KING IN A CATHOLIC STYLE : Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets


Mean Streets : [9/10] : USA 1974 : Martin SCORSESE : 110 mins

The success of Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator has propelled Scorsese firmly back into the forefront of moviegoers' consciousness – not that he's ever been very far away from it since his breakthrough with Mean Streets three decades ago. This wasn't his first feature, however – that honour belongs to 1967's Who's That Knocking On My Door, which also introduced cinemagoers to an intense former marine named Harvey Keitel, who'd been eking out a living as a court stenographer for the previous decade.

Mean Streets is a development of the themes explored in the earlier film, with Keitel once again front and centre. And he's terrific as Jimmy, a smart-dressing, wise-cracking young Italian-American from a rough corner of New York where organised and semi-organised crime are a factor of everyday life. While Jimmy's family is well "connected", he himself tries to keep out of trouble – guided by his strong Catholic faith. His preference for the (relatively) straight-and-narrow is imperilled by the antics of his volatile cousin Charlie Boy (Robert De Niro), an immature loose-cannon with an unerring knack of offending the wrong people. Jimmy sees it as his 'mission' to save Charlie Boy from himself: a mission that spells trouble for all concerned.

Rough, raw and vibrant, Mean Streets is the work of a young moviemaker besotted with the medium and eager to push it – and himself – to the limit. On one level, of course, it's something of a wish-fulfilment fantasy of a solitary kid who grew up in the darkened solitude of the movie-house: Scorsese's alter-ego Charlie is a popular, gregarious ladies' man with no shortage of colourful pals, and it's telling that the director casts himself in a cameo as a gun-toting gangster. But Mean Streets endures as a penetrating character-study of a conflicted, complex individual and his raucous milieu: brilliantly observed, with indelible moments of loose, hard-won humour, it's debatable whether Scorsese has done anything better in his long, remarkable career.

Neil Young
11th January, 2005