Mean Streets (1973) (R)

The breakthrough piece of Martin Scorsese, "Mean Streets" cements the style that the director would become famous for. It uses rock n roll/jazz music to score it, bringing the unsettling to the surface while happy tunes blare out uncompromising chords. The camera makes no real commitment to its style, jostling around at times, slow-motion at others, long shots some times.
What makes the movie absolutely breathtaking is the story that it tells, the compelling need to follow its main character, and the unachievable salvation he strives for.
Beginning with the line "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets", Martin Scorsese imposed his own voice for the narration. It makes you realize how much the director believe in the movie, he wrote the script as well.
A circle of four friends—Charlie, Johnny Boy, Tony, and Michael—think that they rule the streets. They are quasi-drug lords and mafia men. They think because a nice suit holds them upright it gives them the authority to reign. It's how they all stand, they are unafraid...pretentious. Yet when we see the situations start to escalate, physical violence being needed, they rarely win. They are quick to run away from the cops, they are quick to ditch a scene...they do fear the law, but they only fear that it will put a stopper on their short-winded rule of the streets.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel, absolutely brilliant here) is a man who wants to be holy. He wants to be rid of the guilt that rides on his back, perhaps he can forget about it from time to time; but it's never gone completely.
"Mean Streets" follows Charlie's doings as he interacts with his posse, the three other guys. Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is in a lot of debt to Michael (Richard Romanus), who lent money out because Charlie asked him to. Charlie vouches for Johnny Boy, there's something about the kid that he finds worthy of a second chance...we don't see what he sees. Perhaps he sees his niceties towards the boy as a way for him to earn salvation, he'll go to the church but the religion doesn't soak into his brain.
"Mean Streets" could be a parable of hell, or purgatory at the least. It has so much fiery imagery that if it doesn't reference a hellish place, it most certainly is about running from danger.
The youth of the protagonists also makes the movie compelling. If we look at the plot, not a lot happens, which is kind of typical for Scorsese. His character development is so closely intertwined with the story that it's hard to separate the two.
The prejudice of the picture also makes it great...which sounds like something I would never say, but I'm saying it now. Charlie desires to be beyond his own racism and the racist thoughts of the streets, but he's not. When he's given the opportunity to kindle a romance with a beautiful woman, he turns it down partly because of her ethnicity.
Charlie yearns for the right thing. What he thinks is the right thing to do and what the audience thinks are right are two different things.
Keitel is flawless, the movie is hypnotic.
"Mean Streets" could be Scorsese's pièce de résistance which I guess means more since it's in French.

Score: ★★★★

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