The Innocence of Scorsese’s Style in Mean Streets

Even though Martin Scorsese had two prior films before Mean Streets, Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Boxcar Bertha, the auteur didn’t truly come into his own until his third film, which set the tone for his entire career. Depicting a gritty look at New York City as only the 70s could exhibit, Mean Streets follows the rise of a young mafia member named Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and the destructive behavior of his best friend, Johnny (Robert DeNiro).

Promotional poster for Mean Streets
Promotional poster for Mean Streets
Charlie’s promising future as a gangster of New York is marred by only two things: How much he cares about covering for Johnny and his various debts and the affair he’s having with Johnny’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson). Ironically, Charlie works as a debt collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), which makes matters more complicated when having to deal with Johnny’s ever-increasing amount of money owed to several loan sharks. Part of his sympathy for Johnny stems from the guilt he feels over sleeping with Teresa, who happens to have an epileptic condition.
Charlie (Keitel) counsels Johnny (DeNiro)
Charlie (Keitel) counsels Johnny (DeNiro)
Scorsese, who grew up in Little Italy and saw many a similar story go down, exhibits an innocent honesty that is unique to a debut. Mentored by John Cassavetes, Scorsese was given the advice to make a film based on his own personal experience. The result: a character foil between Charlie and Johnny so rich and pronounced, Scorsese would never capture another quite so well. Charlie’s vacillation between loyalty to the Church and loyalty to the Mafia tear him apart inside, and he sees Johnny as the sole way for him to act as Christ would.
Let us pray.
Let us pray.
In spite of the opportunity to rise to an eventual mafia don, Charlie can only see the merit in sacrificing himself on Johnny’s behalf. It is this element that makes Mean Streets one of the most innocent and pure films in Scorsese’s canon.

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