Criterion Prediction #136: Mean Streets, by Alexander Miller
Title: Mean Streets
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, David Proval, Robert Carradine, David Carradine
Synopsis: Charlie Chappa (Keitel), a low ranking gangster, tries to climb the ladder of mafia hierarchy while looking out for his loose cannon friend Johnny Boy Civello (De Niro). Although Charlie has been maintaining a clandestine love affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa, it’s Johnny’s reckless behavior and gambling debts that land the three friends in harm’s way.
Critique: Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film opens by introducing its main characters. One, Charlie, recounts in voiceover, “You don’t make up for your sins in a church; you do it in the streets.” After the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” plays over the credits, Charlie laments the ritualistic nature of Catholicism. While standing in front of an ornate altar, he burns his finger on a lit candle. In the first few minutes we’ve got voiceover narration, Catholic guilt, hewn street musings, The Ronettes, this is in so many ways is a representation of what Scorsese embodies. Shortly afterward we meet Johnny, a wiry scruffy dude; unlike Charlie, there’s no dialogue or narration, he scurries up to a mailbox and blows it up. Is he destroying evidence, is it a political statement? No, Johnny personifies the unpredictable violence that defines the more physical aspects of the director’s oeuvre. Unlike Charlie, who spends his time thinking, Johnny just acts. His character is defined by volatile and irrational behavior. When Johnny’s not blowing shit up, he spends his time starting fights or getting loaded, he borrows money that he can’t pay back, and when he loses that money, he borrows more. You’ve got two guys, both are criminals but the difference is one gives a fuck, and the other does not; Charlie care about the rules, and Johnny doesn’t give a fuck. If you follow these two personalities they constitute the DNA that can be traced throughout Scorsese’s filmography, Johnny is reincarnated in Goodfellas as Tommy DeVito, Casino’s Nicky Santoro, going as far as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and The Departed Frank Costello. In moralizing these self-contained archetypes (contained within the director’s world), it’s easy to identify the unhinged character. Here Charlie is a little more clean cut and less complex than the more complex leads that we’d see in Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, and Rupert Pupkin but the juxtaposition and chemistry between Charlie and Johnny serves as a stable foundation for the unvarnished verite stylings of Mean Streets. Harvey Keitel has the settled manner of a man at odds with himself, the internalized tumult reads in his unenforced awkwardness. Sure, he’s proficient at being a wise guy but he’s struggling with his deviated sense of faith. He’s drawn to fire (another recurring theme we’re introduced to here) and he looks just a tad uncomfortable in those suits. Robert De Niro is roaring with animalistic fury, I wish we still had this guy, he doesn’t rise and boil, he’ll simply explode, he’s a time bomb stuck at a setting of one second. Other familiar faces include Richard Romanus as Michael, Harry Northup as the troubled soldier, Victor Argo, who along with Scorsese is a member of the Abel Ferrara alumni, and fans of The Sopranos will light up when they see David Proval who played the unforgettable Richie Aprile in the show’s second season.
And as a fun in-joke, Robert Carradine appears briefly as a hired gun, his target a very intoxicated David Carradine, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
There’s an unmoored frankness pulsing throughout. It’s charged and the narrative works so propulsively because it follows moments, not a conventional story. We hang out at the local bar with Charlie and Johnny’s friends, drive around and beat kids for their money, go to the movies. There’s a natural vibe in these moments. That attitude is like that of Hawks’ later Westerns, laid back but building the characters in a personally compelling way.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: It seems like Criterion’s relationship with the work of Martin Scorsese is hard to follow. In the laserdisc days, Criterion released Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through the American Movies, and The Last Temptation of Christ. The Last Temptation of Christ was an early Criterion DVD release and recently we’ve been treated to a restored Blu-Ray of his criminally underrated The Age of Innocence. Scorsese has been a presence in the Criterion Collection with two volumes of his World Cinema Project Collections and his appearances as a commentator on bonus features. A few years ago I would have said that titles like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are still “high profile” for a Criterion DVD/Blu Ray and that they’re a lost to mainstream distributors. But are major studios making a significant amount off of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or in this case Mean Streets? While I bought my Blu-Ray of Taxi Driver at Target I’d be lucky to come across a copy of Mean Streets at the nearest Barnes and Noble, the image looks nice, but the bonus features are merely transplanted from the DVD. Frankly, the only justification for a Blu-Ray upgrade would be the Criterion treatment. Recently, Filmstruck announced the early work of Scorsese, the three films Who’s That Knocking on My Door, Mean Streets, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It would be a marketable decision if Criterion were to release any of these on physical media, and in the sometimes contrary MO of Criterion I could see them opting for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, or giving light to the scrappy debut of Who’s That Knocking at my Door, but Mean Streets is the creative declaration that announced a massive new talent, and next to the many films that defined Scorsese, Mean Streets at this point in time is somewhat in the shadow of his many other classics. If not Mean Streets, let’s hope for a Criterion release of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, or even Who’s That Knocking on My Door.