Scorsese's First Robert De Niro Film
Two young punks taking on the streets of New York. [1/9/2023]
Reviewing Scorsese: Mean Streets
The opening shots of Mean Streets announce Scorsese as a fully formed auteur. The manic B movie pulp editing of Boxcar Bertha merges with Who’s That Knocking At My Door?‘s intensely coordinated camera as it observes loose, improv-like scenes into the work of the director we know and love. This feels true, “perceptive” as Roger Ebert puts it, not because we know what true gangster life is like, but because we’ve all had conversations this disheveled, manic, or tense.
Plenty of this perfectly coordinated unruliness springs from talented performances by Harvey Keitel (reprising his role from Knocking) and newcomer Robert De Niro playing the loose cannon Johnny Boy. The latter has two introductions. In the first, he is blowing up a mailbox for kicks; in the second, he’s trying to hand his pants into a coat check. Unlike most of his dramatic performances, the actor has bottled his craziness into immaturity; in two swift strokes, De Niro is a man-child (and not the cool kind Scorsese hates that dresses in tights and uses superpowers). His teenage hustler gets in way too deep with mob money lenders as Keitel’s enforcer tries to pick up the pieces behind him.
Mean Streets continues the director’s obsession with Catholicism, although here it becomes clearer than the eclectic montages in Who’s That Knocking At My Door and more direct than the nuisance of Christ imagery in Boxcar Bertha. Keitel’s enforcing brute continues to keep his Catholic faith as everyone around him mocks it, yet I wholely believe the movie isn’t anti-religious. The film is about men who mock all Catholic bans on sex, alcohol, and violence and then have meaningless sex, get drunk, and kill one another while being miserable about it the whole time.
Their alternative to a religion is the worship of gangsters and masculinity. Note the antiromantic way Scorsese shoots the fights. Ebert and I both love the scene where De Niro stands atop a pool table, threatening the mobsters around him.
We don’t get spectacular effest and skillfully choreographed struggles. Instead, there’s something realistically clumsy about the fights in this movie. A scene in a pool hall, in particular, is just right in the way it shows its character fighting and yet mindful of their suits (possibly the only suits they have) (Ebert 35).
Sidenote: I actually found this to be a perfectly functional review but overall clumsy in comparison to most of Ebert’s work. Not that I could do much better, but here he’s robotic rather than personal. Ebert’s check-in with the director during his moment of triumph feels as last minute as this review actually is.
Make no mistake; this is the first “real” Scorsese movie. The gangsters may be wannabes, but their time on the street is shot in genuine Coppola fashion, often swinging down from above and peering into their lives like these characters belong to baby’s first Italian mob storybook. His old-school needle drops have increased in both quality and quantity, adding some pop to his style that can sometimes make the characters too cool for the movie's undercutting of their masculinity but often disorients in just the right way.
The movie’s highlights are numerous although the red haze of the rest of the film dulls them out. The final car chase transcends the whole piece and the themes culminate well if in the most obvious way possible. I missed the raw spark of inspiration in Scorsese’s first movie. His unfocused attempt definitely marks a step forward for his career into better-dressed filmmaking, but he suffers from trying to make the whole thing feel epic when the story is too simple to sustain it. Fortunately, Keitel and De Niro present that level of prestige in their acting. Scorsese was right to keep the latter around; he’s magnetic even as we are disappointed in him. Two shades in one direction you can see the freak Taxi Driver; in the other direction, the hyper-masculine Raging Bull. Even though I didn’t like it as much as his first feature, Mean Streets is a signpost for greater things. This movie (and not just because of its crash-centric ending) invites us to strap in, operating as a gateway into De Niro’s career and the many more greats that are soon to come.
Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
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