The future is set for Tony and Michael - owning a neighbor- hood bar and making deals in the mean streets of New York city's Little Italy. For Charlie, the future is less clearly defined. A small-time hood, he works for his uncle, making collections and reclaiming bad debts. He's probably too nice to succeed. In love with a woman his uncle disapproves of (because of her epilepsy) and a friend of her cousin, Johnny Boy, a near psychotic whose trouble-making threatens them all - he can't reconcile opposing values. A failed attempt to escape (to Brooklyn) moves them all a step closer to a bitter, almost preordained future
If Taxi Driver landed Martin Scorsese on the map, it was Mean Streets that told him where the map was. If he didn’t make this film, Ellen Burstyn would never have agreed to meet with him, and ultimately decide to give him the project Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) which earned her an Academy Award. This film was also the deciding factor to Julia and Michael Phillips, the producers of Taxi Driver, to give him that project which he had been lobbying for. The rest is history.
If I had to describe this film in two words, those words would be “raw power.” This isn’t a polished movie. It doesn’t have the typical three act structure which is the blueprint for many blockbusters. This film doesn’t really have much of a storyline. This film is New York. This film is the streets.
The film follows around Charlie (Harvey Keitel) who is a deeply religious man that also works in the low ranks of his uncle’s Mafia. This faith and the demands, rituals, and strictness of his occupations do not make for a good mix. This is evident in the opening scene where Charlie holds his finger over a flame in a giant church. He sins daily because of his job, and regular penance isn’t enough anymore. He wants to believe in the church, but he knows the reality of the streets. He needs to suffer for his sins, and saying Hail Mary’s isn’t going to cut it. “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home,” is the opening voice over.
Charlie has a secret girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson) who his uncle doesn’t approve of, so Charlie tries to make both Teresa and his uncle happy by keeping her a secret. How can this make him, or Teresa happy? She wants to start a life with him, but he can’t, but he can’t end it with her either.
Charlie’s uncle also tells him to stay away from Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) because he’s trouble. Again, Charlie decides instead to try and smooth things over with Johnny and Michael (Richard Romanus), to whom Johnny owes money. Johnny asks Charlie to go to his uncle for help, but Charlie can’t. It is this relationship, and this situation, in which Charlie refuses to make a decision, that brings the film to an abrupt, logical, and powerful ending.
The reason I say this film can best be described by the two words “raw power,” is because it feels so real; like we’re getting a glimpse inside the world of these people. In one sequence a couple of the guys rip off some tourists for money, and they decide to go to the movies with it. This scene is totally unimportant in terms of plot, but serves a great purpose in giving us a sense of reality. Another scene shows Tony (David Proval), who owns the bar at which the characters hang out, showing his friends a tiger he bought. In modern cinema, that tiger would show up somewhere near the end of the picture to finish off the “third act.” In this film, it’s there to create a sense of three dimensional characters.
When characters walk by windows, or courtyards, we hear an electric pop soundtrack coming through. One song will fade away as another song comes in as they pass the various sound sources. These tiny details create a great sense of reality.
Scorsese is a big fan of Nick Cassavettes, who was a pioneer of using improvisation in films, and that influence shows here. The dialogue seems free and realistic, and is done by a great cast that excels in this type of environment. One scene with DeNiro and Keitel talking about Joey Clams/ Joey Scallops is one of the greatest dialogue scenes you’ll ever hear.
Martin Scorsese, who wrote the screenplay with his NYU friend Mardik Martin, has said this film is autobiographical of his youth in Little Italy. In fact, Scorsese and his friends were about five minutes away from experiencing the ending of this film themselves. On the newest DVD release of this movie, he now realizes that the film is actually about his father and his uncle; his father being Charlie, and his uncle being Johnny Boy. This film was obviously close to his heart, and that’s why the passion jumps off the screen.
I would consider this movie (along with Goodfellas) a companion piece to The Godfather (1972). The Godfather shows what the Mafia life is like on top, and to many, doesn’t depict the lifestyle accurately. This film shows what it’s like to be a grunt at the bottom in gritty, unrelenting, and incredibly realistic detail.