Mean Streets

Released:  1973

Cast:  Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova

SUMMARY:  Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is an Italian-American living in New York, who works for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova).  Giovanni is the local caporegime of the Mafia, and Charlie primarily collects debts and “protection” payments.  Charlie is a devout Catholic, but has trouble believing that simply saying “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” will atone for his sins.  Charlie himself is well-respected in the area, but his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is not.  Johnny Boy spends most of his time gambling, and has had to borrow large amounts of money from various people.  He has failed to repay most of this money, and when the loan sharks can’t find Johnny Boy, they go to Charlie.  Charlie tries routinely to help Johnny Boy, talking down the loan sharks — particularly Michael (Richard Romanus) — and setting up opportunities for Johnny to redeem himself.  Charlie is further connected to Johnny through Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), with whom he has a romantic relationship.  Giovanni does not approve of either of these associations:  he believes that Johnny Boy is no good, and that Teresa is “sick in the head” (she has epilepsy).

Though Charlie is running himself ragged trying to help Johnny Boy, his efforts are in vain.  When the loan sharks demand meetings to receive their money, Johnny Boy doesn’t appear.  It is Charlie that tracks him down and gives him enough money to appease the sharks.  As all of this is happening, he is trying to keep his associations with both Johnny and Teresa secret, so that word does not get back to his uncle.  On at least one occasion, Charlie has to bail Johnny out of a fistfight.  After many aborted meetings and payment failures from Johnny, Michael has finally had enough.  He demands a meeting with Johnny, and alerts Charlie as well.  The two men play to go together, but Johnny never shows up.  Charlie goes out on the street in search of him, and eventually drags him to the meeting — an hour late.  Michael is irate that he has been kept waiting, and his temper boils over when a semi-drunk Johnny insults him.  Michael tries to attack, but Johnny draws his gun; eventually, Michael and his men leave.  Charlie decides that he and Johnny should get out of town for a while, and Teresa decides to come along.  The three head out of town without conflict, but eventually a car pulls up alongside them.  Michael is driving, and a gunman is in the backseat.  This man opens fire on Charlie’s car, hitting Johnny in the neck and Charlie in the hand.  With his hand injured, Charlie is unable to maintain control, and crashes the car; after watching this, Michael and the gunman flee the scene.  Johnny gets out of the car and stumbles away holding his neck; Charlie makes it out of the car but collapses, and Teresa is pulled out by paramedics.  Johnny Boy flees, but Charlie and Teresa are put into the waiting ambulance.

MY TAKE:  This is a really early Scorsese film, and it’s a little less violent than his later ones.  It’s also a little slower in terms of plot, especially in the middle.  I don’t know how Johnny Boy thought he was going to get away without paying the loan sharks — everybody in the world knows that you don’t want to cross loan sharks, especially ones that are mob-affiliated.  I also don’t know how he managed to get shot in the neck, get a car wreck, and walk away, but whatever.  I did think Charlie’s inner struggle was interesting — he’s a pretty devout Catholic, but works for the mob.  He may only be a collector, but the mob doesn’t exactly follow all the church’s rules.  Maybe this is the reason Charlie doesn’t seem to have any aspiration to move up in the mob.  He makes a really interesting figure, because aside from the religion thing, he is way more sympathetic to others than you expect.  He actually tries to help people, particularly Johnny Boy, long after many would have cut him loose.  This gets him into trouble with Michael and his uncle, but it’s an admirable trait.  It’s a decent movie, but Scorsese’s later ones were better.

Fun fact:  The gunman in the car that shoots Johnny Boy and Charlie is played by Scorsese himself.  When you’re used to seeing him like he is now, with short white hair, it’s tough to recognize him.

RATING:  Okay.

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