Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) is a religiously obsessed young man, torn between a Catholic sense of responsibility and the seductive clinch of the Mafia – he is a collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), a small-time Don.
He is nominally part of a foursome that includes Tony (David Proval), the successful owner of the group’s bar and hang-out, content to milk the system and live off its spoils; Michael (Richard Romanus), an aspiring organisation man whose ambition exceeds his finesse and is so lost in the Mafia code that in some sense he is even crazier than Charlie’s cousin, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a near-psychopath who might have been disowned by Michael and Tony if he weren’t Giovanni’s godson.
Johnny Boy’s introduction – a slow-motion shot of De Niro accompanied by the Rolling Stones‘ Jumping Jack Flash – is a brilliant example of cinematic shorthand. If ever there was a character “born in a crossfire hurricane”, it’s Johnny Boy.
Charlie loves Johnny Boy like a brother, appoints himself his protector, and sticks with him after he is abandoned by everyone else (and at the cost of his own safety), all in the misguided belief that, in his self-righteousness, he can save the kid from the consequences of flaunting the code.
Ultimately, Charlie – who is essentially director Martin Scorsese’s semiautobiographical stand-in (the director actually uses his own voice for the character’s narration) – is the author of his own downfall. Genuine gangster aspirants are not hamstrung by compassion.
With a budget in the neighbourhood of $600,000, Mean Streets (originally titled Season Of The Witch) is thrilling in every aspect. The scenes are concise and coherent, the dialogue crisp and sharp. The acting is exceptional, with De Niro at his most explosive.
The role won De Niro the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award.
The Lower East Side New York setting was well-known to De Niro. When he auditioned for Martin Scorsese, he was a Brooklyn hood, wearing the trademark tight hat of the East side’s petty gangsters.
It is a compelling and sharply detailed story, and Scorsese captures the atmosphere of the area (although most of the movie – the interiors – were shot in Los Angeles) and expertly brings out the sense of competitiveness and family life of the inhabitants.
Before going to LA, Scorcese shot for six days and nights in New York (during the San Gennaro Festival): the exteriors and some of the key interiors – the staircases in the tenements of Little Italy, the cemetery at Old St Patrick’s Cathedral – that could not be replicated in LA.
David Carradine has a funny cameo as a drunken murder victim.
Robert De Niro