Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the protagonist of Mean Streets, has a habit of holding his hand over a flame, testing himself to see how long he can bear the pain. It's an act of penance, but more than that, it's a confrontational gesture. Charlie is constantly daring himself to look the fact of his own moral fallability and the seemingly predetermined circumstances of his life - what he calls "the pain of hell" - square in the eye. It's a problem we all have to deal with: we don't know why we're here, where we're going, or if we're doing alright, and we all live with it in our own ways. Some of us go to the movies. And the cathartic joy of Mean Streets comes from Martin Scorsese's uncompromising declaration that movies do in fact have meaning. One of the first shots disappears into the blinding light of a film projector; it's a moment that exclaims, boldly and brilliantly, "LIFE IS A MOVIE!"
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
Charlie is a small-time hood who works for his uncle in Little Italy. Too sensitive to succeed at being a gangster but stuck in a state of inertia that prevents him from leaving the neighborhood, Charlie takes a stab at redemption by trying to help out Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a smirking rebel without a clue who is first seeing blowing up a mailbox for no apparent reason. Charlie is also sleeping with Theresa (Amy Robinson), a fact he keeps secret because she's Johnny Boy's cousin and because his uncle disapproves of her (Theresa is an epileptic, and there is little patience in this world for the sick). Charlie's failed attempts to get Johnny Boy to pay his debts to his friend Michael (Robert Romanus) and his inability to have a real relationship with Theresa drive Mean Streets to an inevitable, violent conclusion. Scorsese documents the ways that things can go wrong - our tendency towards personal entropy - with unflinching precision. Charlie recounts a dream to Theresa where "We're just about to make love and I come. The only thing is, I come blood." In the world that Charlie (and Scorsese) is born into, their higher aspirations - towards love, towards faith, towards transcendence - are constantly undercut by the reality of their hypermasculine masculine way of life. And for Scorsese, who famously considered becoming a priest before finding his real calling, the question becomes: where is God in this mess?
Ah, but the genius of Scorsese is that he would never put things in such didactic terms. He lets the camera ask such questions - there has never been any other director with such a seemingly effortless command of manipulating the frame to imply unspoken layers of meaning that even his characters remain blissfully unaware of. The camera is the subtext with Scorsese; witness the handheld work in Mean Streets, which in a full-blown brawl, a lighter moment as Charlie and Johnny Boy joust with trash can lids, or a bracingly intimate post-coital exchange invests the film with both vitality and a sense of impending doom. When Johnny Boy struts across a bar in glorious slow motion, a girl in each arm, to the mesmeric opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the image is seducing us with everything that is at once magnetic and pathetic about this cocky kid. Scorsese elevates the people from his neighborhood to an almost mythic status, and why not? Don't most of us try to find the grander narrative - the big picture - in our stories every day?
This grandiose approach is saved from becoming totally overblown by Scorsese's meticulous attention to detail. The famous "Joey Scallops/Joey Clams" exchange between Keitel and De Niro rings true because it resembles the awkward back-and-forths we all struggle through as we attempt to understand each other. Keitel is fantastic here, allowing Charlie's existential doubt to remain internalized, revealing itself in subtle ways (note Charlie's tendency to retreat to the movies). And De Niro has simply never been more fun - Johnny Boy's perpetual "fuck you" smirk renders a defiantly static character totally compelling (he's an idiot, but you can't take your eyes off of him). The leads are supported by the underused Robinson, as well as Romanus and David Proval as Charlie's friends. The cast is completely believable; the film feels as authentic and unaffected as the Super8 home movies that play under the opening credits.
For Scorsese, who made Mean Streets after the Roger Corman-produced cheapie Boxcar Bertha, the film represents a decisive step into the world of telling personal stories, and whether it's another crime film, a departure like The Age of Innocence, or a potboiler like Cape Fear (Scorsese, thank God, has no pretentions about genre filmmaking), his oeuvre is unique in that for more than thirty years, it features not one film that could have been directed by anyone else. And Mean Streets, which carries in its DNA both a European aesthetic and the punch-in-the-gut impact of The Public Enemy, can be read as a cinematic declaration of independence. From this point on in Scorsese's career, life and the movies would become inseperable, and there would be no turning back.