Thanks to Matthew Pejkovic for this addition to The Forgotten series. You can read more of Matt’s writing here [Ed].
Talk to you average movie fan about filmmaker Martin Scorsese and the usual films we pop up: Goodfellas; Taxi Driver; Raging Bull… Yet constantly lost in the shuffle is the 1973 classic Mean Streets, a film that is not only authentic in feel and immensely personal in its subject matter, but also marked the arrival of Scorsese and his unique brand of urban filmmaking.
Make no mistake about it: Mean Streets is an American classic that has not been seen by enough eyeballs. It was the film that featured breakthrough performances of master thespians Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, and gave Scorsese the chance to establish his filmmaking identity, in the process launching a career that would see him become one of the silver screen’s most revered and popular filmmakers.
A semi-auto biographical crime tale, Mean Streets stars Keitel as Scorsese’s alter-ego Charlie, a young gangster who is making a name for himself as a debt collector. Driven by his devout Catholicism and plagued by the threat of eternal hellfire, Charlie has also built a reputation as something of a saint in the mean streets of New York City. When his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) – a two-bit punk who owes money all over town – faces danger when he refuses to make his payments, Charlie takes it upon himself to save Johnny from certain death. As Scorsese’s narrated introduction says “In this world you pay for your sins not in church, but on the street.”
Scorsese’s first collaborator (with the pair working on several features), a fresh-faced Keitel, projects a magnetic screen presence that drew viewers to his character, a sad soul torn by feelings of loyalty to his friends, his family, the Church, and the streets.
In a scene stealing supporting role, a young De Niro is simply electrifying in the most animated turn of his career. The lively exchanges between Keitel and De Niro feature these now legendary actors at their most raw and lively. Mean Streets would mark the first in a lengthy and legendary collaboration between Scorsese and De Nir that includes Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Mean Streets also marked the first time that Scorsese would forego a traditional film score in favour of a vast array of music ranging from rock to classical. This in turn heightens several key scenes such as Johnny Boy strutting to the Rolling Stones classic “Jumping Jack Flash”, and a piss-up at the local bar to the sounds of “Rubber Biscuit” by doo-wop group The Chips.
The gritty and raw predecessor to Goodfellas, Mean Streets is essential viewing for not only crime movie buffs and general lovers of cinema, but for those who wish to see the turning point in the evolution of a great filmmaker.
By Matthew Pejkovic
Follow Matt on Twitter @Mattsmovierev