Mean Streets (1973)
Dir. Martin Scorsese; Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson
Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) begins with a voice-over of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) saying “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” Charlie is a young man trying to move up the ranks of New York City’s mafia in Little Italy. In his view, his biggest sin is his relationship with Theresa (Amy Robinson), to whom he is not married. To make up for this, he tries to take care of his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a reckless gambler who owes a lot of money to loan sharks. Throughout much of the film Charlie wrestles with his guilt. He tries to do the right thing, i.e. live a good Christian life, and serve his penance, but he is not always successful.
As we watch Charlie struggle to atone for his sins, we begin to wonder what it takes to survive in New York City’s Little Italy. Although Charlie does bad things occasionally, he tries to be an upstanding guy. He does his best to atone for his sins and take care of Johnny. He is also deeply Catholic and, for the most part, tries to abide by Christian doctrine. There are scenes of him praying in church and talking to God about penance. And yet, the end of the film reveals that even Charlie, despite all of his effort, does not escape unscathed. As Vincent Canby wrote in his review of the film, “Charlie is not quite ruthless enough to succeed in the Lower East Side territory that defines his world.” But if Charlie’s morality and religion are not enough to make it in Little Italy, then what is?
Whatever it takes to make it in Little Italy, we know from the start that Johnny does not have it. In his first scene, he blows up a mailbox for no reason then gleefully runs away. This shot shows us how reckless Johnny is, and every scene of him that occurs afterward further cements this image. For example, the next time we see Johnny, he has taken off his pants simply to impress the two girls with him. Then, in slow motion, he enters the bar, one arm around each girl, to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The energy in the song mirrors Johnny’s own energy; he does things just because he feels like it.
Perhaps what is missing here is a strong sense of familial loyalty, as in The Godfather (1972). In Francis Ford Coppola’s film, family is everything. For instance, when Moe Greene beats up Fredo, Michael staunchly defends his brother, although Fredo tries to explain that he deserved it. Afterwards, Michael tells Fredo, “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” On the other hand, Charlie does not have this sense of loyalty to his family. His Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) wishes that Charlie would distance himself from Johnny, saying “I understand you try to help him out because of our family and his family. And that’s nice. I understand. But watch yourself. Don’t spoil anything. Honorable men go with honorable men.” However, Charlie chooses to help Johnny rather than respect his family’s wishes. If he were a part of the Corleone family, all contact with Johnny would have been cut off immediately. But for Charlie, his sense of personal duty towards Johnny overshadows what his uncle wishes. Perhaps familial loyalty is what is needed to survive such a lifestyle.
By the end of Mean Streets, we are still left with the question of what it takes to survive in Little Italy. It seems that whether you try to be a good person, like Charlie, or not, like Johnny, does not make a difference, as they both meet a violent fate. Neither Charlie nor Johnny knows how to make it in this environment. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, Charlie and Johnny “understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it.” Bringing the film to this conclusion makes viewers feel hopeless and lost because despite how hard Charlie tried, he still was not successful in the end. The film has come full circle, and like he said at the beginning, Charlie has indeed paid for his sins “on the street.”
-Jane Vaughan, 2017