By Ethan Daws, Third Year, English
October marked 50 years since the release of Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese’s third feature film that follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy Civello (Robert DeNiro) through their small-time mafia work on the streets of Little Italy. Tension builds throughout the film as Johnny Boy repeatedly fails to pay his debts, whilst Charlie continues a secret relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa.
Mean Streets is particularly concerned with the guilt that comes with working in organised crime. One of the film’s most famous shots sees Charlie holding his hand over an open flame, a visual nod towards the fires that may await him in hell despite his attempts to repent in the church. Charlie’s religious guilt is worsened by his dissatisfaction with the penance he is offered in confession, preferring a more personal relationship with God to the “Ten ‘Hail Marys’ and 10 ‘Our Fathers’” that he is told to say in church. Scorsese opens the film with his own voice, delivering the line, 'You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home': this voice-over startles Charlie awake and introduces his moral dilemma.
This extreme self-consciousness in Charlie’s first appearance is contrasted by the introduction of Johnny Boy, who runs away as he waits for an explosive he has placed in a mailbox to blow up. This is an incredibly fitting opening for Johnny Boy, who is himself a ticking time bomb; the audience spends most of the film waiting for his actions to blow up in both his and Charlie’s faces.
De Niro’s portrayal of Johnny Boy is his first performance in a Scorsese film, and 50 years on the two continue to work together, with this month’s release of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) being the tenth feature film collaboration between the two. Their potential to eventually become arguably the greatest-ever director-actor relationship is evident in Mean Streets, as the frenetic and enigmatic Johnny Boy takes the film beyond the streets of Little Italy and challenges the very nature of friendship.
Johnny Boy has a compulsive need to avoid all his responsibilities, combined with a feeling of helplessness and inferiority that causes him to lash out, whilst Charlie feels obliged to continue helping him, naively maintaining hope that he can save Johnny Boy from the inevitable consequences of his actions. This dynamic comes to a head on the night of Johnny’s final chance to pay his debts, meeting Charlie hours late without any money and discovering his affair with Theresa: he lashes out at them and runs off, with Charlie catching up to him and berating him, leaving a powerless Johnny Boy on the verge of tears. Charlie then recognises his vulnerability, caring for him in an almost parental manner; after de-escalating the situation and calming down Johnny Boy, he asks, 'Did I hurt you?' and tenderly strokes his head.
This moment also encapsulates the film’s grittiness. Unlike The Godfather (1972), the most notable mafia film of the era, Mean Streets is not concerned with the heroism or valour of the mafia, or the glamour and the money that comes with it; instead we see the two central characters struggle to club together $30 between them to pay part of their debt. Scorsese depicts the real stories of Little Italy, the neighbourhood where he grew up. Its avoidance of any grandiosity is part of the reason that the film continues to have such great influence and appeal to a modern audience 50 years on.
Featured Image: IMDb