Saturday, July 30, 2016

Before I Die #573: Mean Streets (1973)

This is the 573rd movie I've now seen out of the 1,177 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 


Director: Martin Scorsese

It's not on the level of his very best movies, but this very early Scorsese feature displayed plenty of the hallmarks of his later classics. It was also one of the earliest of the gritty 1970s movies that changed the cinematic landscape forever.

The movie mostly tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an aspiring criminal in the lower levels of his uncle's loan-sharking enterprise. A native of Manhattan's Little Italy, Charlie is fully immersed in the harsh rhythms of the thrumming streets, including its vices and excitements. Although not averse to making money through loan-sharking and enjoying himself with booze, Charlie does have a sort of moral compass based on his Catholic upbringing. He even considers Saint Francis Assisi a hero and tries to model a bit of his own behavior after the famous saint.

While Charlie is smart enough to take care of himself, life in Little Italy is rarely lived by oneself. In Charlie's case, he feels beholden to look after his girlfriend's cousin, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is a thoroughly immature and sometimes dangerous rogue who has rather sophomoric desires and a complete disregard for rules or norms, including those maintained by the dangerous criminals in the area. As Johnny Boy angers more and more local wiseguys, Charlie is harder pressed to keep him safe by vouching for him or keeping him in line. Tension mounts through the movie as Johnny Boy's behavior becomes more and more erratic, putting himself and those close to him at greater risk. The drama comes from seeing Charlie wrestle with just how and why he should protect this unhinged personality. This is the film that The Pope of Greenwich Village was really trying to be, but fell woefully short.

The movie is very much a study of a few individual characters, as well as the overall rhythms of the urban setting. Released right in between the first two Godfather films, Mean Streets was a type all its own and very fresh, despite its gritty aesthetic and subject matter. I can't think of a prior film that had dialogue and personal interactions that sounded and felt so authentic. As he would later display in Goodfellas, Scorsese made great drama out of the blue-collar gangster, as opposed to the sweeping world of powerful crime lords in Coppola's movies. You may feel the urge to take a shower afterward, the authentic grit comes through so effectively.

This movie really was a phenomenal beginning to one of the very greatest directing careers in film history. It might not have all of the polish of this later movies, but Mean Streets showed just how much brilliance the then-young Martin Scorsese had.

That's 573 films down. Only 606 to go before I can die.