Any time you have a period piece there will always be a discussion on how accurate the depiction is, the recent release Lincoln is a case in point. For a movie set in a time before film, audio and video recording this is a question that will never be answered with certainty. On the other hand, if you a made a movie today about the 1970’s you would at least have a wealth of material from the time to draw on. But too me the best efforts can never match the way some movies accurately capture the look and feel of the times they a made in. There is a lot to say about Martin Scorcese’s first real foray into the world of New York’s streets and underworld, but the thing the thing that stood out for me was how gritty early Seventies it looked. Now I’m not from New York and I only vaguely remember the time, but there is something in all the litter, cheap plastic, poorly-built gas guzzlers, and obnoxious paneling that can never be reproduced with complete accuracy, even in Scorcese’s own later flicks like Goodfellas or Casino. Mean Streets will make you feel like you have been transported not only into the Italian-American community, but smack dab into the urban decay of Northeastern American cities in that decade (even though much was shot in Los Angeles). You can almost smell the garbage and see the smog.
The story itself is much simpler and covers a much smaller area and time than his later gangster movies. A very young looking Harvey Keitel and gangly Robert DeNiro (who looks barely old enough to be out of high school) are associated with the lowest level of organized crime in Little Italy. DeNiro is not the menacing figure he would play later in his career, his character Johnny Boy is a bit of a loose cannon but is more immature than psychotic. Keitel’s Charlie is set to move up in his Uncle’s mafia crew, but is troubled by the conflict between the life he leads and his faith. None of the characters leave the confines of New York’s Little Italy nor show much inclination to do so and running to Brooklyn at the end is like traveling to an unknown, foreign land. For a Scorcese movie the violence is remarkably subdued. Some realistic fisticuffs go down, there is a chaotic hit that is as much a mystery to the characters as it to the viewer and finally an act of violence pivotal to the plot (no spoilers). There is a pretty funny scene where some of the low-level mob types rip off a couple of uptown teenagers looking to buy fireworks, using the money to go to the movies.
Robert Ebert said “If Francis Ford Coppola's ``The Godfather'' fixed an image of the Mafia as a shadow government, Scorsese's ``Mean Streets'' inspired the other main line in modern gangster movies, the film of everyday reality. ``The Godfather'' was about careers. ``Mean Streets'' was about jobs. In it you can find the origins of all those other films about the criminal working class…”
Definitely worth viewing. Look for cameos by Scorcese’s mother and himself.