Robert De Niro
The film follows Harvey Keitel’s Charlie as he and his friends attempt to grow in to their own as men of honor and value within New York City’s underground. It’s often introspective in its pondering of modern religion, human nature and good vs. evil, but it also has an entertaining lightness to it from the honest relationships of the young men. Much of the movie features memorable little vignettes and odd stories from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in the city. (The random tiger, David Carradine’s drunken cameo.) Coupled with its innovative handheld camera (which was mostly due to necessity) MEAN STREETS manages to captures a raw and real aesthetic that was unique at the time, as well as part of its charm.
As much as the film is a showcase for Scorsese’s obvious talent, it’s also a cinematic announcement for the career of Robert De Niro. The young actor clearly had a lot to prove as Johnny Boy, the wild eyed destructive force of nature that Charlie desperately needs to redeem, and he owns the movie despite being a supporting character. That’s not to take away from Keitel’s lead role, which still boasts a quiet strength and relatable sensitivity for a mobster, but playing the straight guy to an unhinged, unpredictable young De Niro is a thankless role.
MEAN STREETS may not have the same “wow” factor that some of Scorsese’s later works would have, but the slow-burning character piece does completely belong in the auteur’s canon of impressive, influential films.
Commentary with director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Mardik Martin and actress Amy Robinson: As a master of his craft, Scorsese is always a joy to listen to and this is one of my favorite commentaries of his. This debut is clearly a personal and important project to him and he has plenty to say about it, from memorable stories about the challenging production to how everything relates to his own young life. A highly recommended listen.
Back on the Block (6:57): There’s not too much of substance to this quick vintage featurette (at least compared to the informative commentary), though it is fun to see everyone so young.
Extra Tidbit: Borrowing a note from Fellini, Scorsese himself voices Harvey Keitel’s narration in the movie.