The 50 Greatest Dramas: #44: Mean Streets (1973)

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The breakthrough movie for Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese, a classic tale of small time hoods, family, violence and the shadow of religion in New York’s Little Italy

As far as making an entrance goes, it takes some beating. Johnny Boy (De Niro) saunters into the bar in slow motion, a girl on each arm, as The Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ kicks in on the jukebox.

So marks the official arrival of one of US cinema’s greatest actors, and possibly its greatest director too in the form of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s previous features were the prototype New York Italian American tale Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1968) and the Roger Corman produced Boxcar Bertha (1972). With Mean Streets his directorial personality really comes to the fore.

The story of tested loyalties and destructive Catholic guilt among a group of small-time hoodlums in Little Italy with an unforgettable 60s pop soundtrack, it is a simple blueprint that would be copied by lesser directors who could never dream of bettering it.

Keitel, as Charlie, a tortured soul trying to keep it all together, and an electric, jittery, possessed and demented De Niro put in unsurpassable and believably human performances that kick-started their careers. To paraphrase Charlie, Scorsese didn’t make up for his sins in church. He did it at the movies.

 

Verdict
A tight, intense masterpiece from Scorsese, writing collaborator Mardik Martin and the iconic stars.

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