Watching Scorcese: Mean Streets

January 28, 2017


Charlie in Mean Streets lives in the world of the Italian gangster, but is not part of it. He creates rules for himself that set him apart from his peers, rules fed by his guilt and self-loathing.

The most famous shot of Mean Streets happens only a couple of minutes in: Charlie, after praying, holds his finger over a flame in an act of sorrowful self-harm. He tests his muster against the flames of hell, and flinches quickly away. I was reminded of a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, All The President’s Men, where Deep Throat tells a story about Gordon Liddy

Charlie is constantly plagued by Robert de Niro’s Johnny Boy, a slimy, pitiful opportunist and general piece of trash. Johnny owes money to seemingly everyone, and relies on others to bail him out. He’s the kind of character who will assault a stranger on the sidewalk who bumps into him and then pound his chest in defiance, daring the world to object. He’s a playground bully.

For some reason Charlie sees some aspect of his redemption in Johnny. Against all sense he maintains a devotion to helping Johnny out, hoping that perhaps he can do some good in the world through his loyalty.

Scorcese films this fool’s errand relentlessly. The movie takes place over multiple days, but you never get the sense that time is passing. Every scene runs into the next headlong, nearly all of it bathed in a sickly red light. It’s a claustrophobic film, both visually and sonically. The music is loud and persistent, colliding into itself as Charlie’s spiral down continues and continues and continues.

I don’t know if Scorcese ever uses a single establishing shot in this film. The pace is so relentless, manic, and aggressive that there’s no time to pause or breathe. Even the scenes that take place in the daytime seem dimmed, and the entire picture seems to take place in a perpetual purgatorial twilight.

All of this makes the movie simultaneously exhausting and compelling. Mean Streets is as aggressive in style as anything I’ve ever seen from Scorcese, with bold handheld camera movements, long tracking shots, muscular compositions, and even a brilliant scene played out with the camera strapped to the front of Harvey Keitel as he stumbles drunkenly through a party gone wrong.

The world of Mean Streets is full of capital-m Men, posturing and preening, dressing up in nice suits and treating every conversation like a gladiatorial battle. Charlie does all of this, but you can feel he is not comfortable with any of it. Keitel’s performance here is remarkable–the tension and anxiety in his face as he tries to maintain control of his situation is harrowing.

Trying to pull him away is his girlfriend Teresa, who tells him that she loves him twice. The first time he intentionally ignores her. The second time he begs her to stop saying it. As he pleads, he leans in and the light reflecting off of her shirt once again bathes his face in red.

Mean Street ends appropriately, with a baptism of water and blood. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and it’s great to see Scorcese a bit less edited than in his later works. The energy and aggression in the film is extraordinary, and a very fitting start to a further exploration of Scorcese’s films.

Matt’s thoughts:

My biggest question as we start through Scorsese’s early movies is whether I can relate to the settings he uses. I hear that he likes to deal with issues of “Catholic guilt”, but will I respond to questions of faith when the setting is the New York City underground?

Like in The Departed (one of the Scorsese films I remember), almost all of characters in Mean Streets are loathsome – a loan shark, a strip club owner, a mob uncle. The only character that seems to have any moral compass is Charlie, but can he atone for his sins by sacrificing his time and reputation for good for nothing Johnny Boy? I’m not certain what Scorsese’s answer is, but things don’t work out well for anyone in this story.

The acting in Mean Streets is great – Harvey Keitel as Charlie and Robert De Niro as Jonny Boy make quite the contrasting duo. I couldn’t help but feel for Charlie and both loath and pity Jonny Boy. The movie is relentless, as Scorsese makes a week of events feel like one long, continuing chain of events, and there are some impressive shots along the way.

I think we’re off to a good start with Mean Streets – Charlie’s struggle isn’t exactly my struggle, but I think Scorsese has something to say to me from Mobsterville.

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