Mean Streets

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USA, 1973

Director: Martin Scorsese

Production: Taplin-Perry-Scorsese; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 110 minutes. Released 1973. Filmed in New York City.

Producer: Jonathan T. Taplin; screenplay: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin; photography: Norman Gerard; editor: Sid Levin.

Cast: Harvey Keitel (Charlie); Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy); David Proval; Amy Robinson; Richard Romanus; Cesare Danova.



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* * *

Mean Streets is the film that established director Martin Scorsese's reputation, and it is often considered his most personal and emblematic work. In comparison with his later films, however, Mean Streets seems more like a rough sketch (both thematically and stylistically) than a fully-realized achievement, despite the film's distinction when viewed as an isolated work.

At the centre of Mean Streets is Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Of all of Scorsese's male protagonists he is arguably the least mentally unstable and the least prone to movement and action. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Charlie's responses to his surroundings are so internalized that the film must utilize devices like voice-over monologues and subjective slow-motion shots in order to clarify those responses. But unlike Travis (or even unlike Ellen Burnstyn's Alice), there is no point in the film at which Charlie is jolted out of his inactive state. While the protagonists of Scorsese's later films almost continually create the action and upheaval that set in motion and propel forward the narrative, Charlie remains in an almost constant state of indecision and stasis, as does the movement of the narrative in Mean Streets.

It is the presence of Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) that suggests Scorsese's later protagonists with their propensity towards emotional and physical violence that they are unable to fully comprehend. In Scorsese's collaborations with De Niro after Mean Streets the two men were able to fuse the masochistic Charlie with the violent, inarticulate Johnny Boy. But in Mean Streets Johnny Boy's almost total inarticulateness results in his being slightly displaced from the center of the narrative by his more "normal" friend Charlie, even though Johnny Boy's accumulated actions lead to the shoot-out on Charlie, Theresa and himself.

The shoot-out itself leaves the unanswered question whether Charlie will ever become active rather than (essentially) passive. In all of Scorsese's subsequent narrative films, the extremely violent and/or emotional upheavals that serve as a climax have a kind of cleansing effect, unleashing all of the psychological problems, the private demons, of the main characters. Nevertheless, the epilogues in each of these post-Mean Streets films tend to re-state the essential problems of the characters, giving an impression of apparent unity and order precariously on the brink of collapsing once again and thus denying any "true" catharsis. Mean Streets simply ends with the shoot-out, an act of violence perpetrated not by the central characters but on them, with Scorsese playing their would-be assassin, ending the film on a note of total disorder. Charlie, with a confused and uncertain future before him, is essentially the "hero" of an extraordinary work-in-progress.

—Joseph McElhaney