Watching Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973) is like taking a look at one of the smaller pyramids of Egypt before the BIG ones were built. Before Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio were working opposite sides of the law in “The Departed,” before Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were running Vegas in “Casino,” and before Ray Liotta became a gangster in “Goofellas,” Harvey Keitel was trying to survive the mean streets of New York. All the classic elements are there: strong performances, gangsters who are both reckless and conflicted by their choices, and a kick-ass soundtrack by The Rolling Stones.
This movie was another entry in the film club I joined while studying at the University of Sherbrooke, where we would watch double features every night in the faculty basement. That week’s programming: a Martin Scorsese double feature starting with “Mean Streets” and ending with, I believe, “Goodfellas.” Appropriate, since “Mean Streets” was the beginning of success for Scorsese, while “Goodfellas” was his crowning achievement in 1990.
Maybe it’s because Scorsese and company hadn’t met Joe Pesci yet, but in “Mean Streets” Robert De Niro is the one who plays the loose-cannon criminal. His John “Johnny Boy” Civello is a small-time gambler who likes to have a good time but has little respect for the people higher up the food chain in organized crime. This includes loan sharks who don’t like it when people are behind on payments. Scorsese gives Johnny a great entrance in the movie, walking in slow motion to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” It’s hard not to look cool walking into a bar with two girls on your arms when Mick Jagger is playing on the Juke Box.
Observing his entrance is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a debt collector for the New York mob and best friend of Johnny. Charlie is a very conflicted man. On the one hand he is loyal to his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) a captain in the mafia who will hopefully help him ascend in the ranks. On the other hand he has the loyalty of friendship towards Johnny Boy, despite all the trouble Johnny causes. Then there is the matter of his Catholic faith, which can be a bit of a conflict of interests when you work for criminals.
There is no major criminal scheme involving Charlie and his associates as the film unfolds. They are small-time criminals, trying to survive the mean streets like many other New Yorkers at that time. Having grown up in Little Italy, Scorsese the young director knew how such characters would talk, how they interacted, and behave in a fight. A fight in pool hall is disorganized and rough as characters jump all over the place fighting with pool cues.
Compared to later Scorsese the scale of the movie is of course smaller considering this was only his third film. Still, many of the key elements are there. You have characters who are criminals but not in the sense that they are simply “bad guys.” For Charlie this is mostly a business and he has ambitions to rise up in the ranks if management will let him. Then you have a female lead dating one of the criminals at her own risks. Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s cousin, must know she is taking a chance by secretly dating Charlie behind Johnny’s back.
Scorsese would eventually become more ambitious as his budgets grew, telling the stories of organized crime in New York, Las Vegas, Boston, and then eventually Atlantic City with his Emmy-winning “Boardwalk Empire.” These stories are all outstanding movies and TV shows, telling the stories of not just criminals, but characters struggling with their line of work and trying to live a relatively normal life in spite of their choices. If you want to see how it all began, go back to the “Mean Streets” of 1970s New York.