Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first masterpiece, a much smaller scale and more personal film than those he is often more celebrated for. Certainly among the most influential films of its era, the 1973 crime drama was only the director’s third feature film. It’s often classified as a mafia movie, but for the most part the mob is only peripherally involved in the story. Anyone expecting something along the lines of Goodfellasmay possibly be disappointed with this very loosely-plotted character study.
Though it’s Robert De Niro, as the unpredictable Johnny Boy, who often gets the most accolades, the true star here is Harvey Keitel. As Charlie, Keitel (who also starred in Scorsese’s debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door) conveys the underlying decency in his character. Charlie’s a man of intensely devout faith who believes you don’t do your penance in church, but rather in the streets. He hopes to take over operations of a restaurant controlled by his uncle Giovani (Cesare Danova), a powerful mob boss in New York’s Little Italy.
Standing in the way of Charlie’s goal is his friend Johnny Boy, a ne’er do well who owes money to everyone in town. Johnny doesn’t care about his debts or his behavior in general, which includes blowing up mailboxes and shooting guns off rooftops. Charlie adopts the lost the cause of helping Johnny overcome his debt, literally viewing it as a mission from God. He believes the only way he can atone for his sins is to save Johnny from his self-destructive tendencies. Michael (Richard Romanus) is a loan shark with an air of self-importance (though compared to Giovani, he’s nothing). He’s owed a considerable amount of money by Johnny, making his very presence a reason for Charlie to worry. Charlie and Michael are constantly trying to arrange a payment system Johnny can afford.
Plot summaries really don’t do a movie like Mean Streets justice, however, as it’s the smaller moments between the characters that are most memorable. One thing that’s sometimes forgotten is just how funny the movie is. Michael and local bar-owner Tony (David Proval) try to hustle a couple of kids looking to buy fireworks. Johnny Boy tries to talk his way out of his confession to Charlie that he spent his loan payment on new clothes. Charlie and friends get into a pool room brawl, culminating with a police officer treating a pocket-sized Swiss Army knife as a deadly weapon. All these details of the day-to-day existence of these characters are what give the film its unpredictable authenticity.
Keitel is note-perfect as Charlie, trying to balance all of his career aspirations with his complicated relationship with Johnny’s cousin, Theresa (Amy Robinson). Theresa suffers from epilepsy, but Giovani – in his supreme ignorance – believes she is actually “sick in the head.” He is unaware of Charlie’s involvement with her, but he seems to lump Johnny’s obvious mental problems together with Theresa’s condition. He wants Charlie to avoid them both. De Niro was on fire at this early point in his career and his performance here represents one of the very first in a long line of complex characters.
Overseeing it all is Scorsese, with many of the visual hallmarks that would come to define his style. There are the slow-motion shots, such as when Johnny walks toward Charlie in the bar to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” Late in the film, there’s shaky, handheld footage as the cameraman is literally running to keep up with De Niro. The film really introduces the visual template that Scorsese continues to largely work within to this day. Luckily he had material that deserved such carefully considered visuals (unlike, say, the essentially empty crime thriller The Departed, which finally won him the Best Director Oscar that he deserved for so many films). The level of detail depicted in these characters’ behavior makes the movie compulsively rewatchable.
I’ve owned Means Streets on laser disc, DVD, and now Blu-ray. I can definitely say the presentation here is the best I’ve seen for this film. Tighter shots and close-ups fare best, with clarity greater than ever before. Keep in mind, this was a very low-budget production and some of the shots are a little soft – not by design, of course, they were simply shot under less than ideal lighting situations. I think Warner has done the best it probably can, given the limitations of the source.
The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack may disappoint anyone looking for a surround remix. The fact is the audio is far more limited than the visuals. Mean Streets has never sounded good and it still doesn’t, but based on previous formats this is still an improvement. Dialogue is sometimes poorly mixed and occasionally difficult to understand (and, in at least one instance in the pool hall when Johnny harasses some girls at the jukebox, inaudible). The music is harsh and sometimes distorted. None of this is a mark against the Blu-ray, however (including that inaudible line of dialogue, it’s always been that way) as it is faithful the original sound design of the film.
No new extras appear, just a commentary by Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Mardik Martin. It’s a very informative track and well worth listening to. The vintage featurette “Back on the Block” is just a little promo piece that runs less than ten minutes. It would’ve been nice to have some new features, but what can you do? It’s just nice to finally have this classic film on Blu-ray.