Bucket List Movie #471: Mean Streets (1973)
Yesterday was the 72nd birthday of one America's most loved and admired storytellers, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese is a consistently brilliant director who has helmed classics that seem to find their way onto millions of "top five favorite" film lists, such as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver (my next BLM). The master of the long tracking shot and a great utilizer of color for atmosphere, Scorsese specializes in movies about, shall we say, less-than-admirable characters, and more often than not they are located in New York. Not the romanticized New York of Nora Ephron or Woody Allen, but "Noo Yawk", where the streets are paved with trash, vermin, and slime… and that's just the people (rimshot)! Scorsese, like any good director, has occasionally ventured beyond his formula, and with great success, such as his gorgeous 1993 adaptation of The Age of Innocence (which he called "the most violent movie [he's] ever made"), the entertaining 2004 biopic The Aviator, and 2009's gripping and noir-ish Shutter Island.
"Dark and gritty" tend to come to mind when Scorsese is mentioned, but in person he appears to be opinionated but affable, a bona fide lover of film who speaks of his passion in rapid-fire, fanboy fashion. I watch him interviews and I just want to take him out for coffee and discuss cinema until closing time. Darkness, violence, and corruption permeate the majority of his films' plots, so it always amazes me that Scorsese is an enormous, gushing fan of the 1940s Technicolor films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (he frequently appears in the special features or commentaries on the DVDs), and his favorite film of theirs is 1948's The Red Shoes. The Red Shoes certainly has grim moments and themes, but it's hard to believe that the lushly beautiful ode to ballet and artistry is so loved by the man who directed last year's 3-hour ode to greed and the f-word, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Actors aren't the only people with "star-making moments". Directors have them, too, especially when they make a film that establishes their trademark style. For Scorsese, it was today's BLM, 1973's Mean Streets. Set in the underbelly of New York (where else?)'s mob world, Mean Streets contains Scorsese's signature touches as I mentioned above, and, of course, abrasive characters who actually utter things like "whatsa matta?" and "mook" (there's an amusing discussion on what it actually means). Yes, they are Italian American New Yorkers and they are not flatteringly depicted in Mean Streets. Still, being an Italian American New Yorker himself, Scorsese knows of what he speaks, so it's no good yelling "stereotype!"
It's difficult to describe the plot of Mean Streets, because it's a bit of a crowded, slice-of-life tale. Basically, small-time hood Charlie (Harvey Keitel, whose butt I'm pleased to say we never once see) runs numbers for the mob while juggling his codependent friendship with unstable man-child Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and his romance with Johnny Boy's epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson). Charlie's daily routine seems to involve getting Johnny Boy out of scrapes, getting into fights, hitting on any woman in his field of vision, and breaking up/making up with Teresa. Eventually, though, Johnny Boy goes too far and pisses off the wrong people. Even Charlie's quick thinking and connections can't save them, and, well, you soon realize why they call them the "mean streets".
I admit, I've always been riveted by Scorsese's work, even if I don't enjoy all of it, but Mean Streets did nothing for me in terms of character or pacing. I found it about 30 minutes too long for what it was, and while I don't mind slice-of-life stories, I want to care about who they're about. The characters here were either too cold or too uninteresting for me to latch on to. Whack-a-doodle Johnny Boy is interesting, to be sure, but he gets remarkably little screen time. De Niro really flexes his Method muscles as Johnny Boy, and I'm amazed he didn't chip a tooth chewing all that scenery.
If I can say one thing about Scorsese, it's that he never idealizes the City that Never Sleeps. This New York is the real thing: filthy, overcrowded, and the stench of crime and indifference practically wafts off the screen. It has the Scorsese look and tone, but the richly drawn characterizations were yet to come. So tune in next time, when I review Taxi Driver, when Scorsese was already Scorsese, but De Niro truly became De Niro.