All things considered, Mean Streets marks Martin Scorcese’s first foray into directing a feature film – and my God is it a thrill!
Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie, a lowly mobster wannabe who shakes down citizens of Little Italy as a debt collector for his uncle. Trying to work his way up into the mob, he is hampered by his inability to actually force people into giving him money while privately failing to reconcile his Catholic faith with his efforts to join the mob. Rarely resorting to violence, Charlie often buys into the sob stories and excuses – especially from his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) who is carelessly deep in debt to the entire neighborhood. To further complicate things, Charlie is secretly dating Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson). While his friends Tony (David Proval) and Michael (Richard Romanus) own a neighborhood strip club where they all hang out and blow off steam through the film, things come to a boiling point when a high rolling gangster wants $2,000.00 that Johnny Boy owes him and Charlie is caught in the middle.
While I have enjoyed many of Scorsese’s films over the years, Mean Streets ranks near the very top with Goodfellas. Watching Keitel’s dazzling performance leaves me mystified that he didn’t find the same widespread success that De Niro found in the coming decades afterward. Scorsese’s gritty portrayal of Little Italy feels so authentic that the actors seem as if they were recruited straight off the streets to play their roles, especially the consistently convincing David Proval. With thumping hits from the Rolling Stones and The Ronettes providing an exquisite soundtrack to the film, everything is in its right place in Mean Streets.