Despite his having directed two films before this one, Mean Streets is pretty much universally regarded as Martin Scorsese’s first proper feature, his breakout film. Having never seen it before, I went into it with some expectations, to say the least. The film I was about to see would be essentially Scorsese breaking down and laying out the themes he would become famous for in his career, in the setting he would make his own, with the rudimentary filmmaking techniques that he would spend his career refining and focusing. Ultimately, I think I got that; it was just a lot more… roughshod than I was expecting. In hindsight, I probably should’ve expected it, with this being his first real feature on his own, but I still got a signature Scorsese film, that’s for damn sure.
The plot follows Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, as he tries to make do in the streets of New York’s Little Italy, in the face of his superiors and buddies, including the wild rascal Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and maybe a few enemies as well. I know that Scorsese’s upbringing in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City was a big influence on his future filmmaking career, but wow was this film Italian-American. In my opinion, Scorsese would do a better job using this influence and channeling it into his storytelling in the future; here, he just lets it all loose, and the film is practically basting in it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just so unfocused. The film doesn’t have much in terms of a plot; there’s stuff that happens that leads to other stuff, but the film is mostly there for two things; the atmosphere of Little Italy, and the dynamic between Charlie and Johnny Boy, which is by far the most interesting aspect of the film. One thing I didn’t really appreciate was the style of the narration. There were a number of times where I could’ve sworn I was just listening to Scorsese talk to me, rather than Charlie talking to himself. It didn’t help that Scorsese, in an auto-biographical nod, does the narration himself instead of Harvey Keitel, coupled with Scorsese’s freshman inability to write outside his own style, and it was a bit of an annoyance. Another mild annoyance was the use of oldies tracks as the soundtrack of the film; it worked to help put me in the mindset of the 70s that this was made in, but it was a constant reminder of how dated the material was, and it seemed to be a little too gratuitous instead of properly integrated and utilized in the film.
Once again, I found my words summed up in another review I found around the internet, that basically said that while Scorsese’s later works in this genre like Goodfellas or The Departed are very structurally sound, and thus far more enjoyable, this early work of his isn’t as much so; this is basically an amateur effort, albeit a very original and lasting one. Someone delving into this expecting a professional film is misinterpreting the timeline that this film was made on; as incongruous as it can be to believe that Martin Scorsese was once an amateur at filmmaking, what Mean Streets ultimately ends up being is all the proof you need that, yes, we all do start off as kids before we grow into adults. The film gets points for what it does manage to accomplish, as well as still being a pretty entertaining film, but it gets points off for essentially being rough sandpaper and shattered bits of glass, instead of the shiny and fine result you get when you use sandpaper on other objects. See this as an early Scorsese, so you can better appreciate the man and what he’s come from, but don’t expect another certified Scorsese masterpiece here; he still had a ways to go before he successfully reached that territory.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10