Mean Streets (1973)


USA; Martin Scorsese

Mature Audiences – Strong Language; Nudity; Moderate Violence

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time hood working for his uncle, the lead of a local Mafia organization. He is being groomed to move up the New York Mafia with the protection of his powerful relatives, but he finds his efforts hampered by the reckless manners of his younger friend Johnny (Robert de Niro) and his secret love for the boy’s epileptic cousin. Torn between his unflinching loyalty towards his friends and his respect for the unwritten rules of his world, Charlie witnesses Johnny being consummated by his frantic lifestyle, and realizes that it is only a matter of time until he is himself engulfed.

Mean Streets is, for mainstream audiences, Scorsese’s debut. But if its first success might have made film history, it has nonetheless a very peculiar place among other so-called “youthful films”. Citizen Kane might be Wells first feature film, but it is also the most mature, accomplished work of his whole career. We never sense the 26-year-old’s young age and lack of experience – but neither his irrepressible energy. Mean Streets lays at the opposite end of the spectrum: wild, simmering and chaotic. It is an uncontrollable, multi-headed beast of a film or rather an unruly tangle of destinies, dramas and dilemmas that come crashing together in what is one of the more exhilarating mayhem in film history. Such crazy mess couldn’t have been made by anyone over 40.

Keitel and de Niro breathe life into the ensemble and lend it its emotional heft. Harvey Keitel’s blistering performance, often undervalued by critics, is pivotal, but there is no denial that in most scenes De Niro steals the show, exteriorizing in angry, staccato blasts the drama of a generation of Italian-Americans who grew up with the wrong ambitions and dreams. His high-voltage, slightly clownish role has a tonic effect that can hardly be matched, but he also possesses a terrifying edge that freezes the blood.

Scorsese’s visual flair is also remarkable. The intoxicating, electric hues, combined with febrile camerawork, give a frantic dimension to the New York nights.  Aggressively lit interior and bleak outsides create a chromatic duality that highlights the heroes’ fractured, bipolar personalities: behind their joyous bonhomie and worldly wit lurk insecurities, anxieties and an unsuspected potential for violence.

Making a coherent, even gripping movie out of this mayhem seems a cinematic miracle. But never before did a miracle came supercharged with such tonic, exhilarating heft.


Mean streets poster


 Mean streetts 4

Comments (1)

1. Liri (link) 14/09/2014

To read another opinion on Mean Streets and many other movies, go check, affiliated to A Personal Cinematic Diary!

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