Mean Streets

1973

Mean Streets

Critics Consensus

Mean Streets is a powerful tale of urban sin and guilt that marks Scorsese's arrival as an important cinematic voice and features electrifying performances from Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro.

96%

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Total Count: 54
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"You don't make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bulls--t, and you know it." Returning to the autobiographical milieu of his 1968 debut Who's That Knocking at My Door? for his third feature, Martin Scorsese examined the daily struggles of a wannabe hood to keep his morals straight on the streets of Little Italy. Driven equally by his wish to become a respectable gangster like his uncle (Cesare Danova) and his desire to live his life like St. Francis, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) takes on his energetically unhinged friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) as his own personal penance, intervening to get Johnny Boy to pay off a debt to the local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus). Despite his promises to his epileptic girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson) that they will move out of Little Italy once he strengthens his position in his uncle's world, Charlie's involvement with Johnny Boy further ensnares him in the neighborhood. When Johnny Boy decides to mouth off to Michael rather than pay him, Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa try to flee Michael's murderous anger (and an assassin played by Scorsese), forcing Charlie to realize that the rules of the streets do not mesh with absolution. Whereas fellow "film school generation" director Francis Ford Coppola transformed the Hollywood gangster movie into metaphorical epics about the Mafia and capitalism in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Scorsese revised the genre in the opposite direction, focusing on the gritty minutiae of daily life and drawing from personal memory. Combining documentary-style realism (even though most of the film was shot in L.A.); kinetic editing and camera movement; and expressionistic lighting, angles, and film speed, Scorsese presents an intimate picture of the trivial incidents and latent violence of Charlie's and Johnny Boy's world, naturalistically unfolding their experiences rather than simply explaining what motivates them. They lead a claustrophobic, petty existence that Scorsese and screenwriter Mardik Martin witnessed growing up in Little Italy, complete with a soundtrack of hit songs like "Be My Baby" and "Jumping Jack Flash" that had poured out of neighborhood radios. Mean Streets opened at the New York Film Festival to excellent notices and played strongly in New York but failed to duplicate that level of business elsewhere. Even so, Mean Streets established Scorsese and De Niro as formidable young talents and marked the beginning of a long-running and fertile collaboration that continued in such films as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese's exceptional grasp of the texture of day-to-day life, the rhythm and cadences of street talk, and cinema's visual and aural possibilities makes Mean Streets one of the pivotal films of the 1970s, as well as of Scorsese's career, and an influence on such future filmmakers as Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, among many others. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi

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Critic Reviews for Mean Streets

All Critics (54) | Top Critics (9)

  • The movie's blazing energy is still astounding; the vérité street-scenes are terrific and Scorsese's pioneering use of popular music is genuinely thrilling.

    Mar 31, 2008 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…
  • The acting and editing have such an original, tumultuous force that the picture is completely gripping.

    Mar 31, 2008 | Full Review…
  • Scorsese is exceptionally good at guiding his largely unknown cast to near-flawless recreations of types. Outstanding in this regard is De Niro.

    Mar 31, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Variety
    Top Critic
  • One of the best American films of the decade.

    Feb 9, 2006 | Full Review…
    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • The Godfather made the mob glamorous. Mean Streets made it real. Martin Scorsese's ferocious, grimy 1973 classic is just as good as Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece, but it shows us criminal life lower down the food chain.

    Jan 25, 2005 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…

    Nev Pierce

    BBC.com
    Top Critic
  • No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter.

    May 20, 2003 | Rating: 5/5

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