The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mean Streets

Even the most talented directors have to start somewhere, typically from the bottom and climb their way up. Yeah, even Martin Scorsese. After making his big screen directorial debut with 1970s Big Bertha, Scorsese followed up the effort with 1973's Mean Streets, a film typically identified as a near-classic, especially considering how influential it was in the years to come.

It's New York City in the 1970s, and it is a less than pleasant place. Among all the craziness is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young man in his 20s working for his uncle who has some Mafia ties. Charlie typically works as a collection agent (of sorts), picking up any tributes owed his uncle. He has a good niche, a good life carved out for himself, but Charlie wants more. He wants to start a business of his own -- preferably a restaurant -- and marry his girlfriend (sort of), Teresa (Amy Robinson). A couple things are holding him back though. One, Teresa has epilepsy, and everyone associated with Charlie looks down on the girl. Two, his longtime friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), is always in trouble, usually related to his lack of success paying off debts. If Charlie ever wants to amount to something, he's going to have to figure out both issues.

From the word 'Go' here, it's obvious that Scorsese is a very talented director behind the camera. All those little touches we're used to now in 2012 with a very established Scorsese are already on display in this 1973 mobster flick. He uses the camera to give his film a style, following the action around with some impressive tracking shots. The camera isn't stationary, always on the go. Maybe Scorsese's most recognizable touch though is his soundtracks, especially using songs from The Rolling Stones. Here, he uses Jumpin' Jack Flash in De Niro's character's entrance. Watch it HERE. It's the epitome of cool. Some 30 years later, it may seem cliched, but Scorsese set the mold here. Just like that ever-moving camera, the soundtrack ends up being a key ingredient to the movie's success. Check out the soundtrack listing HERE.

With style to burn, it's easy to forget the interesting story that 'Streets' presents. Identifying as a story isn't exactly an accurate description as long as we're talking about it. If anything, I would say it's a series of vignettes held together by a handful of characters. The focus in the story is on Charlie, but it's a little trip through his life, his world, and his problems. There are no huge set pieces over even huge scenes. The bouncy, jumping story makes a 112-minute long movie a tad long in portions, but for the most part it works. Working off a script written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, it has an easiness with its characters and surroundings. It might not always seem like it, but 'Streets' knows where it's going. If I can say anything, it's this. Stick with it. 

One of my favorite things about Scorsese's films are his ability to introduce and present characters that are far from likable, but they just the same end up being very likable, even sympathetic. This was Keitel's first major, starring role, and he's a scene-stealer. It's a subtle job he does too. You don't even realize how good he is because everyone else has showier, flashier parts, but this is Keitel's movie. As for De Niro, it's odd to see him in a goofy, almost dumbed-down role as Johnny Boy just because his parts in The Godfather 2 and Taxi Driver are the complete polar opposite. I loved Keitel and De Niro's chemistry, loved their interactions, everything about their friendship. Their group of quasi-friends include Tony (David Proval), a tough guy and restaurant owner, and (Richard Romanus), a bookie who lent Johnny Boy some serious money. Cesare Danova plays Giovanni, Charlie's Mafia-connected uncle who seemingly has a pull on everyone.

If there is any complaint I have about this movie, it is the ending. It's apparent as we get to know Keitel's Charlie -- and more importantly how stupid Johnny Boy is -- that things are not headed in a positive direction unless something drastic changes. So here we are with one of my favorite film elements; that impending sense of doom hanging over characters. 'Streets' builds and builds on that premise and even presents an ending that could (and probably should) have worked. I don't need everything spelled out for me, but a little more closure would have been good here. A little too open-ended for me. But overall, it's a minor complaint in an otherwise very good movie. Scorsese's talent is evident if a little rough at this early point in his career. Seriously though, it's Scorsese, De Niro and Keitel. That's a difficult trio to beat.

Mean Streets (1973): ***/****

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