A Mean Streets Review: The Act of Redemption and the Frenzy of its Pursue

"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."
                                            Raymond Chandler, 1944

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” And so Mean Streets starts, with a declaration of its focus, of its quest and of its dilemma, the film’s unorthodox opening scene may be taken to mean that the director is forcing his take and view on the film on his audience, but for me, it serves as a way to fortify the film’s main theme and therefore explore it more thoroughly without fiddling with other potential themes that are really not even there, I mean, why search for answers when there aren’t even any questions asked, right?

Mean Streets is a 1973 film by Martin Scorsese, and apart from his first film Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and another directing project Boxcar Bertha (1972), it is his first feature film of his own design. The film revolves around a small-time hood, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who must choose between rising in the mob and concurring to his uncle’s wishes, continuing to look out for his younger reckless friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a small time gambler who owes money to pretty much everybody, and a secret love affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa. The film consequently is split up to three parts, each one sees Charlie interacting, in different manners of course, with each of these three parties.

For this picture, Martin Scorsese crafted one of the most complex and intricate characters in cinematic history, along with a multitude of others that gave the film its vitality and charisma, but Michael is on a different league, comprising basically three whole characters in one that unfold as we watch him interact with his entourage. When around his buddies, he’s almost just as reckless and wild as Johnny Boy, but with a certain occasional restraint which becomes both the obstacle and the resolution. When around Teresa however, we are treated to the somewhat emotional side of the character, although some of his stoutness is forever present, but these sections, however short, serve as a much-needed break from the problem-ridden life of the mean streets. And finally when around his uncle, we see a respectful Charlie who conforms and yields to greater power in hopes of one day possessing it himself. But that does not mean that that is his purpose, for just like there are three different sides to his character, every one of them has its own purpose. These purposes are all continuations (for lack of a better word) of his quest for redemption and his thirst for salvation, a mission that is never accomplished and a question that is never answered, fire doesn’t mean forgiveness, neither does kindness, friendship or love. Along with Harvey Keitel’s amazing performance, Robert De Niro delivers one of his best as well in his early years. The character he plays, Johnny Boy, is a perfect embodiment of everything he was in his earlier stuff, perfectly tailored for him. Wild, unpredictable and often even irresponsible.

Alongside with its naturally unresolved quest for salvation, the film treats many other minor themes, the major of them of course being the violence in New York Scorsese implements in so many of his films. It’s common knowledge that the legendary director sees his city as both a serene sort of place and also home to the mob and all of its misconducts. This being a film, the subject matter is logically glamourized, and that is facilitated by its visual style and score. In some of the most violent scenes of the film, some old soul or Rock N’ Roll tune is playing in the background while the camera moves in a purposefully amateurish manner to create the feeling that the viewer is almost there witnessing the act in person without actually being susceptible to danger. And Martin Scorsese’s cameos in his earlier films are of course always a plus, but this time even his mother appears briefly, which when I noticed I couldn’t help but smile.

Mean Streets established Martin Scorsese as the master of the crime thriller, a film made by a person who plainly has a massive passion for films, with a unique and light visual style, incredibly complex and intriguing protagonists, a captivating and fun plot and a nod or two to the big fans of this fabulous director.


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