The first time that I heard about Mean Streets, I didn’t even recognize it as a Martin Scorsese film, despite loving his later works. Often regarded as a crime movie, Mean Streets is that and so much more.
From the rawness of its characters, to its plot and setting, Mean Streets was an instant classic. Shot almost completely in Los Angeles, the film brings the murky, diabolical glow of Little Italy, New York to life through the God-fearing Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and the suicidal and reckless Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). At its core, Mean Streets is Scorsese’s tribute to his city. It’s a tale of friendship, love, religion, but most of all, it’s a tale of New York.
Although Keitel and De Niro are now stalwarts of Hollywood, when this movie was filming, they were relatively unknown. We see De Niro especially unshackled by the gravitas of his later roles such as Taxi Driver. In Mean Streets, he often improvised his lines and really brought the rogue Johnny to life — and we love him for it, even though he is the problem that pushes the narrative forward.
The handheld, shaky cinematography further immerses the audience in the gritty world of low-level Italian mafia. A staple in his later works — Goodfellas and Raging Bull, to name a couple — Scorsese’s minimalist yet innovative camera techniques really come through in the famous pool table fight scene. Equal parts hilarious and violent, he strapped a camera to Keitel’s head to demonstrate his intoxicated state.
In a way, the lower budget paved the way for the film’s distinctive style, as the majority of the budget was spent on the soundtrack, with music composed by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.
Scorsese’s sharp script and sharper directing encapsulate his view of the world in a grand, two-hour long gangster epic that shouldn’t be buried in the stacks of time, but celebrated as a work of art that inspired thousands of filmmakers and told a story about the great city of New York.