#6 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Scorsese moved beyond homage and made his style in his third feature film, the first one born from himself completely and with a single, consistent production schedule. This makes it the first real feature film that could be called Scorsese’s, to a certain degree. The first two films essentially amounted to practice, and he worked out so many kinks in those two outings. His third film, Mean Streets, is a down and dirty independent film that evokes a specific time and place to great degree while telling a compelling story at the same time.
Charlie, Harvey Keitel’s main character, could be J.R., Keitel’s character from Who’s that Knocking at My Door a few years later, making Mean Streets almost a sequel to Scorsese’s first feature film. He’s the young kid from the Lower East Side who’s grown up a bit more, entered the family business as a collector for his uncle’s small corner of the mob, and watched as his friends have either grown up along with him or refused. Tony owns the local bar, Michael is a loan shark, and Johnny Boy is a complete screw up who owes money all over town and has piled up more than his share of debts with Michael. Charlie’s in the middle of this, trying to protect Johnny Boy from Michael and getting Johnny Boy to accept some kind of responsibility in his life.
The undercurrent of all of this comes from the movie’s beginning where Scorsese, in voiceover, says that sins aren’t paid for in Church with words but on the streets with actions. That manifests most strongly with Charlie’s propensity for putting his hand over fire. Consumed by the guilt of his own sins while leading a life of crime and unable to find any redemption through the traditional modes of the Church, he puts his finger over flames, accepting the pain as his penance which means more to him than just another ten Our Fathers or ten Hail Marys. Charlie wants to be a good man, but the murkiness of his moral situation of his day to day life on the streets makes that path difficult. That’s most apparent in Charlie’s inserting of himself in Johnny Boy’s debt problem.
His insistence on trying to help Johnny Boy is settled in two things. The first is that they are childhood friends, and the movie takes time to give us small moments of the two being friends to help solidify that. One morning after a long night out, for instance, the two are walking along the street hungover and they kick over a couple of garbage cans and instantly use the tops to fight each other like shields. It feels like the sort of thing they’d done a thousand times as kids and just naturally slid back into in a less guarded moment as adults. The other thing is that Charlie is seeing Johnny Boy’s cousin, the epileptic Teresa who lives across the way from Charlie’s apartment. He feels like he needs to help Johnny Boy because he’s part of the family of this girl that he has trouble saying that he loves. Charlie is caught between two places in several directions. He wants to grow up and be part of the family business, but Johnny Boy is holding him back. He wants to marry, but Teresa’s epilepsy presents a unique social problem when his uncle describes her as having something wrong in the head. He wants to see the attractive black girl socially, but he’s still part of a culture where everyone throws around the n-word with abandon. He wants to find the solace promised from the Church, but he looks for it in the streets.
Scorsese had been cutting his teeth on short films and under Roger Corman’s guidance for a few years when he got the funding for Mean Streets. He came out of his formative experiences with an approach towards his actors that embraced improvisation within character, apparently a technique well-trod by actors trained in New York. This allows for the scenes where Charlie and Johnny Boy can just start goofing around. It’s not just a moment of two actors blowing off steam in the middle of a shoot, it actually demonstrates an important moment between two well thought out characters.
One of the joys of this movie is Scorsese’s earliest and fullest use of music. The soundtrack is almost constant and it’s all music that he grew up listening to. From The Rolling Stones to MOTOWN to music from the Old World sung by Giuseppe Di Stefano, the soundtrack is a remarkably eclectic selection of music that helps give the movie its distinctive flavor and solidify its sense of place and character. Scorsese has described the music as though they were driving around the different parts of New York at the time and just hearing what was blasting from nearby windows, and I think it’s an effective technique. It was also apparently really expensive and represented half of the film’s total budget. It works most entertainingly when Scorsese embraces subjective filmmaking fully during a sequence showing Charlie getting completely wasted in Tony’s bar, the camera focused on his face and the music blaring “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips.
The movie’s total power comes in how it consolidates all of its disparate elements into a single story. Still bearing structural similarities to Fellini’s work, Scorsese moved into a new realm with his combination of characters, unique and specific setting, and sound design. His work was distinctly his own at this point, still bearing hallmarks of his influences but no longer defined by them. When Charlie, Teresa, and Johnny Boy try to get out of town to avoid Johnny Boy’s creditor, Michael, and Michael ends up driving up along side them and having his man shoot into the car, it’s a moment of violence invited upon well-written characters trying to run away from their problems only to have their penance find them as they run. They’re running in a violent culture, and their atonement can only come in the same manner as the culture around them, implying that perhaps Charlie’s disconnect with the Church is based on his choice of life.
Mean Streets is the work of an extremely talented young filmmaker using his newfound connections through Corman to make his own movie and establish his name for a larger audience. It wasn’t a hugely successful movie financially, but it got the attention he needed in order to get his next job.