Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review – Mean Streets

November 6, 2010

Mean Streets – U.S., 1973

I don’t get films like Mean Streets. It’s possible I never will. When I say films like Mean Streets, I’m referring to the criminal-as-lead-character genre as a whole – a cinematic variation through which viewers often get a peak into the personal lives of some pretty awful characters. Early films in this genre came with a disclaimer stating that the movie studios that produced them were in no way trying to glorify either the characters or the lifestyle depicted in the films, and therefore, most of them ended with the main character lying face down somewhere, having taken his last breath under extremely harsh conditions. Modern films in this genre are much more challenging – often times the criminal lives, and he doesn’t always spend his waning years behind bars. I remember one time standing on a Muni bus in San Francisco listening to a group of young adults discussing how much they liked Tony Soprano and how Carmella “wasn’t good enough for him.” Was it that what the character did for a living didn’t bother them or that they could somehow separate the fictional, “likable” criminals they saw on TV and in movies from those that exist in real life? I’ll never know, but what I do know is that I have rarely been able to get into films in which criminals are the central character – not even when those characters crack joke after joke, as they do in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. In fact, one of the main reasons that Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11 works is that the victim of the crime is a rather despicable person. If he’s likable, audiences would probably root against Danny Ocean’s jovial group.

Having said this up front, it should come to no surprise then that Martin Scorsese’s sophomore film, Mean Streets, presented me with a bit of a challenge, so much so that after quickly jotting down the paragraph above, I decided to watch the film again. Upon the first viewing, the film had left me cold and a bit underwhelmed – hence, the sentiments expressed above. This impression changed slightly upon second viewing, as many of the film’s themes and characters came into sharper focus. Mean Streets is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy, with Harvey Keitel playing a role similar to Hamlet. In the film, Keitel plays Charlie, a young man trying to work his way up the ranks of his uncle’s underground enterprise. It’s not a profession that suits him, for he’s simply too naïve to make it work. Someone in his line of work should be decisive and inspire a certain degree of fear. This just isn’t Charlie, and in a sense, he knows it.

Charlie’s inner circle of friends – if you can call them that – includes the owner of a bar (Tony), a loan shark (Michael), and an unsuccessful gambler named Johnny Boy (the great Robert De Niro). Each of them is in some way trying to prove they can make it. Charlie wants to be a leader and a mediator, the one people turn to to solve problems. The problem is not that people don’t turn to him, but rather that many problems remain unresolved. Tony (David Proval) yearns to be a successful business owner. His often half empty bar is testament to the fact that he’s not completely there yet. Michael (Richard Romanus) wants to be the tough-as-nails money lender we see so often in gangster movies, the one who has no qualms roughing someone up or permanently disfiguring them, yet the role does not come easy to him. In one scene, as he’s not-so-subtly asking someone to deliver Johnny Boy a message, he accidentally causes her to drop her groceries. With a slightly apologetic look on his face, he proceeds to help her pick them up before wondering aloud what he’s doing. I guess it’s hard to be mean.

Johnny is the odd man out, for he’s a man with no real future, a small-time gambler who owes practically every one he sees money. In one scene, he and Charlie are having a bit of fun when Johnny suddenly ducks behind a car. “Joe Black. I owe him money.” Johnny Boy also owes both Tony and Michael money, and he doesn’t seem a bit interested in paying either of them back, perhaps because he thinks Charlie has his back. At the same time, Charlie is secretly involved with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), a fact that wouldn’t sit well with Charlie’s uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) if he ever found out about it. Giovanni considers Teresa “sick in the head” despite the fact that all she has is epilepsy. “Honorable men hang out with honorable men,” Giovanni explains.

Much of the conflict in Mean Streets is internal. Charlie struggles with the notion of forgiveness and salvation and seems torn between the laws of the church and the laws of the streets. In the opening moments of the film, he ruminates over the effectiveness of confession and the best way to repent for his sins. He sees signs in everything, as if God were presenting him with challenges in order to lead him on the path of righteousness. Other characters are facing a tough decision concerning Johnny Boy. Do they continue to turn the other cheek regarding his mounting debts, or do they clamp down and risk unleashing an avalanche of violence?

There are many things to like about Mean Streets, from Johnny and Charlie’s Of Mice and Men-like friendship to the way the story builds slowly to an impressive, slightly abrupt ending. The film is extremely well acted, and Scorsese uses music perhaps better than any director making films today. At first, “Be My Baby” might seem an odd choice for the film’s opening credits, but the song perfectly captures Charlie’s naiveté and idealized notion of himself and the world he inhabits. Like other Scorsese films, this is not one that has a traditional plot and not all of the scenes lead somewhere specific. They do however shed light on the world in which these characters live and provide insight into each of their personalities. These characters are by no means saints, and the film provides plenty of evidence that some of them are racist. I suspect that this will pose a problem to some modern-day viewers more used to seeing films with models of virtue as leading characters.

Let me go back briefly to something I stated earlier: I don’t get films like Mean Streets. This is unfortunately still true. As I watched Mean Streets, I found myself begging for a reason to care, for a character to emotionally invest in. I realize that not every film needs one, but it helps. Mean Streets is a good film with very interesting characters. That I don’t share other people’s enormous enthusiasm for the film is more a product of my own feelings about the genre as a whole rather than a reflection on Mean Streets in particular. Perhaps I’m looking at it through the wrong lens. (on DVD)

3 stars

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