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The Hoodlum Priest 

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
Mean Streets
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin. Starring Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, and David Proval. Opens Friday, March 20, at the Castro.

When Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets opened in 1973, it looked like no other movie. A lot of New York thrillers had drenched the screen in grunge and neon -- but that was just violent mood lighting. Mean Streets gave us passion lighting: multihued streaks of volatile action in the avenues and gutters, and potent scarlet set pieces at the bars and altars where the anti-hero spilled his guts.

For years, the movie could only be seen in faded versions that veered between black and white and red and sludge. The 25th-anniversary print of Mean Streets restores the picture to its full dirty-iridescent glory. Watching it again, I kept thinking that moviemakers usually study the wrong Scorsese movie -- not Mean Streets but 1990's GoodFellas, whose technical razzle-dazzle and flashy caricatures have influenced everything from TV ads to Boogie Nights. But because both films dramatize New York Italian buddies concocting criminal schemes and leading bifurcated lives, they're usually seen as bookends. Actually, GoodFellas is the strip-mined version of Mean Streets. GoodFellas leaves behind what makes the earlier work a probing masterpiece: the corrupt spirituality of its characters, which colors the celluloid itself.

Mean Streets is an amazing movie. It establishes a high-voltage connection between the audience and the anti-hero, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a youthful brown-nose of a mobster. So intense and immediate is this link that the film remains unpredictable, even to viewers who've seen it many times. It puts you in tune with his coiled psyche yet keeps you at an objective remove from the tortuous workings of his soul. At the start of a voice-over that creeps inside your skull, Charlie says, "You don't make up for your sins in church -- you do it in the streets." In his own mind, the key to successful penance is rehabilitating his crazily self-destructive, debt-ridden friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). But Charlie's motives are impure. Taking care of Johnny Boy is his way of maintaining a shred of self-respect while kowtowing to his don, Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). Giovanni has been grooming him to take over a mob-foreclosed restaurant; with that cushy future in his grasp, Charlie is trying to distance himself from Johnny -- and from Johnny's epileptic cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), Charlie's lover.

Admirers of Scorsese who come to Mean Streets belatedly may experience it as a maestro letting his guard down, revealing his core emotions -- and emerging more brilliant than ever. That's how it affected Scorsese's friend and mentor Michael Powell. In the introduction to Scorsese on Scorsese (Faber and Faber, 1989), he talks of screening Mean Streets after Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver: "With Alice and Taxi Driver he handles the materials like a master; with Mean Streets he is in direct contact with his audience, from the beginning to the end."

Few films have epitomized a closed ethnic world like Manhattan's Little Italy with this much passion, precision, and ruthless anti-sentimentality. In one startling, funny moment, Tony (David Proval), the bartender, leads his friends into a back room and unveils a cage that contains (of all things) a tiger cub. When the reckless Johnny Boy jumps back with the rest, Tony sneers, "That's why Italy lost the war." It's 1973, but World War II is closer to them than Nam. (Charlie compares the one soldier in the group to old-time movie star John Garfield.) Uncle Giovanni looks down his handsome patrician nose at the wielders of state authority. He knows that in the '40s, when the powers that be needed real clout to control the New York docks, they turned to men like Lucky Luciano. This combination of pride and power sucks in Charlie. It infuriates Johnny, who darts around the mob's margins, and his main antagonist, Michael (Richard Romanus), a thick scam artist and loan shark affronted not only by Johnny, but also by an exquisite sense of his own negligibility.

Critic and novelist Wilfrid Sheed once wrote a collection of essays called "Three Mobs: Labor, Church and Mafia." In Scorsese's Little Italy, those three mobs are inextricably joined. Their claustrophobic weight causes the young men to dream of escape -- into movies, into bed, or into occasional flights of poetry. On my first viewing of Mean Streets 25 years ago, I cringed when Tony explained his acquisition of that cub by quoting William Blake: "Tyger, tyger, burning bright ...." I thought it was pretentious. But Tony's impulse toward transcendence is part of what universalizes these guys' plight. And in most of the movie, that impulse emerges organically, especially in the music.

Scorsese has said, "Mean Streets had the best music because it was what we enjoyed and it was part of the way we lived. ... For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby.' " In Mean Streets Scorsese put his love of music and of movies at the service of experience. The result is skin-crawlingly expressive -- whether Scorsese is bracing the camera on Keitel's body to capture Charlie's swaying drunkenness, or setting the camera back to record De Niro doing a mad dance around a car. Keitel's Charlie is a physical and spiritual narcissist whose mother lays out fancy shirts for him, while De Niro's Johnny is a semi-psychotic in a battered fedora, a human firecracker who smiles whenever he pops. Keitel is clammily implosive; De Niro, excitingly explosive. These lead performances are like a two-man dance of near-death.

The obscene vaudeville of their improvisational dialogue, filled with taunts and evasions, eerily anticipates David Mamet. ("What's the matter?" Johnny Boy asks Michael. "You too good for this $10, huh? You too good for it? It's a good $10. You know somethin', Mikey? You make me laugh, you know that?") There's nothing tiresome or repetitive about this movie's rhythms. Its torrential, operatic flow stems from Scorsese's sensibility; the director even alternates his voice with Keitel's on the soundtrack -- Scorsese is the one who says you do penance "in the streets."

Near the end, Keitel says, "I'm trying, Lord, I'm trying," right out loud -- and Teresa and Johnny laugh to hear what's been going on in Charlie's head. When we laugh, we recognize how far Scorsese has drawn us into Charlie's obsessions. For over a decade Scorsese has served as a high priest of cinema, championing restorations and making films that are intricate meshes of imagery and sound. But his best movies -- whether they're about Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, or Charlie, the would-be hoodlum priest -- are simultaneously works of art and exorcism.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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