Saturday 1 May 2021

Mean Streets (1973)


Gaden uden nåde

“Mean Streets” is the first movie on the List by Martin Scorsese. It also features Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro as young actors in their first entries on the List. That is a lot to look forward to and so my expectations were very high going in. Unfortunately, I cannot say they were met as well as hoped.

We are in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood where (of course) there is a lot of mob activity. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a low-level mobster doing work for the family. Exactly what work is never really clear, at least not to me. It is criminal, but does not seem to involve killing people. Charlie is religious and see himself as a righteous person who needs to help people, which is almost comical in a mobster, except that Charlie find himself caught between this inclination and doing career in the mob. One of the characters Charlie feels obliged to help is his friend John (Robert De Niro) and that is a real problem since John is a borderline psychopath who does not care about anything or anybody, a hopeless case. John owes money left and right with no intention of paying back his loans. He skips on work and blows up or shoots random things if he is not outright assaulting people on the street. Charlie tries to cover for him, sweet-talking his creditors, but John just see Charlie as a dupe and constantly let Charlie down.

In between we see a lot of a bar run by Charlie’s friend Tony (David Proval) where Charlie hangs out with his friends. Charlie also has a secret affair with John’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), though her function is the story is mostly to showcase Charlie’s hypocrisy between good intentions and being a mobster.

Scorsese did a lot of work on the setting and ambience. This has the look and feel of a New York small time mobster world. A real-life mini-Godfather if you will. It has that documentary graininess and looseness in narrative that makes it feel real. Points for that. The acting is also very nice, a joy to watch De Niro and Keitel, and the soundtrack has all the coolness it needs.

The problem here is the narrative.

First thing is the premise. Charlie has assigned himself the hopeless mission of keeping John afloat, but John, despite his rebelliousness is not worth rooting for and much less worth saving, so why do we care? Ditch the moron and get on with it.

Then there is Charlie’s dilemma of being the mobster with a heart of gold. Dude, wake up! That is oil and water, man. It does not mix. This makes Charlie a ridiculous character and not a little pathetic. He cannot keep the two things apart and so he is crap at both and I do not really care for Charlie in the first place.

And finally, the story is not really going anywhere. Because Charlie cannot extricate himself from John, he is being dragged along into his destruction and that is where the story ends… just like that.

I know there are probably artistic reasons for the dark obscurity of the images during the last 10 minutes of the movie and I know it was probably a mistake to watch this in broad, sunny daylight, but as I could hardly see anything I had only the sound to go by and it consisted mostly of screaming and shouting, so, well, I felt somewhat nonplussed.

I get the impression that the look and feel of this movie was more important than the actual story, that this is something of a love letter to the Little Italy neighborhood and the people there, but I wanted more and felt let down. On the other hand, I am equally convinced that following these small-time mobsters around is awesome and cool to many viewers and I can respect if not quite understand that.

In 2016, while in Melbourne, I went the film museum there and visited a Scorsese exhibition and I remember there was a lot of stuff from this movie. This was clearly, at least for Scorsese, a very important film. I just wish I liked it better.


  1. My comments wouldn't let me answer for some unknown reason. Anyway, re 1974:

    An action movie I think you would really enjoy is "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3". Robert Ryan and his henchman hijack a subway train. Transport police chief Walter Matthau is on his trail. Non-stop action.

    If Murder by Death appeals to you, "Murder on the Orient Express" is another mystery with a large all-star cast and is a better movie. Not a comedy. Albert Finney was nominated for Best Actor and Ingrid Bergman won Best Supporting Actress

    I love Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser", about the attempted civilization of a "wild child" and Lina Wertmuller's "Swept Away", in which a rich snob and a leftist angry crew man are stranded on a desert island and the tables turn. I don't know if you would like them as much as I did.

    1. Thank you, Bea, those are very interesting recommendations.
      I think the one I will pick is Murder on the Orient Express. That sounds like my kind of movie.
      My two other off-list movie for 74 so far are Vampyres (which sounds insane) and a Danish movie called Stjernerne og Vandbærerne (stars and henchmen) about Tour de France.