Saturday, January 13, 2018

Mean Streets

I should probably have taken part in the "Blind Spot" movie series that one of the other bloggers out there runs, in which people are asked to list a bunch of classic movies they haven't seen before, and then review them over the course of a year. For me, one of those movies I hadn't seen before is Martin Scorsese's early Mean Streets.

Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a small-time mobster low on the Mafia pole working for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova). Charlie is actually a relatively devout Catholic when you wonder who Christian a lot of things the Mafia does are. At the local bar where he spends a fair amount of time, he runs into Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), an utter jerk who spends his time running up debts and steadfastly refusing to pay them off. One of the people he's in debt to is Charlie's friend Michael (Richard Romanus), and Charlie winds up feeling part of his Christian burden is to try to protect Johnny Boy as best he can. Well, this and the fact that he's in a relationship with Johnny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) that Johnny would be pissed to find out just how far it's gone.

Much of the movie is focused on the continuing adventures of Charlie and Johnny as they try to scrounge money, Johnny so he can spend it, and Charlie so he can get the money to Michael to help Johnny pay off his debts. A subplot involves a restaurateur who is deeply in debt to uncle Giovanni, to the point that the guy is going to have to give up the restaurant to pay the debt. Charlie has a vague dream of owning the place himself, but what would he really know about running a restaurant?

However, Mean Streets is a movie without a fully-fleshed plot, preferring instead to be something that looks at a certain place and time, that being New York's Little Italy in the early 1970s. In that regard, I have a feeling Scorsese really succeeds. I know next to nothing about what Little Italy in particular was like back then, but as I watched the movie I couldn't help think about some of the other movies that were set in New York around the same time: The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park would both come to mind. Both of those excellently capture the seedier, lower-class side of the city, and I found that Mean Streets captured much the same atmosphere.

That's the good. Where the movie falls flat for me, however, is with the Johnny Boy character. He's a jerk. A complete, unmitigated asshole. He's somebody I found thoroughly unlikeable, and not in the sense of, say, Albert Finney's alcoholic in Under the Volcano. Instead, he's more like Julie Harris' character in Member of the Wedding in that I wanted Charlie to drop Johnny like a hot rock and just let Michael do whatever he wanted. There's one scene in which Johnny is on a rooftop firing off a gun; I would have been OK with Charlie pushing him off that roof. Of course, that would have gone against the whole Christian duty and actual penance above and beyond a few Hail Marys thing that Charlie opens up the movie talking about.

So, while I had some serious problems with Mean Streets (not with the violence, which causes other people problems), I can easily see why other people would give this movie much higher marks. It's something that people should definitely watch for themselves and draw their own opinions about.

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