Time: 112 Minutes
Age Rating: contains violence & offensive language
Robert De Niro as John “Johnny Boy” Civello
Harvey Keitel as Charlie Cappa
David Proval as Tony DeVienazo
Amy Robinson as Teresa Ronchelli
Richard Romanus as Michael Longo
Cesare Danova as Giovanni Cappa
Director: Martin Scorsese
A look at a group of small-time hoods and hustlers trying to make a living on the streets of New York. The story centers around Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a loan collector for a mobster named Giovanni (Cesare Danova). He can be pretty tough when he needs to but gets into trouble for cutting his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) – also his girlfriend’s cousin – a bit too much slack. His girlfriend (Amy Robinson) is also a problem as she is epileptic and Giovanni, who genuinally cars about Charlie, wants him to dump her. As pressures mount, Charlie faces some difficult decisions with none of the possible outcomes to his liking.
Although he’d film Who’s that Knocking at my Door and Boxcar Bertha beforehand, Mean Streets is the movie that got Martin Scorsese really noticed, and for very good reason. The raw yet energetic filmmaking is very impressive even today, and Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro more than shine in their roles here.
Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese’s first crime movie, and it’s not a bad first film for him to make in the genre. It feels like a very personal movie for Scorsese, the characters and the world feel real and the dialogue certainly sounded authentic. I personally wasn’t hugely invested in the characters, but I was more than willing to watch where they went next. The plot is a little loose and doesn’t have much of a focus or driving force (similar to Who’s that Knocking at My Door), but it works as that. The tension escalates slowly, culminating in a very memorable ending.
Often when it comes to people talking about Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel is overlooked by Robert De Niro but they’re equally as good. Keitel is really good as the main character Charlie, he’s pretty much in every single scene of the movie and the plot basically surrounds him and all the people he interacts with. Robert De Niro is the highlight performer however as Johnny Boy and steals every scene he’s in. He’s really volatile and filled with this chaotic unbound energy that can’t be tamed, one of the most standout performances of his career for that very reason alone. Charlie and Johnny Boy really feel like friends, while you can also feel the stress and frustration that the former feels as he keeps trying to keep the latter out of trouble (often to no avail). This was the first collaboration that De Niro had with Scorsese and it certainly wasn’t the last. The rest of the cast also work well for what they need to be but those previous two are the standouts.
Martin Scorsese’s direction even from his debut was shown to be good and he furthered that with Boxcar Bertha but he really has progressed with Mean Streets. Compared to a lot of his movies later on where the camera movement is largely smooth, some of the filming here was rough and handheld, but that actually worked for this movie. The budget was only $500,000 but he seemed to make great use of that because it’s a really good looking movie. The use of colour was also effective, especially with the prominent use of red in some scenes. The music was once again well picked, which is to be expected by Scorsese. There are just so many cinematic moments that stand out in this movie, from the opening scene of Be My Baby by The Ronettes, to Johnny Boy’s entrance into a club set to Jumping Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones, to a fight in a pool hall and so on.
Mean Streets is rough around the edges, but it’s raw, full of energy, and a showcase for what Scorsese can do behind the camera. Additionally, the acting is great, with Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro really shining in their roles. Definitely essential viewing especially if you’re looking to watch a lot of his movies. Sure, it’s not one of his best movies, or even one of his best crime movies, but it is for sure one of his most important films.