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Early flashes of genius from the Directors' Director
This is an overlooked and underrated masterpiece from genius Martin Scorsese. Obviously made on a low budget with (at the time)budding actors Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro this is a genuine, gritty and grainy depiction of Italian-American inner city life. The vast majority of the film is set in bars and backrooms or in dark streets and alleys, filmed with a handheld camera that occasionally sways, pursues running characters or makes use of other obscure techniques that sometimes make the film so real that you think you are watching a documentary. It is the stark realities, the slim budget and the improvisational work and looseness of the plot that makes 'Mean Streets' so shockingly real in tone and much more aggressive and emotional than 'Goodfellas' or 'The Godfather'. The characters are amongst the most evocative and human ever committed to film, they are like real people summoned up from the lives of the director and the actors. Harvey Keitel is brilliant as Charlie, a young man with power and respect in his neighbourhood, yet also privately troubled by his faith and his conflicting compassionate nature which involves loving his epileptic girlfriend his uncle has forbidden him to see and supporting and helping her irredemable and troublesome cousin Johnny Boy. De Niro plays Johnny Boy to perfection: laughing, jeering and fighting, really a young man in desperate need of support (which Charlie offers) but ultimately remains the insensitive idiot fool that leads to his downfall. Johnny Boy is the central focus of 'Mean streets', and he is so tempestuous and troubled and so naive and a fabulously watchable character. It is said 'Mean Streets' lacks a tangible plot but I don't view this as a criticism. The film is an intimate painting of troubled city life that explores a number of very powerful themes in its 2 hrs. What does exist of the plot is a very simple story of unpaid debts and eventual violence, but the setting, the charcters dilemmas and the relationships between the charcaters is what makes the film so fantastically gritty and dangerously real and disturbing. There is vast space for Scorsese to throw in witty, humorous dialogue, extreme character development scenes, a vast music score (alternating between popular music of the time and Italian operetta style) and extreme violence and obscenely good camera work. 'Mean streets' is a college of beautiful scenes and characters, it is violent, touching and funny. The best scene is the improvised piece between Johnny Boy (De Niro) and Charlie (Keitel) five or ten minutes in when they discuss Johnny Boy's debts. Ten times more powerful than the disappointing 'Goodfellas' and 'Raging Bull's' earlier equal. However, I would suggest watching 'Raging Bull', 'Goodfellas' or 'Taxi Driver' to summon up the mainstream essence of Scorsese and De Niro's work before watching this more underground and different film.Read full review