By Simon Miraudo
April 16, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
Mean Streets isn’t Martin Scorsese‘s first film, but it’s “Martin Scorsese’s” “first film,” you dig? In 1973, at just 30 years of age, he crafted a brutal, personal tale with more iconic moments than some of his peers – and even elders – would ever muster in their entire careers. Think of the opening Super 8 montage, introduced with the unmistakable drumbeat from Be My Baby. Or, Robert De Niro‘s slow-motion strip club entrance to Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Or, the pool-house brawl, set to Please M. Postman. This marriage of indelible imagery with electric, seemingly incongruous pop songs wouldn’t be bettered until, well, the next time Scorsese decided to do it.
Co-written by Mardik Martin, Mean Streets stars Harvey Keitel as Charlie, a would-be New York gangster whose long-time friendship with loose cannon – and gambler – Johnny Boy (De Niro) threatens his ability to rise the ranks. Charlie’s Catholicism is another obstacle. How can he reconcile the small-time hood life with that of a good and honest Catholic? Charlie’s clandestine relationship with Jonny Boy’s epileptic cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), drives a wedge between the childhood friends. When a loan shark (Richard Romanus) comes looking for Johnny Boy to repay his debts, they’re drawn back together in a bloody, cacophonic climax.
Keitel and De Niro are arguably the best collaborators Scorsese would ever work with; it’s novel to see them here as young, hungry actors, as yet unburdened by their reputations (De Niro, in particular, relishes this early opportunity to play a dim and completely-off-the-wall character). Fans of The Sopranos will appreciate the casting of David Proval – Richie Aprile himself – as Charlie and Johnny Boy’s buddy Tony. That said, if you’re a fan of The Sopranos yet to watch Mean Streets… well, I cannot help you.
I’ve already mentioned some of the best scenes, however, a written account hardly does them justice. Sure, Scorsese would go on to make better pictures over the next 40 years, though none are as intrinsically tied to his identity. Obsessives of the director will delight in witnessing him originate his favourite camera tricks here (those tracking shots!). He had waited patiently – and agreed to direct what his pal John Cassavetes described as “s**t” – for the opportunity to make his kind of movie. Mean Streets is raw Scorsese.
Mean Streets is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix Play.