Mean Streets is one of my all-time favorite films and remains my personal favorite Martin Scorsese film. I had the pleasure of exploring the film, and its making, for Turner Classic Movies.
“You don’t pay for your sins in church. You pay for them on the street. All the rest is bullshit.” Mean Streets (1973) is not Martin Scorsese’s first film, but it is the film in which he came into his own. Passionate, energetic, stylistically inventive and personally driven, it is the first mature, full blooded “Martin Scorsese Film.” Inspired by the stories of friends and his own experiences from stories of growing up in Little Italy around small time mobsters and young toughs and would-be operators, it tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his mobster uncle. His ambitions to rise in the family business are complicated by his friendship with an unpredictable, self-destructive childhood buddy, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakthrough performance), and a secret affair with a cousin (Amy Robinson) who rejects his culture of Catholic guilt and male machismo.
For all the violence of the streets, Mean Streets is less a crime film than a character piece, a love letter to the streets of New York’s Little Italy and the young men rattling around like tough guys and fantasizing about becoming the real thing. No street thug, the young, asthmatic Scorsese was considering the priesthood when he became gripped with what was then the completely unrealistic dream of making films. Mean Streets is not autobiographical in any narrative sense but in Scorsese’s own words, “was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract.”
Read the complete feature here. Mean Streets plays on TCM on Friday, June 19.