Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part IV: Mean Streets

Mean Streets (1973) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Martin Scorsese & Mardik Martin.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (Charlie), Robert De Niro (Johnny Boy), David Proval (Tony), Amy Robinson (Teresa), Richard Romanus (Michael), Cesare Danova (Giovanni), Victor Argo (Mario), George Memmoli (Joey), Lenny Scaletta (Jimmy), Jeannie Bell (Diane), Murray Moston (Oscar), David Carradine (Drunk), Robert Carradine (Boy With Gun), Harry Northup (Soldier), Martin Scorsese (Jimmy Shorts).

“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.” – opening narration of Mean Streets, read by Martin Scorsese

“It's all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don't fuck around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart... your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know... the worst of the two is the spiritual.” – Charlie (Harvey Keitel).

These two quotes are I think the key to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. As Pauline Kael wrote in her famous review of the film upon its release “No matter what Charlie does, he’s a sinner”. What Kael meant was that no matter what he does, he views himself as a sinner. He confesses early in the movie that he doesn’t really feel absolved of his sins when he goes to confession, and says the penance that the priest assigns him. Throughout the movie, Charlie repeatedly holds his hands above flames – a match or whatever is around. The pain of the fire is a meaningful for him than the words the priest has him speak.

What’s odd about Charlie is what he feels guilty about. He is a low level gangster, working for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), collecting debts and essentially doing what he is told. He feels no guilt or remorse about this – these people borrowed money from his uncle, and if they don’t pay it back, something needs to be done about it. What he feels guilty about is his relationship with two people who are like family to him. First there is Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), his best friend since childhood. Johnny Boy is a person who lives completely in the moment, and never thinks about the consequences of his actions. When we first meet him, we see him blow up a mail box. Why? I don’t know, and I expect he doesn’t know either. He blew it up because it was there, and he could and he thought it would be fun. For Johnny Boy, that is enough of a reason to do anything. Johnny Boy owes money all over town, but is getting deeper in debt to Michael (Richard Romanus), another childhood friend of Charlie and Johnny’s, who is starting to get impatient with him. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy, which means if he doesn’t pay up, the debt could become his. His uncle warns him to stay away from Johnny Boy, because “honorable men go with honorable men”, and Johnny isn’t honorable.

The other relationship that Charlie feels guilty about is with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson). The two have been sleeping together for a while, but keeping it a secret. When she confesses that she loves him, he tells her that if he loved her, he wouldn’t be there right now. This movie, an extension of Scorsese’s first film Who’s That Knocking at My Door, has the same attitude about sex. If Charlie wanted to marry Teresa, he wouldn’t be there sleeping with her. But it is clear that he does in fact love Teresa, but he cannot admit it anyone, least of all himself. His uncle also warns him away from her – she has epilepsy, which in his old world mind is equal to mental disease.

So poor Charlie is in a tough spot. He knows that he should probably cut Johnny Boy loose – let him sink or swim on his own. Everyone, including Teresa has told him so. “You have to look out for yourself first” she tells him, to which he responds “That’s where you’re wrong. Francis of Assisi, he knew”. She just laughs at him. These two grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same churches and schools, yet their Catholicism has led them to different points. He has taken the lessons seriously – which is why he feels so much guilt about sex, about abandoning his friend, about not listening to his uncle, about it all. She has grown more cynical, and simply wants to live her life and be happy.

Mean Streets is the first Scorsese film where you truly feel that you are in the hands of a master filmmaker. In Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Boxcar Bertha, there were flashes of inspiration, where you could tell that this was a special filmmaker, who just wasn’t quite there yet. In Mean Streets, he got there. True, the movie is still a little rough around the edges, and it does meander perhaps a little too much in spots, but it is the first movie of his career in which the action seems to proceed headlong into its inevitable conclusion. The first movie in which his characters really seem to be on a crash course with their destiny.

The filmmaking has also been raised a notch. The writing in the movie is better, and the cast could not be better. This was the first film in which Scorsese worked with Robert DeNiro, a collaboration that would become the most fruitful between any director and actor in history. Watch DeNiro in his first scene, where first he is all bluster as he introduces Charlie to two girls he picked up. Then when Charlie pulls him aside and asks him why he hasn’t paid Michael this week, he launches into a long rant about a dice game, and cops and chases, and how everything was going his way, until it wasn’t. It’s clear that he’s lying – Charlie knows he’s lying, and Johnny Boy knows he knows, and it certainly doesn’t help when Johnny Boy gets lost in his own story. To watch that scene is to watch screen acting at its finest – not just by DeNiro who has the plum role, but of Keitel, who just patiently lets Johnny Boy tell his story. He wants to be angry with him, but cannot be.

Mean Streets is also the first Scorsese movie where the threat of violence seems to hang over almost every scene. Like all Scorsese movies, when the violence does come, it’s not in stylized action movie form, but in a much sloppier, much more realistic form. Take for instance a scene in a pool hall, where a casual insult results in a brawl, even though none of the people involved seem to know really how to fight. Or course the violent climax, where blood is split, and Charlie ends up on his knees looking towards heaven.

For many directors, Mean Streets would represent the apex of their career. The fact that Scorsese has made a number of films that are better than Mean Streets is a testament to just how good a filmmaker he is. Mean Streets is quite simply put, a masterpiece.

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