Mean Streets (1973) – Film Review
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval
By Sarah Morgan
In 2023, Martin Scorsese released Killers of the Flower Moon, his 26th full-length feature film as director. It’s been a major hit with critics and viewers alike, another in a long line of successes for the 81-year-old.
He’s so much a part of the cinematic furniture these days that it’s hard to imagine a world without Scorsese’s work in it. But even the greatest film-makers had to start somewhere. For the native New Yorker, that came with 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door, which starred Harvey Keitel.
After making Boxcar Bertha for low-budget legend Roger Corman, Scorsese reteamed with Keitel on a far more personal project, 1973’s Mean Streets. It turned out to be a breakthrough movie for them both, and led to more collaborations between them. It was also Scorsese’s first project involving an actor with whom he would become synonymous – Robert De Niro.
Keitel plays Charlie, an intelligent young man from Little Italy who seems far too nice and polite to be working for his Uncle Giovanni, a member of the local mafioso. Charlie has a misplaced loyalty to De Niro’s Johnny Boy, a former childhood friend who seems like an overgrown eight-year-old. The problem is, his antics would once have been written off as youthful hijinks, but now, as an adult, are becoming increasingly dangerous – to both himself and those around him.
Uncle Giovanni thinks Charlie has potential, but to achieve it, must cut Johnny Boy loose, an idea his nephew won’t consider. He also doesn’t think he should hang around with Johnny’s cousin Teresa because her epilepsy, in Giovanni’s mind at least, means she isn’t marriage material; what he doesn’t know is that Charlie is in love with her.
The story takes place over a series of mostly nights, building up to a violent climax in which Charlie and Teresa are caught up in a loan shark’s efforts to teach Johnny a very stern lesson indeed.
Made on a tight budget with a then non-name cast, Mean Streets is almost documentary-style in its depiction of life among young working-class people in a small corner of the Big Apple. While De Niro catches the eye with a ‘showy’ role, it’s Keitel who really delivers something special. His is a low-key performance, playing a man who is eager to please, but perhaps ends up making nobody happy, least of all himself.
It’s hard to believe that this is only Scorsese’s third film too, he directs it with such assuredness. But maybe his confidence is down to the fact that he knew people like Charlie and Johnny Boy, having grown up on the same ‘mean streets’ (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Mardik Martin, inspired by Scorsese’s own experiences). His trademark use of popular music also features, including a track by his beloved Rolling Stones.
The film recently marked its 50th anniversary, but looks sharp and is as relevant as ever – there will no doubt still be characters like Charlie and Johnny Boy roaming Little Italy and landing themselves in trouble. It was certainly a successful calling card for all involved, and it stands up perfectly well alongside Scorsese’s later work. In fact, I prefer it to his more modern, bigger-budget productions such as Gangs of New York, The Departed and Shutter Island.
The release is packed with wonderful special features too, including a revealing interview with producer Jonathan T Taplin and various audio commentaries.
- Dual format edition including both UHD and Blu-ray with main feature and bonus features on both discs
- New 4K restoration supervised and approved by director Martin Scorsese and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker
- UHD presented in Dolby Vision HDR
- Restored original mono audio
- New audio commentary by Demetrios Matheou (author of BFI Classics Mean Streets) and David Thompson (Co-Editor of Scorsese on Scorsese)
- Scene specific audio commentary with Martin Scorsese and actor Amy Robinson
- Keep Moving Forward: a new interview with producer Jonathan T Taplin
- Saints and Sinners: Dr Catherine Wheatley on Mean Streets
- 2011 Film at Lincoln Center screening introduction, interview and Q&A with Martin Scorsese
- Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood feature-length documentary
- Archive featurette: Back on the Block
- Archive featurette: Home Movies
- Rigid slipcase with original artwork
- 178-page book with new essays by Mark Asch, Daniel Bird, Charles Bramesco, Lillian Crawford, Elena Lazic, Manuela Lazić, Christina Newland and Extract from Scorsese on Scorsese
- 8 collectors' art cards