In one particularly funny sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets – and Mean Streets is one of Scorsese’s funniest movies, even if it’s not understood as a comedy – two guys approach Michael (Richard Romanus), a half-competent loan shark, on a grimy corner of Little Italy, looking to buy illegal fireworks. Sniffing out a couple of suckers, Michael and an associate talk up a supply they don’t have. (“Do you know where this stuff comes from? It comes from Maryland,” says Michael. “That means it’s good,” says his cohort.) They set out to scam the buyers by taking the $40 in cash, dropping them off on another corner and driving off to their secret stash of nonexistent fireworks. But as they pull away, they realize their marks have stiffed them by only giving them $20. So they decide to clock out for the night and go to the movies.
There’s nothing in this sequence that moves the plot forward. Michael isn’t even one of the main characters, just another lowlife among many who are trying to collect for their bosses. It could be excised from the film without a single narrative hole needing to be patched up. But that’s part of what separates Mean Streets from the hard-changing gangster epics that Scorsese would make later, like GoodFellas or The Departed, which are also rich and evocative, but more relentlessly on task. Mean Streets is more of a slice of life, drawn from stories Scorsese seems to have heard or witnessed during his formative years as an asthmatic kid growing up on the third floor of tenement building on Elizabeth Street. It’s like a vivid, often electrifying memory sprung to life.
It also set a 50-year course for Scorsese’s career that was by no means guaranteed, which is remarkable to consider given his reputation as perhaps the most important American film-maker of his generation. He had made a strong impression with critics six years earlier with Who’s That Knocking at My Door, an independent film with Harvey Keitel that now seems like a dry run for their collaboration on Mean Streets. But it took a detour with Roger Corman on the B-picture Boxcar Bertha and a subsequent lecture by John Cassavetes to convince Scorsese to press forward with a more personal project. And Scorsese responded with the type of film a director might make if they never got a chance to make a film again.
Scorsese’s connection to the Catholic church and his ambitions to the priesthood would underscore explicitly spiritual films later like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence, but Charlie (Keitel), his surrogate in Mean Streets, seems more firmly tormented by the guilt that runs through his work. The opening line of narration, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church,” rejects the idea of the confessional as a moral car wash that absolves on Sunday the wrongdoings of Monday through Saturday. And yet Charlie is passive and weak, a small-time runner for his gangster uncle who spends most of the film trying to cover for his buddy Johnny Boy, a ne’er-do-well that he’s turned into a quixotic project, opening to redeem him like St Francis of Assisi.
Robert De Niro has been acting so long that it can be easy to forget his otherworldly charisma in the early 70s. When his Johnny Boy comes strutting in slow-motion through the bar to Jumpin’ Jack Flash with a woman under each arm, Scorsese’s camera moves in on Charlie, who’s as mesmerized as we are. Who can condemn Charlie for giving Johnny Boy every possible chance to redeem himself? The two have a chemistry that suggests an easy, unbreakable childhood bond and that spells doom for Charlie, who is constantly hustling to fend off Michael and the other loan sharks who Johnny refuses to pay. He has co-signed these loans with his life.
Charlie and Johnny Boy’s fate is an inevitability that Scorsese himself seals in the film’s final moments, but Mean Streets cares more about making the backdrop as palpably three-dimensional as possible. The film is loaded with thinly connected episodes like the fireworks scam, where Scorsese frees himself to stage minor detonations, like an attempted collection at a pool hall that turns into a melee (set to Please Mr Postman) over the confusing slur “mook” or a welcome home party for a Vietnam veteran that sours when the honoree smashes the cake and attacks a woman on the dance floor. The possibility of violence percolates like seismic tremors under every scene, and the tension crackles even without any narrative arc or rhythm.
Fusing his own experiences with influences like I Vitelloni or Big Deal on Madonna Street, Scorsese imagines Mean Streets like it were the road not taken, as if he was another twentysomething nobody drifting through the seedier corners of the neighborhood. Charlie loves to look good and strut around in a tailored suit, but he and his buddies are screw-ups and dopes, imaginary tough guys who are low-level hoodlums for a reason. Michael whines about Johnny Boy not giving him respect, but who can respect a guy who tries to pass off pilfered Japanese adapters for high-end German camera lenses? And what’s their other pal doing with a pair of black market tigers prowling in cages in the back of the bar? These are ridiculous people that Scorsese can’t help but consider with a certain fondness.