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Mean Streets

Director: Martin Scorsese

U.S.A.| 1973. Colour. 110 min. New 35mm print.


Although it wasn’t his first feature, Mean Streets is the film that sealed director Martin Scorsese’s reputation. Appearing in the wake of The Godfather, this low-budget gem presented a very different view of Italian-American life. Eschewing the operatic grandeur of Francis Coppola’s epic, Scorsese set his film in New York’s Little Italy amongst the street folk he knew in his youth. His characters are essentially outsiders who operate on the fringes of organised crime. The hero, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), is torn between loyalty to disreputable friends and the business opportunities offered by a stern Mafia uncle.
Charlie also suffers periodic bouts of Catholic guilt, but he can’s resist the allure of a good time in the bars and clubs frequented by his pals. His best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is an irresponsible free spirit who refuses to pay his gambling debts. Forever trying to play the diplomat or gobetween in a society ruled by strict codes of honour, Charlie can’t face up to the contradictions in his life and has to pay the price. What’s still striking about Mean Streets is the way in which it plunges us into the world of its characters in a manner that’s both direct and highly subjective. The hyperreal style imbues the entire film with a great sense of tension and energy. The randomness and violence in the lives of the protagonists are built into the very structure of the movie.
And Scorsese’s sympathy for his characters seems remarkable now in the light of GoodFellas, where similar streetwise hustlers are shown to grow into monstrous grotesques. Scorsese may have moved on, but much that is essential to his art is already present in Mean Streets, from the brilliantly evocative opening to the literally explosive climax.

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