"Mean Streets", the 1973 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, is one of those films which I think for many people is strangely elusive in its nature. Not a cult movie as such, but equally not one which would be easily described as a mainstream blockbuster. It has a charm all of its own.
The great use of music, a feature of several Scorsese films, is evident from the outset, even in the opening titles. This is just one of those elements which lifts "Mean Streets" well above the mundane. Throughout we are treated to assorted 50s and 60s classics (The Ronettes, The Rolling Stones etc) as well as opera and Italian songs.
The plot centres on mobster Charlie (Harvey Keitel), and his efforts to protect his wayward friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), mostly from loan sharks and their depredations. This task becomes more fraught as Johnny Boy's behaviour grows increasingly abrasive and confrontational. There is some suggestion that Charlie, in pursuing this course, is striving for the redemption which he cannot attain through his religious faith.
De Niro's performance is outstanding, combining impishness and self-confidence with a certain vulnerability. He never allows the character of Johnny Boy to lapse too far into caricature.
"Mean Streets" succeeds in part because it is not weighed down by heavy and momentous themes. The screenplay and the quality of the acting carry any moral messages along with them. To my mind there is a heavy emphasis on telling a story, rather than constantly dwelling on profound issues. This way, the themes themselves are allowed to breathe naturally.
The aesthetic of "Mean Streets" has similarities to previous films;"The French Connection" springs to mind, but the atmosphere is nowhere near as gloomy and austere as other pictures of the genre. The music certainly helps, as does the variety in the locations and the visuals;there is even a scene at the beach. The scenes in assorted sleazy bars and clubs are each given a personality of their own, by the good use of lighting, music and so forth. Yes, it is still a gritty movie, but it also possesses a certain warmth. The dialogue contains some humour amidst the menace.
Due to the format of the film, and the mood which is built up, the viewer develops an empathy for, and an interest in, the destiny of the individual characters on a human level. The emotions are engaged, and this has more to it than merely a tale about mobsters. More depth, even allowing for the sobering and gruesome ending.
"Mean Streets" has been cited as highly influential by many people, both in its visual and narrative feel, and in areas technical such as camerawork and editing. However, it should be judged as an engaging film in its own right, with a distinctive tone stemming from a combination of potent but subtly employed ingredients. The movie may be overshadowed to a degree by the films which later came to define the Seventies in cultural terms, but it is absorbing, powerful and imaginative.