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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Mean Streets

Robert De Niro had a one-two punch in 1973. After Bang the Drum Slowly came his break out role, as the psychotic Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, for which he won the New York Film Critics Best Supporting Actor award. It was also in some ways the breakout film for Martin Scorsese, who, though he has made films on many different subjects, establishes his territory, Little Italy.

As I watched Mean Streets this time I remembered that the very same year, George Lucas released American Graffiti. They are in different worlds but similar in structure--the guys hanging out. In Lucas' California, the guys cruise for girls in their cars. In Scorsese's New York, the guys wander the streets until dawn, drinking and getting into fights. But, as the lead character played by Harvey Keitel says, "it's all about the neighborhood."

The year following The Godfather, which was the first film to really link Italian and Sicilians to the Mafia, Mean Streets followed. Keitel plays Charlie, a soldier in his uncle's regime who mainly collects debts. He has guilt problems, as he's a Catholic, but he decides he will atone for his sins his own way. Consciously or unconsciously, he does this by watching out for his friend, De Niro, who we first see blowing up a mailbox as a prank. De Niro owes money all over town, and a loan shark (Richard Romanus), is tired of waiting. Keitel puts him off, but De Niro continues to blow his money and miss work.

Scorsese uses a moving camera that puts us right in the action. There's a masterfully shot fight in a pool hall that ends with everyone having a drink, but the movement of the camera may have you ducking from a punch. Much of the movie is shot at night, and it makes you wonder when the characters sleep.

The colors are rich and saturated, as well. When Keitel speaks of Hell in an empty church, we cut to a club where most of the action takes place. It is bathed in red light, a hell of Keitel's own making. This is where incidents like a young kid shoots a drunk while he's taking a leak in the bathroom (the killer and victim are both played by Carradine brothers, Robert and David).

As the title suggests, it's a world of violence, and it's a film about masculinity. As a teacher, you see how boys and girls handle problems differently. Boys will fight, and then it's over, while girls will plot and hold a grudge. There are so many moments when the men in this film fight each other, are angry, curse each other (in the pool room fight, it all starts when guy calls another a "mook", and even though he doesn't know what a mook is, they start throwing blows), but they always keep their friendship. That is, until Johnny Boy goes too far, and insults a man's honor, leading to a tragic ending. If you're watching, in that last scene Scorsese has a cameo as the shooter.

De Niro and Scorsese are tied together like John Wayne and John Ford, and during my look at De Niro's films I'll be discussing a few more Scorsese films. The next one they made together is the even more brutal Taxi Driver. Then, perhaps their greatest masterpiece, and the next film I'll be discussing, Raging Bull.

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