm. That takes nothing away from Keitel, of course. He shoulders the film manfully, but as the vessel for Scorsese's religious musings, when they cross the line from heavy to heavy-handed, it's him with whom you lose patience.

Much of it has a rough, documentary feel and yet, like some hellish bordello, its diabolical glow bathing everyone and everything in shades of carnal red, the symbolism is stunning, infinitely more effective than Keitel sticking his hand in the nearest flaming object every time a stripper shakes her goods in his direction.

Scorsese's Little Italy has long gone. Its three small blocks of the Lower East Side, bounded by Elizabeth Street, Mott Street and Mulberry Street, are now a grotesque tourist trap, a theme park of chi-chi coffee shops and overpriced trattorias. Even the bullet holes in the window of Umberto's Clam House, a memento of mob boss Crazy Joe Gallo's last supper, have disappeared. Mean Streets takes you back to the days before it got respectable. More importantly, it takes you back to the days before Scorsese got respectable, too.

More NYTimes: Scorsese's method, is deceptively oblique. “Mean Streets” stets of as harmlessly as a Little‐Italy version of “Marty”: a bunch of the guys horsing around—Charlie, Johnny Boy, their friend Tony (David Proval), who runs a bar—not going anywhere in particular, not worried about much. Slowly, however, we become conscious that the boredom in Charlie's world is simply a gentle disguise for fear.

Friendships are constantly tested by short, furious tempers. Even love is denied. Johnny Boy lies to Charlie, the one man in the world who cares about him, and says “I swear on my mother . . . . I swear on Jesus Christ.” Charlie, afraid of what his uncle will say, refuses to commit himself to, Teresa, who has more courage than Charlie does. The violence that erupts in the film seems a logical consequence of these denials and subversions.

“Mean Streets” is full of stunning sequences, including a casual assassination in the men's room of Tony's bar when an ambitious kid who wants to get in good with the mob shoots a drunk who has in some way insulted a local don. There is another sequence at Tony's, a welcome home party for a local boy back from Vietnam, which is one of the most mysteriously sorrowful moments in any recent American film.

The look, language and performances are so accurate, so unselfconscious, so directly evocative, that they provide “Mean Streets” with the momentum and suspense that one usually associates with more conventional narratives, movies about prison breaks, hank heists, and such. Will they? Won't they? In “Mean Streets,” the question has to do with survival.

Scorsese photographed most of “Mean Streets” in and around Little Italy, a lot of it in barrooms and pool halls where the colors are juice‐box primaries. He depends—perhaps a little too much—on the picturesqueness of the quarter's San Gennaro Festival, but maybe I object to that only because I'm so used to second‐rate films that employ sight‐seeing as a substitute for drama. “Mean Streets” is a decidedly first‐rate film, a film that con tinually reinforces its various themes with gestures taken from life rather than cinema.

At one point in the movie, Charlie takes Johnny Boy into a cemetery late at night to try to talk some sense into him. He's furious and Johnny Boy is being purposely opaque. Before they sit down, each takes out his handkerchief and places it daintily on the gravestone so as not to get city dirt on the seat of his trousers. It's the kind of thing that someone who depends on Kleenex would never think of doing.

Den of Geek: Mean Streets doesn’t play out on the manicured Long Island lawns of The Godfather, where elite dons live like kings and commute for crime. These are the day-job enforcers. These are Goodfellas on a $500,000 budget. John Cassavetes urged Scorsese to take a chance on making a personal film after spending a year on the “piece of shit” Roger Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Mardik Martin, while driving around Little Italy. Interiors may have been shot in Los Angeles, but the film lives and breathes on location, fed on the feast of San Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples. The Roman Catholic faithful gather at Naples Cathedral three times a year to witness the martyred Bishop’s blood liquefy. Mean Streets was intended to be the last part of the unrealized “J.R. trilogy” of autobiographical Catholic-guilt films that he began with Who’s That Knocking on My Door, which was also set in Manhattan’s Little Italy and which also starred Harvey Keitel.

Pauline Kael: The zinger in the movie—and its this, I think, that begins to come to­gether in one s head when the picture is over—is the way it gets at the psychological connections between Italian Catholicism and crime, between sin and crime. Some editorial writers like to pretend this is all a matter of prej­udice; they try to tell us that there is no basis for the popular ethnic stereotypes—as if crime among Italians didn’t have a different tone from crime among Irish or Jews or blacks. Editorial writers think they’re serving the interests of democracy when they ask us to deny the evidence of our senses. But all crime is not alike, and different ethnic groups have different styles of lawlessness. These Mafiosi loafers hang around differently from loafing blacks; in some ways, the small-time hoods of Mean Streets (good Catholics who live at home with their parents) have more in common with the provincial wolf pack of Fellini’s I Vitelloni (cadging, indulged sons of middle-class families) than with the other ethnic groups in New York City. And these hoods live in such an insulated world that anyone outside it—the stray Jew or black they encounter—is as foreign and funny to them as a little man from Mars.


While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Hang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does some­thing like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act—he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration. Keitel, cramped in his stiff clothes (these Mafiosi dress respectable—in the long, dark overcoats of business­men of an earlier era), looks like a more compact Richard Conte or Dane Clark, and speaks in the rhythms of a lighter-voiced John Garfield, Charlie’s idol; it’s his control that holds the story together. The whole world of the movie—Catholicism as it’s actually practiced among these people, what it means on the street—is in Charlie’s mingy-minded face.

Slant: While the film covers the cohabitation of violence and location verisimilitude from the first few frames, during which we see footage of the Feast of San Gennaro crosscut with some junkie getting 86’d from the characters’ favorite dive bar, the transition from slight narrative to operatic, Wellman-esque tragedy is a bumpy one, and the script, augmented by the cast’s hit-and-miss improvised dialogue, seems wholly unprepared to take that trip. Just the same, while the storytelling sags a little as Mean Streets enters into its final stretch, it succeeds as the first of Scorsese’s grand, disturbing, music-infused crescendos, a lethal ambush scored to panicked automotive noise and Eric Clapton/Johnny Mayall and the Bluesbreakers’ “Steppin’ Out.” If, ultimately, the math doesn’t exactly add up, Mean Streets is justly valued for its visceral, concussive force, grounded in remembrances that couldn’t have been made up for love or money.


Art of the Title

The Impact of Martin Scorsese's 'Mean Streets'
posted by MoonOrb (4 comments total)
That last paragraph of the Empire review is hysterical. "Even the bullet holes in the window of Umberto's Clam House, a memento of mob boss Crazy Joe Gallo's last supper, have disappeared." Uh... yes, they probably replaced the glass at some point after the hit (which occurred about two months after the restaurant opened), and it's not even in the original building any more. And Little Italy didn't get "respectable" so much as it simply shrank as its residents could afford to move out, and did.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:40 PM on May 26, 2018

Mean Streets has also become a template for a genre it created. But it doesn't have an easy catchall name like "Mockumentary" or "Coming of Age Film." Mean Streets created the "We were best friends growing up in our provincial little neighborhood but now I have to save/destroy you" genre.
posted by cazoo at 10:50 AM on May 27, 2018

What's a mook?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mooks are an innovative mechanic developed by Robin Laws for the Feng Shui role playing game to managing the hordes of NPCs the hero has to get through to take on the main villain. In most games the hordes of faceless NPCs use the same mechanics as the heroes. They have hit points and take damage, and the GM has to keep track of all their respective totals as they are worn down. It slows things down considerably.

Laws' innovation was to use different rules for the mooks. A mook has no hit points. He's either up or he's down. He has a defensive value, and anything that hits him by five or more takes him out of the fight. Otherwise it has no effect. This both speeds things up for the GM and lets the players battle their way through an army of mooks and be in usable condition for the final battle against their boss.

Wait, did you want the etymology? Jeez, no idea...
posted by Naberius at 6:08 AM on May 29, 2018

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