Martin Scorsese is a man bursting with energy. If the breadth of his career doesn’t make that obvious, three minutes spent inside one of his films will. Exuberance is a byword for his directing style, resulting in everything from the stinging The Departed to the ostentatious Gangs of New York as of late. If the reception granted The Wolf of Wall Street is any indication, it can be too much sometimes, to the extent that no one can even agree on which side of the story Scorsese means to land on (if any at all), mistaking his trademark style for approbation of whatever onscreen debauchery he’s shooting.
For those put off by the tongue-in-cheek black comedy of his latter day crime epics, it serves to visit his gritty beginnings in film, of which Mean Streets is the first “real” Scorsese and arguably his most honest. Offering a slice of life look at a group of acquaintances in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan during the early 1970’s, it’s a production born of youthful enterprise and desperate ambition, a hungry alley cat compared to the well-fed tabby of today, with the influence to attract the attentions of producers, actors, writers, and the critical masses.
That’s why, for as many faces as you’ll inevitably recognize as major players later on in their careers, Mean Streets feels more fresh and dangerous than any of his other work. Scorsese had nothing to go by beyond the miracle-working stinginess of mentor and industry legend Roger Corman and the influence of his beloved French and Italian cinema. It took a huge amount of earnestness to make, and it shows throughout in the deep guilt felt by Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, a low-level mafia worker who literally holds his hand to the flame to atone for his sins, which compared to the sins committed by so many of Scorsese’s later characters are considerably less mortal in comparison. Charlie’s lack of perspective doesn’t keep him from punishing himself however, and he comes back to the flame every time he feels unsure of himself, daring to see if he can handle the worst to come.
The streets comprise Charlie’s entire worldview, as they do for Robert De Niro’s witless Johnny Boy, and Richard Romanus’s Michael and David Proval’s Tony, whose bar is the gang’s main hangout. When Scorsese plays The Rolling Stones in Mean Streets, it’s not to elicit a gleeful cackle from the audience or serve as an arch commentary on the goings-on. It really is the soundtrack to these young men’s lives as they see them, and it washes over you with a hallucinogenic effect. You can feel the jealousy and resentment Charlie feels when Johnny Boy strolls into the bar with a girl on each arm to the hopping rhythm of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the slow motion drawing out every ounce of his anguish as he prepares to confront his blissfully ignorant friend about serious matters.
If you’re to track the protagonists of Scorsese’s landmark crime movies throughout his career, you’ll see they parallel his own ascension in the Hollywood ranks. His 70’s and early 80’s focused on ambitious grunts and delusional goofballs, his 80’s and 90’s on beleaguered middlemen, and the 2000’s on the the unrestrained madness of the rich and powerful. Mean Streets begins this trend with its wholly sympathetic look at the trapped characters at its center, all of them tied down either by love, duty, debt, or honor, and all of them young and terrified of the future. Scorsese in his twilight years might not even know how to portray the struggles of a young upstart as honestly as he does here, leastwise with the same sincere effervescence and hypnotic fascination with a fledgling life in crime.
It may not be as lavishly praised as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but Mean Streets is equally essential, showcasing a stunning mixture of Scorsese’s technical handiwork and adventurousness, resourcefulness, collaborative trust in actors like Keitel and De Niro whose relative anonymity at the time makes their performances that much more thrilling, and his ambition to reinvent cinema in a way that makes the real feel surreal. As wholly entertaining as it is chillingly insightful, it’s the best antidote for the Scorsese fan disillusioned with his present-day penchant for excess.