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Mean Streets (1973)

You dont make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets...

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 110 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

‘Mean Streets’ laid much of the groundwork for what we now recognise as the modern-day Italian-American gangster flick. Where the previous year’s ‘The Godfather’ took us right to the top of the Mafia food-chain, ‘Mean Streets’ is arguably just as important in its portrayal of the other end of Little Italy’s crime spectrum – the wee guys at the bottom, desperately trying to scrape a living through measly protection rackets and small-time loan-sharking. It’s also tough to imagine how Martin Scorsese could have gone on to make as absorbing a piece of work as ‘Goodfellas’, had he not made this one almost twenty years previously. But in film, as in music, the most influential work isn’t always the best. My point? Simply that ‘Mean Streets’ is, frankly, a bit boring.

It stars Harvey Keitel as Charlie Cappa. He’s a mobster, but not a very good one. So, understandably, he’s quite partial to the idea of getting out of the whole crime thing and setting up business for himself as a restaurateur. The trouble is, he feels an inexplicable sense of responsibility for his girlfriend’s nutty cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny keeps getting himself into soapy bubble, and Charlie keeps wading in to help him out. Unfortunately though, it’s pretty difficult “wading in” anywhere without ending up fairly deeply-involved yourself.

Notable for being Scorsese’s first time directing De Niro (it’s happened on another EIGHT occasions since then), the film’s one priority appears to be showing us the nitty-gritty at its very nitty-grittiest. These fellahs are wiseguys alright, but there’s nothing charming about any of them. They do what they do because it’s in their families and they don’t have much other alternative – certainly not because it’s glamorous (in fact, you’ll struggle to find a less glorified depiction of hoodlum life).

Today’s cinema-goer taking the opportunity to catch this one as it’s re-released onto the big screen may well find the film not to be what they’d expect. The story is at times tedious, the characters inaccessible, and much of Scorsese’s directorial approach makes it difficult to follow. At times it feels as if he’s shot it with so much emphasis on conveying gritty realism, that he’s forgotten to leave a little room for storytelling. Here, he was a director still cutting his teeth, and in ‘Mean Streets’ it very much shows.

It's Got: One of the least-convincing bar-room brawls you’ll ever see.

It Needs: To be seen, if only as an interesting comparison with what Scorsese went on to achieve with his film-making.


This early Scorsese tale of crooks and mooks gets its share of plaudits, but lacks the accomplishment of his later work.