Acclaimed American Director Martin Scorsese’s first major critical success Mean Streets (1973), opens with these lines voiced by Scorsese himself: You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. The streets Scorsese is talking about is the streets of Little Italy in New York; streets where he grew up among mobsters, loan sharks and all kinds of small time crooks; streets where making a living is akin to risking life itself; streets where penance is not forgiveness but the cruelty of an-eye-for-an-eye justice; in short, mean streets. The movie is an insightful chronicle on the quotidian life of Italian-Americans in New York.
Mean Streets opens with a short introduction of its four main characters. Tony (David Porval), a bar owner, drives away a drug addict out of his bar. Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) bombs a garbage tin for fun. Michael (Robert Romanus), a loan shark, is perturbed by the fact that he is duped by someone who sold him Japanese adapters as German Lenses. And finally Charlie (Harvey Keitel) seeking penance in a church. Four disparate scenes seamed beautifully into one insightful introduction. These defining moments get stuck with us for the rest of the film and these characters get stuck with it too. Tony is the guy who is satisfied with what he has and doesn’t want to court danger by any means; not even in the form of a desperate drug addict. Johnny Boy is little crazy in the head; he doesn’t like people treating him like a Boy anymore. And he tries to become a man by deliberately being a jerk and has a propensity to court danger, like innocuously bombing the neighbourhood garbage tins. Michael is tired of the fact that people easily cheat and evade him and is a repressed man waiting to explode. Charlie is man split between being a faithful catholic and a sinful mobster. He is constantly asking for penance; but Little Italy makes him vulnerable to every sin conceivable. Their lives go as it should go: mostly mundane with small episodes of fun, partying and the occasional scuffle in between; until trouble brews between Johnny Boy and Michael over monetary issues. Michael is deeply hurt as he thinks he is given the raw end of the deal yet again, while Johnny Boy is hell bent in defying him just for the sake feeling formidable. What ensues is an evocative drama of vanity, chagrin and vengeance.
Mean Streets, like Scorsese’s first movie “Who’s Knocking at the Door”, centers on the plight of the sinner. The duality of sin in reality and the rule book confounds the protagonist Charlie to an extent that he can neither detract from it nor repent full heartedly. And in Little Italy where sins are inevitable for survival, Charlie resorts to the vicious circle of committing and repenting. In one scene, he fantasizes about a stripper and then moments after he repents for it by burning his fingers with his cigarette-lighter. He also has a genial nature quite unnatural for a mobster. He tries to help people as a penitence for his sins. He goes out of his way to help Johnny Boy who he thinks deserves an opportunity to reform (“Who’s gonna help him if I don’t? It’s supposed to matter. Nobody tries anymore”, He confronts his girlfriend). But penance eludes him. It eludes him in the church. It eludes him everywhere. For penance in Little Italy is like repaying a debt; it can’t be evened out in the church.
Mean Streets is widely known for Scorsese’s evocative visual style; a style that would later bloom into a full fledged extravaganza in his later movies like Raging Bull and Goodfellas. There is no semblance of a plot; the camera just follows the characters as they go places; as they eat, party and fight. And during the fight sequences, the hand held camera follows the scuffling characters hastily as though it is a part of the scrimmage. The movie uses minimal background music and mostly uses the rock ’n’ roll tracks as diagetic music (usage of music whose sources are part of the scene, like a radio playing in the background). All these techniques create a sort of live experience, transforming us literally to Little Italy. But the movie also turns vicarious at times. It, sometimes, allows us to enter the mind of Charlie. And as masterstroke in these scenes Scoresese uses a distinct visual style and a modicum of non-diagetic music to make the viewer aware of the difference. He uses a reddish tint and his trademark slow motion in the images dealing with Charlie’s compunction. Another strong factor of the movie is its cast. Keitel and De Niro revel in their roles and share a feel-good bromantic chemistry between them. The embonpoint Proval is charming in his own right. Romanus’ understated performance as Michael is noteworthy. He seems impervious, but just below the skin he exudes a palpable tension of a repressed man; a man waiting to erupt.
Mean Streets trumpeted the arrival of Scorsese as a path breaking director. And like any great movie, it inspired a slew of gangster movies centered on the lower rung mobsters. Even today it engrosses and engages the viewer as very few films do. Apart from all these it was also a deeply personal movie for Scorsese. It was his way of showing empathy to the beleaguered souls of Little Italy. It was his way of helping them out (“Who’s gonna help them if I don’t? It’s supposed to matter. Nobody tries anymore”). It was his way of seeking penance.