DVD Pick: Mean Streets

Directed by Martin Scorsese. October 1973, USA. Rated R: 112 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 11/6/2008)

Called a “jazzy riff of a movie” by the LA Times, Mean Streets (1973) signaled the arrival of Martin Scorsese as a major player among the 1970s “movie brat” generation, which included Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The film also paved the way to fame for Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, both of whom acted in subsequent Scorsese projects. A low-budget feature with autobiographical elements, Mean Streets illustrates the alternately religious, sad, funny and gritty existence of mafia men in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood. The protagonist is Charlie (Keitel), a devout Catholic who nonetheless finds the church’s traditional methods of repentance unsatisfying. Charlie’s first scene voiceover informs us that “You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets.” To that end, Charlie finds himself babysitting his cousin Johnny Boy (De Niro), who prefers buying fancy suits to settling his debts. And despite Johnny’s irresponsibility, Charlie dutifully sticks up for Johnny every time — even when it means trouble for him.

The movie’s arty experimentation with style and raw affect make Mean Streets a must-see for anyone who loves Taxi Driver (1976) or Raging Bull (1980).