GOD’S GOT A PIECE
Hitting the pavement with Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets
Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, an Italian-American Catholic living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He’s a church-goer and worshipper of saints. He’s also a collector for his mobster uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). He spends his nights on the town, mostly at his buddy Tony’s (David Proval) bar, dressed in sleek, tailored suits and monogrammed, French-cuffed shirts. He likes a good game of cards, a stiff drink and occasional laugh. His closest pal and adopted fuck-up is Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who basically owes money to every small-time hood in town, including Michael (Richard Romanus).
Charlie does his best to buy Johnny time and protect him from broken legs, using his friendship with Michael and his uncle’s status as cover. Charlie is also in love with Johnny’s epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson). Giovanni is down on Johnny and his family, feeling their image is bad for business. So, Charlie keeps his relationship with Teresa under wraps and fights to keep it that way, even telling Teresa that they need to take a break from each other after his uncle hands him a restaurant to run. But Johnny’s problems take up too much of his time. When Charlie’s about to carve out a steady livelihood and keep the peace with Tony, Michael and the rest of the wanna-be crew, Johnny just keeps thumbing his nose at his creditors, gambling all his pocket cash and quits showing up to work. He even pulls a gun on Michael at Tony’s bar, making it clear that he has no intention to pay up. This leads to Michael and his backseat gunman (played by Martin Scorsese) catching up with Charlie, Johnny and Teresa, who are trying to leave the city and lay low for a while, and putting one in Johnny’s neck.
So, that’s the face of Mean Streets (1973) in a nutshell. New York City, gangsters, friendship, booze, cards and Cadillacs. Brilliantly acted and fantastically photographed, like most of the era’s independent crime films.
Originally titled Season of the Witch, and written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, the picture is partly inspired by Scorsese’s own experience growing up in Manhattan and undoubtedly molded by his affinity for the Church as a young man. (Apparently, Scorsese seriously considered priesthood before turning to a career in film.) All well and good. It’s also a precursor to Scorsese’s cinematic trademarks: pop music soundtrack, long shots, slow tracking and push-ins. It feels like Goodfellas (1990) before it became Goodfellas. It marks the beginning of the Scorsese-De Niro power coupling. It’s experimentally edgy, with audio overlaps bridging scenes and dialogue, similar to (but much less than) what Soderbergh did in The Limey (1999). And it features awesome handheld action, like the hilarious pool hall brawl scene (which was shot, surprisingly, in Los Angeles according to IMDB). A ton has been written and discussed about Mean Streets, and it’s preserved in the United States National Film Registry as being culturally significant. It’s a great flick any way you cut it.
But getting past the personal details, technical movie flair and prissy praise – when we scrape the outer paint – we get to what Mean Streets is really about: Hell on Earth.
Where the great Robert Altman often explored characters through a detached lens, Scorsese invites his audience into the fray. He’s more Cassavetes and De Palma in that regard. Riding Kent Wakeford’s killer cinematography, Mean Streets is a master moviemaker’s love letter to all that is brutal and beautiful about being an individual. Charlie’s that guy. Maybe he’s an extension of the director himself. The wandering Samaritan in custom hoodlum wear. Poking through the City’s nasty belly to extract some grace from its bile, and battling a secret wish to bathe in all its rich temptation without regard for anything, or anyone. But he can’t. Charlie can’t be like the scum if he doesn’t help some scum.
Scorsese presents us with an urban wilderness. Street festivals rattle your eardrums, while heroin is shot up steps away. Kids are swindled and “fuck” is a term of art. Giovanni’s luncheonette doubles as refuge for killers and their fathers. But it’s Tony’s bar that tips this into infernal territory. It’s the central spot for our crew. The meeting place for parties and pussy. Tony even keeps caged tigers in the back room as pets, while go-go dancers in thongs and nipple cones wrestle horny attention away from the carousing Jewish girls and table games. And a drunk (played by David Carradine) gets blasted in the bathroom by a long-haired, teenage hitman (played by younger brother, Keith Carradine). All this under a soft red glow, lighting the joint like a slow burning cigarette. An underworld beneath the sidewalk. Flamed out like its tired patrons, dressing the dress and talking the talk, with nowhere to turn but to their own worn out faces.
We hit on the hellish motif again with scattered shots of Charlie holding his hand in candle and stovetop flames. Charlie shoulders the suffering of his neighborhood. He’s tempted to pull away from the fire and fuck it all to rot. But like the appeal of absorbing pain and amounting heat, Charlie can’t peel himself off the dirty walls and littered streets. His world bound by homosexuals, addicts, artists, sociopaths and old Italian ladies. He’s a savior, even if only in his mind. He has to help people. He has to want to help people. Like he tells Teresa under the docks – St. Francis of Assisi had it all right.
Charlie’s charity project is Johnny Boy. An eternal brat stuck in a man’s body. Our intro to Johnny shows him blowing up a corner mailbox. He runs up an impossible tab at Tony’s, tells bullshit tales about his gambling conquests and payment arrangements, speaks filth about his own girl cousin, and fires a gun carelessly off a roof into the night air. And he’s too selfish and stupid to understand Charlie’s love and care. It’s genuine and seemingly unconditional, like a father to son, brother to brother. Charlie’s backhanded smacks and lung-cracking yells are only by-products of his tested patience. He won’t feed Johnny to the devils in grins and suits, like Giovanni and Michael. Giovanni is the understated monster. Michael is the laboring leech. One wants nothing to do with Johnny. The other can’t stop thinking about how to hurt him. So, that leaves Charlie to figure that a dead Johnny is a good Johnny in this world, and he can’t let that happen.
Mean Streets isn’t a Sunday school shill. There’s no imposition of Bible guilt. There’s no straight and narrow. Charlie likes sex and alcohol, and a little violence for good measure. None of it conditions his self-canonization. He eventually fails Johnny Boy, watching him off as we do, bullet in neck, bloodletting like a geyser. He let the devil get to him. But reclamation and redemption aren’t always personal endeavors. Doing like Charlie does is Johnny’s penance for straying. To be respectful of the streets and responsible to your friends. Scorsese slices through religion to reach its human core – there ain’t no saints.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Mardik Martin and Martin Scorsese
Producer(s): E. Lee Perry and Jonathan Taplin
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, David Proval and Richard Romanus
Release Date: 1973