Directed by Martin Scorsece
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, David Proval, Amy Robinson
While technically not Martin Scorsese’s first film, it was the first film he directed where he had an artistic say (the other two were producer-run contract gigs). It’s also one of the first major roles for both Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. Roger Ebert included it on his Greatest Films list and claimed it to be the source of many crime-show tropes. Entertainment Weekly rated the film at #7 for “The Greatest Movies of all Time,” and both Katheryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) and Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman) named it as their greatest influence.
Honestly? I was watching Ted Lasso on Apple TV+ and they have a scene where the main characters rattle off Scorcese titles. I’d seen every one mentioned except his first “official” film. Aghast, I set to right this wrong as soon as possible.
Charlie Cappa is a straight-laced Catholic whose only devotion higher than God is to his crime family. Conflict of interest? You bet, but Charlie’s trying to balance out the bad with the good by being extra empathetic to his girlfriend, Teresa, and lending a hand to his best friend, the ne’er-do-well Johnny Boy.
Through these actions, Charlie gets increasingly glaring reminders of his tragic flaw: he wants to have it all without giving anything up. When Johnny Boy’s antics and debts become increasingly flagrant, Charlie can’t seem to cut his friend loose, regardless of how little Charlie receives in the relationship. When he and Teresa have opposing views on their future together, his eyes wander to the (frankly cooler) lead dancer at a club he manages. She’s black, though, and Charlie doesn’t want to disappoint his Italian family’s expectations. He can’t seem to let Teresa off the hook, either.
This doesn’t even cover the hilariously juvenile up-and-coming mobsters that Charlie associates with. Even their patience is running thin, though, and a gun’s a gun, no matter whose hand it’s in.
It’s like nobody tries anymore. Give it a chance, would ya? After watching the pompous, self-derivative, “this is real cinema” slog that was The Irishman, I eased up on my Scorsese worship. After watching this, though, I’m in awe again. A gangster movie UNDER two hours? With an overarching plot and theme? Where the episodic nature actually BUILDS the characters piece by piece to their tragic yet inevitable conclusion? Sign me up!
There’s almost no fat on this movie, which is extra impressive because of its emphasis on world-building and character relationships. While I’ve seen my fair share of grimy New York pieces (Netflix has at least a dozen “fallen New York” crime docs), this movie made me believe that people could actually inhabit such a city. Even though the audience meets its fair share of characters—sometimes only for a minute or two—the focus is always on one of the protagonist’s actions or behaviors. This not only sketches unforgettable characters, but also builds tension and stakes—all while never losing narrative focus. Compare this film to an average, half-baked, lackadaisical indie/arthouse flick trying to pass its shaggy, snooze-fest plot off as deep because “that’s just how real life is, man,” and Mean Streets’ mastery shines even brighter. (Can you tell that I didn’t like Licorice Pizza? I didn’t like Licorice Pizza.)
Yes, but don’t be surprised if you find some parts cliché. Even though Martin Scorsese has repeatedly said that he based the characters off of people in his childhood borough, I was still taken aback by how many tropes to which these characters adhered. That’s because this movie invented the clichés. I had no idea that the Italian-American stereotype of talking with one’s hands and saying “Oh, whoa, whoa, ‘ey, ‘ey, ‘ey!” was from this movie. Charlie’s attempted reconciliation between his religious beliefs and the acts of violence which he perpetrates have been seen thousands of times since—sometimes in other Scorsese movies.
Another common Scorsese trend in this movie is the idea that truth for the characters isn’t necessarily truth for the audience. Scorsese has run afoul of shallow critics and prudish hand-wringers his entire career (The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of its protagonist), but it must be stated that Charlie Cappa isn’t the greatest guy. Compared to some of his colleagues, he’s got the moral high ground, but he still chickens out on a date because she’s black, fence-sits whenever possible, and often resorts to light physical abuse as a defense mechanism. Far from endorsing this attitude, Scorsese warns the audience about where this path leads. It’s an enthralling watch, but be warned: once you see it, a lot of crime shows and police procedurals will feel like cut-out copies of this movie.