Filmsite Movie Review
Mean Streets (1973)
Pages: (1) (2)

Mean Streets (1973) Mean Streets (1973) is Martin Scorsese's third full-length feature film - and first important film, with energizing early 60s girl-group and hit rock 'n' roll songs. With a script co-written by the director and Mardik Martin, the original film was a low-budget (at $300,000), semi-autobiographical, realistic tale about four struggling, small-time hoods and hustlers in New York's grim Little Italy in Manhattan's Lower East Side who were trying to establish themselves. The film's kinetic energy (through camera angles and inventive flourishes) was punctuated by a ground-breaking and pulsating soundtrack that was largely composed of classic rock music (notably sinister Rolling Stones' music), and used the San Gennaro Feast in New York as its backdrop - an annual week-long event held every fall in Littly Italy to celebrate the Patron Saint of Naples.

This gritty film followed Scorsese's two earlier feature films, including Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967) (also with Harvey Keitel that explored similar themes), and the sexy and violent Depression-Era crime thriller Boxcar Bertha (1972), produced by Roger Corman. The film's title "Mean Streets" referenced screenwriter Raymond Chandler's literary-critique essay "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944 and 1950) that quoted:

...In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man....

Similar to many of Scorsese's films, this influential, episodic, hard-hitting and fast-moving drama was one of the first contemporary crime films with pop culture (and musical) references - paving the way for the works of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Spike Lee, TV's crime drama The Sopranos (1999-2007), and more. It explored the themes of Catholic guilt regarding sin, and family ties being torn apart by unpredictable crime violence, in a violent and hot-headed male world of Italian-American losers, loners, outsiders and low-lifes (using vulgar and obscene swear words). [Note: Reportedly, the F-word was used approximately 50 times - a record until the release of The Last Detail (1973).]

Scorsese's film was semi-autobiographical, reflected in character names - the first name of the main protagonist, Charlie, was Scorsese's father's name and his last name of Cappa was his mother's maiden name. Director Scorsese also struggled with his own Catholic guilt, and also liked to attend movies regularly -- as does the main protagonist in two movie theater scenes (i.e., John Ford's The Searchers (1956), and a Vincent Price horror film The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)).

Mean Streets was the first film of Scorsese's so-called 'crime trilogy', supplemented by two other mob pictures in the 1990s:

  • Mean Streets (1973)
  • GoodFellas (1990) - adapted from Nicholas Pileggi's novel Wiseguy, which followed thirty years in the lethally-violent criminal careers of rising mobsters and was based on the life of actual ex-mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)
  • Casino (1995) - examined a corrupt Mafia criminal dynasty (starring Robert DeNiro in his 8th film with Scorsese) making its presence known in a brutal takeover of a gaudy, neon-lit 1960s-70s Las Vegas gambling casino world

Originally titled Season of the Witch, it became 30 year-old Scorsese's breakthrough, highly-praised personal work, starring his most-favored brooding and intense actor Robert De Niro (it was the first film of many that De Niro made with Scorsese). Surprisingly, the dazzling film received an unexpected positive response from all audiences and established Scorsese's reputation, although it did not receive a single Academy Award nomination.

Charlie's suave, high-ranking, racketeering Uncle Giovanni Cappa (Cesare Danova) was the local Mafia boss who was grooming his level-headed, always well-dressed nephew for 'respectable' and 'honorable' gang life by having him collect for a protection racket. Unclear and confused about his own life's direction and loyalties, Charlie wrestled with his devout Catholic guilt, his own desires, his quest for salvation, the temptations of the Mafia and his Uncle's stern restrictions, and his feelings for Teresa (Amy Robinson), the epileptic cousin of the film's firebrand and anarchist, Johnny Boy. Charlie rightly feared that his rising status in the Mafia was threatened by his 'to-the-rescue' efforts to help his girlfriend Teresa's indebted, "half-crazy" cousin.

The film's main tagline was derived from the opening line of dialogue:

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets..."

Plot Synopsis

The noirish crime film opened with a classic voice-over under a black screen (the voice of director Scorsese himself):

You don't make up for your sins in a church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home. The rest is bulls--t and you know it.

The film's main protagonist, a religiously-conflicted, wanna-be Italian-American Mafia member Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), an up-and-coming small-time mob collector, was startled awake from a distressing and painful dream (or premonition), sweating profusely and breathing heavily. After getting up, he examined his face (and self) reflectively in the mirror, and a police siren wailed out on the street. He returned to bed and as he reclined onto his pillow - in slow-motion, the Ronettes' classic rock tune "Be My Baby" began to play on the soundtrack.

Charlie's projected, rough and scratchy Super 8 mm home movies played under the title credits (provided in a yellow upper/lower case typewriter font on a black background) - providing a flashback to the past when things were better with his Littly Italy Mafioso buddies. A Catholic baptism-christening, and a birthday party with a cake (for "Christopher") were shown. The director credits for Martin Scorsese appeared as Charlie shook hands with his priest on the front steps of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Little Italy. A few shots of Littly Italy's San Gennaro Feast from years past were the last freeze-framed movie clip - with a zoom in entry to the present-day celebration (around 1963).

Each of the film's main characters, all Mafia apprentices, were introduced with a typed name (in CAPITAL letters) as a sub-title, in brief vignettes [Note: Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) used the same technique earlier, as did later films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Trainspotting (1996)]:

  • TONY (David Proval), known as Tony DeVienazo, the wise-guy, no-nonsense owner of the neighborhood bar known as Volpe's Topless, who dragged a junkie shooting up in the restroom from the bathroom through the bar and out into the street (along with his dealer-pusher), and then reprimanded his ineffective bouncer George (Peter Fain); he also loved William Blake and kept a lion cub (referred to as a "tiger" or "panther") caged in the bar's basement

  • MICHAEL (Richard Romanus) - a low-level, shady Mafioso loan shark, known as Michael "Mikey" Longo; also a dealer of stolen and/or contraband products and equipment (i.e., cigarettes, imported camera lenses, etc.)

  • JOHNNY BOY (Robert De Niro) - aka John "Johnny Boy" Civello; seen as reckless, violent, and totally irresponsible in a stunning memorable entrance; Johnny Boy's introduction demonstrated how he was a loose cannon, out-of-control, and too wild to tame; the crazed, small-time hood was seen planting a homemade bomb in a USPS mailbox; Johnny himself was a ticking time bomb ready to explode; as he scurried away from the scene, the blast blew his porkpie hat from his head; the self-destructive, trouble-making punk grabbed it and continued running, with a crazy grin on his face; Johnny Boy was an unbalanced, ne'er-do-well who was dangerously obligated to a loan shark, and living a life of desperation.

  • CHARLIE (Harvey Keitel) - aka Charlie Cappa; he was formally introduced offering 'personal' penance in church (after denouncing the usual 'Hail Marys'); a devout Catholic who was seeking redemption, he felt an inner struggle and conflicted Catholic guilt about his illicit, criminal and impure activities and urges, and sensed he was unworthy; his struggle was exemplified by the memorable image of him holding his hand directly in the flame of a votive candle before an altar to test himself against the fires of hell. He imagined that hell was like "the burn from a lighted match increased a million times." He warned himself that "You don't f--k around with the infinite!":

    Lord, I'm not worthy to eat your flesh. Not worthy to drink your blood...Okay, I just come out of confession, right? Right. And the priest gives me the usual penance, right? Ten 'Hail Marys', ten 'Our Fathers', ten whatever. Now, you know, the next week, I'm gonna come back and he's just gonna give me another ten 'Hail Marys' and another ten 'Our Fathers' and I mean, you know how I feel about that s--t. Those things, they don't mean anything to me. They're just words. Now, that may be okay for the others, but it just doesn't work for me. I mean, if I do somethin' wrong, I just want to pay for it my way. So, I do my own penance for my own sins. Whaddya say, huh? It's all bulls--t except the pain, right? The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. No, you don't f--k around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides: The kind you can touch with your hand. The kind you can feel in your heart. Your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.

In the subsequent scene in Tony's bar (filmed with a flaming and diabolical carnal-reddish hue), to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Tell Me," Charlie glided trance-like through the crowded table area to the small stage where two strippers - go-go dancers (topless with pasties) - were slowly gyrating. Comfortable and ritualistic in his milieu, he stepped up and joined one of the go-go dancers - a statuesque and beautiful black Diane (Jeannie Bell). Then as absolution, at a table with Michael, Charlie again subjected himself to a hot flame for penance's sake - he lit a match and held his finger in the fire after being tempted by the black dancer on stage. He bragged: "The priest taught me this." He complimented the black dancer's physical attraction (in voice-over) - with semi-racist reservations:

You know something? She is really good looking. I gotta say that again. She is really good-looking, but she's black. And you can see that real plain, right? Well, there's not much of a difference anyway, is there? Well, is there?

Michael was concerned that Charlie's friend-cousin Johnny Boy was behind on his loan payments, while Charlie would regularly vouch for him: ("I'll talk to him. I'll straighten him out"). Michael asked the level-headed Charlie why he provided protection and cover for Johnny Boy: "I don't understand why you hang around with a punk kid. I mean, he's the biggest jerk off around."

In the next sequence, Charlie watched jealously as pork-pie hat-wearing Johnny Boy entered (in slow-motion to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash"), with a bohemian-looking female on each arm. Charlie sarcastically noted (in voice-over): "All right, OK. Thanks a lot, Lord. Thanks a lot for opening my eyes. You talk about penance and you send this through the door. Well, we play by your rules, don't, well, don't we?" Shortly later, Johnny Boy introduced them as Sarah Kline and Heather Weintraub - he had met the pair at Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. Charlie insisted on immediately taking Johnny Boy into the back room, to demand that he pay his debt to Michael "Mikey" Longo, the local, vengeful loan shark ("You can't bulls--t people that way. You give your word, you gotta keep it").

With a rambling and incoherent speech (seemingly improvised), Johnny Boy had lots of excuses for ignoring his regular Tuesday payment:

  • other debts had higher priority ("Comin' home, I ran into Jimmy Sparks. I owe Jimmy Sparks $700, like for four months. I gotta pay the guy. He lives in my buildin', hangs out across the street. I gotta pay the guy, right?")
  • his mother ("I had to give some to my mother. And then I wound up with $25 at the end of the week")
  • an unlucky, interrupted poker game due to a false alarm police raid ("So I was in there playin' bankers and brokers. All of a sudden, I'm ahead like $600, $700. I'm really winnin'. All of a sudden, some kid walks in, and the kid yells that the bulls are comin', right? The cops are comin'. Everybody runs away... this kid says it's a false alarm...Meanwhile, I gotta get back in the game. Bing, bing, bing! I lose $400 dollars. Meanwhile, Frankie Bones is over there. Frankie Bones. I owe him $1,300 for like seven, eight months already. He's after me. I can't even walk on Hester Street without duckin' that guy...So I gave him $200. Meanwhile, I lost the deal. I go outside, a little depressed")
  • shopping ("So anyway, I went out shoppin'. Got a, got a new tie, and got this shirt, you like this shirt? They're nice. This tie -")

Charlie was incredulous: "Why are ya goin' shoppin' when ya owe money? It ain't right." Johnny Boy only had $40 to his name. Back at the bar, Johnny Boy falsely assured Mikey that he would soon be paid the debt he was owed, even though he was ordering drinks:

I know what you're gonna say, but don't say it because, number one, I'm not payin' for these drinks. They're all on the tab. And I'm gonna see ya, Tuesday payday, I swear on my mother. Not only on my mother, but Jesus Christ and... Okay?...Don't worry, it ain't gonna get out of hand.

In another sequence (to the faint tune of "I Met Him On A Sunday" by the Shirelles), Michael and Tony ripped off (or "stiffed") two naive long-haired teenagers from Riverdale (New Jersey), by scamming them out of $20 for a purchase of fireworks. Afterwards, Charlie joined them to go to the movies - to see the classic western, John Ford's The Searchers (1956) - pictured was a clip with John Wayne engaged in a brawl.

During an extended classic pool hall/bar brawl scene (shot kinetically with a hand-held camera following and tracking the action around the perimeter to the tune of The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman"), Charlie and his buddies were attempting to collect from a pool hall owner and bookie, Joey 'Clams' Scala (George Memmoli). After Joey called Mikey a "mook" and punched him, Johnny Boy and the rest of the gang engaged in a major brawl with Joey and his cohorts around the pool hall and on the tables (with an 30 second uninterrupted fight sequence). Johnny Boy jumped up onto a pool table swinging a broken pool cue, and gesturing with wild karate kicks. When two cops arrived, Joey easily paid off one of the beat cops named Davis (D'Mitch Davis) to leave with a car-fare bribe:

Joey: Look, I'm sure we can settle this.
Davis: How are we gonna settle this?...
Joey: Let me give you some car fare.
Davis: All right.
Joey: It took ya a long time. Where ya going?
Davis: New Jersey.
Joey: New Jersey. All right, here. This is for you and your partner goin' to Jersey.
Davis: I'm goin' to Philadelphia.
Joey: Here...

After the paid-off cops left, Joey complained: "Everyday is Christmas with these cops." The previous opponents now agreed to a truce and claimed they were friends - the debt was paid, and the group shared drinks: (Charlie: "Come on, let's have a drink and forget about it." Joey: "All right. This is the drink that we never had before"), but then another brief scuffle and flurry of insults momentarily broke out between them. Joey yelled after them as they left: "Come back here again, and you'll find out what's gonna happen to ya. F--kin' douche bags!"

Charlie was conducting a secret love relationship with Johnny Boy's epileptic cousin Teresa Ronchelli (Amy Robinson). During a 'peeping-tom' sequence as Charlie watched Teresa, his next-door neighbor in an adjacent apartment window, sexily undressing, he told her (in voice-over) about a foreshadowing dream:

Teresa, I had a dream last night about you and me. I gotta tell you this. We're in this room and we're both naked. And there's this huge white bed and you're lyin' on it and I'm standin' over ya. And we're just about to make love and I come. The only thing is, I come blood. And blood went all over the place! Squirtin' all over the place, all over you, all over me, my hands, and everything.

She was unamused ("I don't think that's funny") - and then they were seen together naked in bed in a hotel room during the afternoon, even though he continued to make crude jokes. He even revealed some of his inner hostility toward her, when he bluntly told her: "Because with you I can't get involved...Because you're a cunt! - Wait! It was only a joke"). He pointed his finger at her in the position of a mock pistol (on the soundtrack, a gunshot was heard in a startling jump-cut) - a subliminal statement of his ambivalence towards her. [Note: In this bedroom scene, director Scorsese quite consciously borrowed from a scene in Jean Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (1960, Fr.) (aka Breathless).]

He positioned himself in a crucifix pose with his arms outstretched on the bed's headboard (with a venetian blinds or jail-bars shadow over him - a meaningful juxtaposition of his life of faith and crime), as Teresa sat naked in front of him. When she asked him to avert his eyes ("Don't look"), he watched her through his parted fingers covering his eyes in a V-position, as she began to dress. She reprimanded him for sneaking a peek ("I see what you're doing. I saw you"), but he claimed: "What? I wasn't doin' nothing'. You wild woman! Let me alone. Get your hands off me....You're killing me!" as they playfully wrestled.

Shortly later, Charlie discussed his dislikes and likes with Teresa at the beach:

Charlie: I hate the sun. Come on, let's go inside, will ya?...I hate the ocean, and I hate the beach, and I hate the sun. And the grass and the trees and I hate heat!...I like spaghetti and clam sauce. Mountains. Francis of Assisi. Chicken with lemon and garlic. Uh, and John Wayne.
Teresa: (reminding him) You know, there aren't any mountains in Manhattan.
Charlie: Tall buildings. Same thing. And I like you. (he kissed her)
Teresa: I like it here alone.

She vowed to move uptown to an apartment away from her parents and the neighborhood of Little Italy, but was just waiting on Charlie to share it with her. Charlie insisted that he wasn't afraid of a commitment, but that he couldn't immediately join her because of other obligations: "I'm closin' in on somethin' in the neighborhood and I gotta stick around...Just the neighborhood and the guys down there. That's all that's important to me right now." She guessed that he wanted to help her crazy cousin Johnny Boy:

...he is crazy! I mean, he is driving me nuts. I don't know how can you be with him all the time? He's like an insane person!

Charlie felt he had a spiritual, selfless mission: "Who's gonna help him if I don't?...Nobody tries any more...tries to help us all, help people." She disagreed: "You help yourself first." He felt otherwise - that he must pattern his life after St. Francis of Assisi in order to seek personal penance for his life on the street:

Bulls--t, Teresa. That's where you're all wrong! Francis of Assisi had it all down. He knew." Teresa quipped: "What are you talkin' about? St. Francis didn't run numbers.

Next Page