Of Sinners and Saints

mean streets

Harvey Keitel and Amy Robinson in Mean Streets

Mean Streets (1973, US)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin.
Starring: Harvey Keitel(Charlie),Robert De Niro(Johnny Boy),Amy Robinson(Teresa),David Proval(Tony),Richard Romanus(Michael) and Cesare Danova(Giovanni).

I mean, if I do something wrong, I just want to pay for it my way. So, I do my own penance for my own sins.”, says Charlie in the initial scenes of Mean Streets, and this theme of guilt and penance, runs throughout its 110 mins running time ending with Charlie sitting on his knees on the streets bloodied and defeated.
Charlie’s character is different than other protagonists in Scorsese’s later movies like Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) or Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) in the way that he has a conscience which the latter characters lack.
Charlie comes out as more naive in comparison, having a strong sense of morality and righteousness which these guys didn’t have. The only thing they regret is that they were unable to keep on doing the same things. Charlie’s inner turmoil is more relatable perhaps because he is in a constant state of conflict between doing what he wants to and of doing what he thinks he should, something which most of us struggle with. We see him spiraling down to his inevitable doomed fate as his dreams crash and burn.
Mean Streets is kind of a root film from which all later Scorsese movies can be traced back to. The themes and ideas in this film paved way for his later work. It’s all there.
Charlie’s character seems closer to Scorsese than any other. We all know that when he was young, Scorsese was planning to become a priest, and maybe so did Charlie. In one scene Joey Clams calls him St. Charles asking for benediction which is probably how Scorsese would have been mocked by his friends in Little Italy of New York where he grew up.
Mean Streets gives a pretty stark depiction of the life of the middle class Italian American community living in New York city in the 60s and 70s.The mannerism, the lifestyle, the accents, the moral obligations, everything which Scorsese knows like the back of his hand strengthens the proceedings. It is a character in itself- the claustrophobic buildings, narrow alleys and old restaurants and cafes.
Charlie works as a “collector” for his Uncle Giovanni, who is the local capo. He is probably going to be given the charge of a restaurant by his Uncle from its broke owner who is unable to pay him. His uncle doesn’t want him to be involved with his best friend Johnny Boy,”Honorable men go with Honorable men”, he says, and with Johnny’s cousin Teresa with whom he is having an affair with. Teresa suffers from epilepsy which Giovanni condescendingly describes as being “sick in the head”.
The tragedy with Charlie is that even though his intentions are good, he always keeps doing the things he feels guilty about. He is terrified of the eternal fire of hell, and so is always looking for an instant penance, burning himself either by a matchstick or putting his hand over the fire in the kitchen. A similar scene can be seen in Taxi Driver, where Travis raises his hand over a kitchen stove.
He tends to keep disappointing everyone. Whether it’s Teresa, Johnny Boy, Michael, his uncle, even the African American dancer whom he stoods up on a date. The racial discrimination against the black people here is less subtle than “Taxi Driver“. Scorsese obviously doesn’t condone it, but he never shies away from portraying truthfully the attitude of the community towards them. Whether it’s racism or misogyny, it’s shown as it is.

The use of color red especially for Tony’s bar represents how Charlie looks at the place in comparison to the outside world. The entire place replete with cigar smokes, drinks, drugs and lust is a place for the sinners, of which he becomes a part of ,every time he enters there.
The entire film’s plot revolves around Charlie trying to save his reckless friend Johnny Boy from a vicious loan shark Michael who he owes money to.
Johnny Boy reminds me more of the fool from Fellini’s “La Strada” who makes poor choices and makes up his own fate and that of the people around him. He just can’t help himself and does and say things one too many.It also showcases Scorsese’s affinity towards characters who are willing to self-destruct.

The things that I love the most in Mean Streets are the quieter scenes, like the scene where he dances with an intoxicated girl after protecting him from a war veteran because sometimes all you want is a hug, or the scene where he walks with Teresa on the beach nervously looking everywhere hoping not to be seen with her. Scorsese masterfully uses the popular music of the late 50s and the early 60s, with the likes of The Rolling Stones(‘Tell Me’), The Chantels(‘I Love You So’), The Aquatones(‘You’), The Ronettes(‘Be,My Baby), The Paragons(‘Florence’), The Nutmegs(‘Ship Of Love’), etc.There is a wonderful scene in which the gang watches a clumsy fist fight scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, which they later kind of imitate in the wonderful pool-fighting sequence perfectly synced with “Please, Mr.Postman” by the Carpenters.
There are several slow-motion shots, which will eventually become a Scorsese trademark. The feeling of paranoia, of being trapped from all sides, having nowhere to escape, something which he will again masterly use in the climax of “Goodfellas”, exists here as well.
Charlie struggles to balance his feelings for Teresa, his Uncle, his responsibility of protecting Johnny Boy, his lust for the black dancer. At the end he looks at his fate grimly at the price he had to pay for the things he did. Scorsese brilliantly cuts the scene showing all the characters as Charlie is eventually put into the ambulance.
The entire cast is superb.De Niro brings about the right amount of recklessness and aggression. We watch him with shock as he starts to dance during a tense moment at the end of the film rather than worrying about getting killed. Harvey Keitel’s performance, for me, was the most impressive. He makes us care for a character who many a times act like a jerk, especially towards the women in his life.
The film’s imperfections, helps it in bringing a distinct rawness and energy that a more polished film would have lacked. If you haven’t seen this film, before reading this post, you probably are thinking how solemn the film is, which is totally incorrect.The film has a great sense of humor, and has several scenes which are just laugh out funny making it a really entertaining fare. Whether the viewers today will be able to appreciate this early film by Scorsese is something that I am unable to say, but the film that heralded the arrival of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time is definitely worth a watch.