29 July 2008

Introducing Chaos to the Ordered World of Crime

"The Godfather was about careers. Mean Streets was about jobs," wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

Mean Streets (1973) was the film that launched Martin Scorsese's directorial career. While such highly acclaimed films as Taxi Driver (1975), Raging Bull (1980) Goodfellas (1989) and many more would follow, Mean Streets was not just some early effort that hinted at greatness. It was great.

As noted in Ebert's quote, Mean Streets is about the daily grind of gangsters, those who profit handsomely from criminal activities, the struggling worker bees and those on the periphery with "legitimate" incomes.

It is also about sin. The lead character, Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, struggles with the fact of his sins. He is a good catholic unable or unwilling to ignore his moral offenses, including adultery. There is a wonderful self awareness to Charlie. It does not necessarily lead to his making better moral choices but it suggests someone who eventually might. Charlie is the link between the varied archetypes of the story. While his way of life requires the bending of society's rules he works tirelessly to maintain order and propriety in his vast circle. Charlie works for his uncle, a Mafia kingpin who's also his mentor. The old world Uncle warns Charlie to stay away from his epileptic girlfriend because "she sick in the head" and his good friend Johnny Boy.

To me the real heart of Mean Streets is anarchy, symbolized by Johnny Boy as played by Robert DeNiro. He drops a bomb into a mailbox, insults virtual strangers, punches a passer by for bumping into him, stands on a roof firing a .38, with no intent to hit anything save perhaps the Empire State Building or a laundry line.

There is order in the world of Mean Streets. It is hard scrabble section of New York rife with Mafioso, loan sharks, revenge murders and spontaneous violence. But it is all contained within a structure and closely regulated. Debts are paid, disputes settled and cops paid off. Everything balances at the end of the day. Similarly the church provides very clear rules to live by and means by which to atone or be punished for violations. But with Johnny Boy the rules are tossed out. He asks bar owner and friend Tony to run him both a big tab and a little tab which will balance each other. Of course this is nonsensical which is precisely what Johnny Boy is all about. He owes everyone money, particularly Michael a friend who happens to be a loan shark. Johnny Boy not only fails to pay up, he lies to and laughs at his remarkably patient lender. Johnny Boy doesn't just flout the rules, he spits at them. Thus chaos is introduced to the ordered life of the streets (ravaged as it is by crime and violence). One can easily guess how this element will ultimately be dealt with.

Mean Streets has a lot going on in it (if you really want or need a full plot synopsis see IMDb or better yet watch the damn thing), yet it clocks in at just under two hours and positively flies by. There is an energy to it in part fueled by a wonderful score that mixes vintage rock and traditional Italian music. I'm sure its been said countless times that Mean Streets in style and set presaged much of what was to come from Scorsese. That's a disservice to a film that stands alone as an outstanding directorial achievement.

1 comment:

R. D. Finch said...

A really enjoyable analysis. I saw this when it first came out and then again about a year or so ago. It's still my favorite Scorsese film that I've seen. One interesting thing is that Harvey Keitel plays the lead and de Niro plays a supporting part, yet it was de Niro who became the bigger star. De Niro's impression of a Dead End Kid with a screw loose is sure an attention grabber, but Keitel's more shaded character is perhaps the more impressive acting achievement.

One thing that impressed me on seeing it a second time was what a modern European feel the film has to it, even though the setting and story are American, or perhaps about the attempt to perpetuate European traditions in America. Speaking of the music, I'd forgotten that it was this movie that made "Be My Baby" (which was at least 10 years old then) my favorite rock song ever.

One thing that struck me when I saw it again was that it is virtually a two-hour condensation of several seasons of "The Sopranos." Many of the main elements of that show are present: the restaurant, the business mixed with racketeering, the constricting family ties and patronage (Keitel and his uncle), the repressive roles for women, the narrow-mindedness inherent in such rigid adherence to tradition (the attitude toward the epileptic cousin), the loose cannon characters like Johnny Boy, even the moral dilemmas of Keitel, the battle between projecting strength and masking inherent sensitivity and intelligence, resemble in some ways those of Tony Soprano.