Classic Movie 2019

Classic Movie Of The Week: Mean Streets (1973)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval

Director: Martin Scorsese

Growing up in Little Italy, New York, life leads only in one direction. Charlie (Keitel) works for his uncle reclaiming bad debts, a life on the edges of organised crime. But unlike the other people around him, he hopes there might be another way to live. In love with a woman who has epilepsy, which makes her a social outcast, and trying to keep best friend Johnny Boy (De Niro) out of trouble, he tries to get them out and escape their inevitable fates.

This is the film that brought Scorsese out of the shadows and allowed him to explore things that were personal to him, growing up Italian in New York, wanting to go his own way, perhaps, and break the mould. There are themes and idea here that he returns to in later films, but here is where it begins.

Unlike a lot of gangster or organised crime films, this one shows how it can be opressive trying to fit into that world. The way that certain social divides can’t be crossed, and trying to reconcile Catholic morals with the code of the street and surviving. While De Niro’s Johnny Boy is fascinating to watch as a man who is so crazy he can’t get out of his own way, a psychotic type that usually makes it to the top in stories about organised crime (often before a fall), here this type is the man who is dangerous to his friends, bringing them down with him.

Both De Niro and Keitel are so young in this film! Almost baby faced. I love the way that Charlie (Keitel’s character) cares about his clothes and creating a perfect image, strutting around like a rooster on the streets and in the clubs. He’s just a young guy, making his way in the world, and yet, he’s more complex than a lot of the people around him. He cares about morality or a sense of honour, which is at odds with the line of work he does, collecting on money owed.

Scorsese has made his name over all these years with quite a diverse range of films, exploring different genres in a way that many directors have not done as successfully, but in these films about the places that he grew up in, there’s something vital, visceral and personal about them that makes them very intense. This is the first of these but not the least powerful. Right from the beginning, Scorsese showed a sureness and mastery as a director, as this film shows.

See It If: you ever felt like you had a conflict between your own morals and those of society. A bombastic and yet personal film.

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