Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets (1973)

“Honorable men go with honorable men.”

An aspiring restauranteur (Harvey Keitel) in New York’s Little Italy works overtime to keep his buddy (Robert De Niro) out of trouble and to hide his relationship with De Niro’s cousin (Amy Robinson).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • David Carradine Films
  • Friendship
  • Harvey Keitel Films
  • Mafia
  • Martin Scorsese Films
  • New York City
  • Robert De Niro Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Martin Scorsese emerged from obscurity with this violent, visually dazzling love-hate remembrance of life in New York’s Little Italy,” an “independent film deal[ing] with young low-level criminals — second-rank loan sharks, numbers men, street hustlers, collectors — whose goal is to move up in the Mafia hierarchy.”

Specifically, the storyline centers on Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, who “wants his Mafia uncle [Cesare Danova] to give him a restaurant that was taken from its rightful owner” — but in order to achieve this goal “must keep secret his friendship with stupid, irresponsible, reckless Robert De Niro (who became a star as Johnny Boy)”:

… and his “love for De Niro’s epileptic cousin, Amy Robinson.”

The bulk of Charlie’s time is spent “getting De Niro out of trouble… and eventually tr[ying] to get him out of town to avoid a loan shark (Richard Romanus) … to whom he’s deeply in debt.”

Peary describes this film as “an alternative to Diner,” showing “young Italian buddies hanging out” in a bar, “carrying on conversations (heavily improvised) that have more slaps and shoves than words, holding two-minute grudges against each other, losing their tempers”:

… “discussing what’s happening on the streets, making a play for women, scheming to get cash to see a movie up on 42nd Street, figuring out how to smooth things over between De Niro and Romanus, [and] watching strangers engage in violence.”

Peary notes that while “Scorsese calls attention to his characters’ foul racism and [their] foolish male posturing” he “sees these young men sympathetically, as victims of their crowded, brutal, corrupt hell-town.” He points out that the “film has [a] distinct rhythm created by [a] rock-band score, camera movement, [and a] special brand of patter between characters”; meanwhile, “the strong use of city locales indicates Scorsese was an expert on post-WWII Italian neo-realist films.”

Ultimately, he argues that “this remains one of Scorsese’s most exciting efforts.”

While I appreciate all of Peary’s points — and can see how Scorsese fans would view this film as a powerful harbinger of what was to come — I differ from most critics in that I don’t see it as necessary viewing in its own right. There is little satisfaction in watching these young men hanging out and wreaking havoc; while Scorsese’s camerawork is consistently creative and Kent Wakeford’s cinematography is highly atmospheric, the storyline they’re working in service of doesn’t quite pay off.

Watch for David Carradine as a drunk in the bar who meets a violent (what else?) end:

… and Scorsese himself in a small but crucial (and violent; what else?) cameo near the end.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Harvey Keitel as Charlie
  • Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look for its historical relevance.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Mean Streets (1973)

  1. (Rewatch 7/1/22, first viewing since its release.) A once-must, as a signature (and influential) film by a major contemporary director.

    Overall, Scorsese’s films that focus on violence have limited appeal for me personally. One reason I never returned to this film until now is because of the number of ways that I find it unappetizing.

    Still, as he made clear, he made a film about his own experiences. The film “was based on events Scorsese saw almost regularly while growing up in New York City’s Little Italy.” (Wikipedia). I rarely cite a critic’s take on a film. However, in Vincent Canby’s view, “no matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter.” (Wikipedia)

    While watching, it’s not all that necessary to follow the film’s subject matter – one way or the other, its essence comes through, as well as the singularity of Scorsese’s viewpoint.

    I prefer this film over Scorsese’s much more brutal and lurid ‘Taxi Driver’ (which I have a hard time even thinking about revisiting anymore). Its importance in ’70s cinema seems undeniable.

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