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  • Jeff Beck

Mean Streets: Scorsese's Early Classic Celebrates 50 Years (Criterion Blu-ray)


The Film:


Just three years before Martin Scorsese gave us what is considered his first masterpiece ("Taxi Driver"), he directed and co-wrote a little film that many consider to be his very first classic. Despite being well-received at the time, "Mean Streets" was largely ignored by awards groups, with its largest accolade being an Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild of America. However, since then, it's garnered additional honors, such as being added to the National Film Registry and Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" collection. To celebrate the film's 50th anniversary, Criterion is adding it to their prestigious collection, so now it's time to go back and re-examine this early work of a master to truly see what kind of place in cinematic history it deserves.


The film takes place in New York City and revolves around two main characters: Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), who works for his mafioso uncle, and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), an excessive gambler who owes money to just about everybody, but in particular to Michael Longo (Richard Romanus). Charlie is constantly looking out for Johnny Boy, trying to get him to work and pay off his debts, but the latter's careless attitude about the whole situation only continues to make things worse. Meanwhile, Charlie is having a secret affair with Johnny Boy's epileptic cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), who wants him to move away with her. With tensions rising on both fronts, Charlie simply tries to work things out the best he can.


I first saw "Mean Streets" around 20 years ago, and was left with a vague impression that it was mostly "ok," though not something that had really blown me away. Cutting to present day, I found it odd that I couldn't remember much of anything about it outside of the fact that it was the big breakout film for both Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. However, rewatching it for the first time since then, it became more clear as to why my memory was a little fuzzy as to what the film was actually about.


As you can see from the brief synopsis above, there isn't really a whole lot in the way of plot here. You basically follow Charlie around as he tries to get Johnny Boy to straighten up and pay back his debts, while also trying to maintain his secret relationship with Teresa. It's not exactly a lot for the film to go on, but what's rather interesting is that Scorsese doesn't seem particularly concerned about it, instead emphasizing the mood & atmosphere of the streets of New York City, while allowing the actors to let loose with their characters.


In this respect, it's remarkably similar to another film I reviewed recently for its own 50th Anniversary, George Lucas' "American Graffiti," in which he also emphasizes mood, atmosphere, and characters/performance more so than plot, allowing the film to drift along as we spend time with the intriguing ensemble. That being said, it worked rather well there because the characters themselves were remarkably charming, and their situations were a little more engaging and less predictable, making for an entertaining experience.


When it comes to "Mean Streets," as mentioned, we basically have just two plots, and neither one really ends up getting the development it needs to be particularly engaging. The plot involving Johnny Boy's debts quickly gets into a repetitive pattern that has Charlie continually confronting him and trying to get him to straighten up, ultimately ending exactly the way we know it has to, while the plot with Teresa mainly focuses on the two arguing and not making much headway with each other.


Character-wise, there's not much development either, and not really much in the way of charm to make spending time with them particularly entertaining. Even so, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro give fantastic performances here, making it easy to see why their careers exploded soon after (De Niro would give his first Oscar-winning performance the very next year in "The Godfather: Part II"). On top of that, Scorsese does indeed do a marvelous job establishing the moody, atmospheric city that these characters inhabit, making you feel as though you're right there walking those streets with them.


Overall, the film is something of a mixed bag. It's hard to say that it fully deserves the illustrious reputation that it's gotten from some, but it certainly does deserve major credit for certain elements, primarily its lead performances and direction. However, when it comes to the film's screenplay, it just doesn't do quite enough. The storylines and characters needed a good deal more development to make them more engaging, and to make it feel like it was doing more than just drifting along with little purpose. While it may not be the great movie that some make it out to be, one thing's for sure, "Mean Streets" showed us that Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera, and it certainly wasn't long before we saw that talent put to some rather extraordinary use.


Video/Audio:


"Mean Streets" comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a new 1.85:1 High Definition 4K transfer approved by Martin Scorsese and long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. The image may show a fair amount of film grain, but it looks the cleanest it ever has, sharpening it up quite a bit. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is outstanding, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and the soundtrack in excellent quality. Overall, Criterion has once again done a fantastic job cleaning up yet another classic for a new-and-improved physical release.


Special Features:


Martin Scorsese with Richard Linklater (30 Minutes)

Select Scene Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Amy Robinson (77 Minutes)

A Body Among Other Bodies (29 Minutes)

Kent Wakeford (19 Minutes)

Mardik Martin (9 Minutes)

Martin Scorsese: Back on the Block (7 Minutes)


This is a pretty good selection of extras that primarily feature interviews with the filmmakers. The Scorsese/Linklater discussion, the commentary, and the interview with DP Kent Wakeford are particularly worth checking out.


Conclusion:


Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" boasts a pair of fantastic lead performances from greats Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, as well as an outstanding use of mood & atmosphere that firmly establishes its specific setting. However, the film comes up a little short when it comes to its screenplay, which doesn't provide quite enough development for these storylines or characters, ultimately making this early work of the master filmmaker one of his more forgettable efforts.


Score: 3/5


Available on Criterion Blu-ray starting tomorrow.


Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.



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