Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese’s directorial breakthrough is such raw and involving cinema, showing us why he would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest of all American filmmakers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Martin Scorsese
1973 | USA | Crime/Drama | 112 mins | 1.85:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity

Cast: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson
Plot:  A small-time hood aspires to work his way up the ranks of a local mob.
Awards: Official Selection (New York & Cannes)
Source: Warner

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Perspectives Film Festival 2013
First Published: 28 Sep 2013
Spoilers: No

Before Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006), there was Mean Streets.

Widely regarded as Martin Scorsese’s directorial breakthrough, this Harvey Keitel-Robert De Niro acting vehicle is a stunner, a film shot on the streets of New York, so raw and gritty, and so representative of the counter-cultural vibe of the New Hollywood of the 1970s that it sucks you into its world of crime, sleaze, and violence.

Scorsese’s early talent is for all to see, and Mean Streets is very much a strong prelude to the above-mentioned films, which share similar hallmarks of a visual, aural and thematic nature.

While Scorsese has been showing his versatility throughout the years with period films like The Age of Innocence (1993), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), it is the contemporary crime-gangster genre that he is best associated with – the sudden bouts of violence, the frequent use of profanity, and characters dealing with themes of loyalty, brotherhood and redemption.

“What’s the matter, you too good for this ten dollars? Huh? You too good for it? It’s a good ten dollars. Know somethin’ Mikey? You make me laugh. You know that?”

To some degree, Mean Streets paved the way for such stories to be told. Keitel plays Charlie, a small-time hood who struggles to survive in Little Italy. It doesn’t help that his psychologically unstable buddy Johnny Boy (De Niro) is a trouble magnet.

Scorsese’s use of the camera, rock-and-roll music, and editing are unparalleled. He shows his gift of melding the three together, and coupled with excellent performances by Keitel, and in particular, the extraordinary De Niro, Mean Streets is as gripping as some of his most accomplished works.

Well, it is not a stretch to say that this is one of his very best works, still underrated and under-appreciated in many ways. It can even be argued that Mean Streets’ significance and influence toward Scorsese’s development as a filmmaker can be considered to be greater than that of his masterpieces Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

In other words, Mean Streets was the genesis of Scorsese; it was when he was truly born as an artiste.

Grade: A




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