Monday 22 June 2009

Mean Streets (1973)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert de Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson and Richard Romanus

I've seen Mean Streets before, though it took me about four attempts to get through the whole thing. It's one of those pivotal films that influenced everybody and which everyone raves about, but I just couldn't get it. It's powerfully shot, in a very independent way, and the acting is superb, but somehow it just runs and runs and runs and everything that happens just leaves me dry. I couldn't ever find the point, even though the point is narrated to us at the beginning of the film by Martin Scorsese himself: 'You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.'

What I seem to have been missing all along is two key things. The first is that director and co-writer Martin Scorsese was torn as a young man about whether to become a priest or a gangster, but failed as both, succeeding instead as a filmmaker. Therefore the lead character in Mean Streets is really Scorsese himself, even though he's called Charlie and he's played by Harvey Keitel. He's a made man, a minor player in New York organised crime and serious about his work, but he also has a need to be forgiven for what he does and doesn't understand how the church can keep forgiving him for the same acts that he continues to commit week after week.

The other has to do with the scene that happens quickly after Charlie leaves the church at the beginning of the film, wondering about how he can give a penance that means something. He goes to his friend Tony's bar, which is bathed in red light like a vision of Hell. As he sits there with his fellow mobsters, in walks Johnny Boy with a girl without a name on each shoulder. He's a wild and seemingly uncontrollable young colleague, perhaps even a protege, who owes everyone money and spends his time avoiding paying them. And the point I was missing is that Johnny Boy is Charlie's penance.

With this knowledge, the whole film makes a lot more sense. Instead of a mostly plotless collection of apparently random scenes, it becomes a slowly but surely fleshed out exposition of a theme. While it's hardly a story you could call enjoyable, this knowledge makes it a much easier film to watch and to appreciate. The fact that New York Italians can't do a single thing without arguing about it still drives me insane but I don't think this concept is anything I'm ever going to get past in a Scorsese film. At least people like Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel do it so much better than say Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.

This film is superbly acted in a very realistic way that utterly fits the guerrilla style filmmaking. Robert de Niro is suitably wild as Johnny Boy, looking like an English hooligan with an annoying grin an apparent dedication to the road to self destruction. He spends half his screen time making excuses and the rest doing dumb things like trying to shoot out the lights on the Empire State Building. Harvey Keitel is even better as Charlie, suitably torn between his work as a minor member of the mob, collecting debts and running numbers. He looks forward to taking over a restaurant as the owner can't pay what he owes. This pair have a number of dynamic scenes together and I wonder how much of them was improvised.

The film really belongs to Martin Scorsese though, as improvisation notwithstanding it's very much an extrapolation of himself. Even the soundtrack mostly comes from his own record collection. I think this knowledge will flavour every subsequent Scorsese film I see, just as I already know that New York is a character in each of them. It always helps to know something about a director while watching his work but it would seem to be a little more important in this case. Without it you may end up asleep during it just like I used to do so often.

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