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Film / Mean Streets

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"It's all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don't fuck around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart... your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know... the worst of the two is the spiritual."
Charlie Cappa

Mean Streets is a 1973 film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Harvey Keitel as Charlie, a morally and spiritually conflicted young mobster, and Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, his immature and irresponsible best friend. Charlie has his hands full keeping the reckless Johnny Boy on the straight and narrow. At the same time, Charlie is having an affair with Johnny's cousin, Teresa, but keeping it secret because Teresa is an epileptic and the community shuns her for this.

The film was Scorsese's Breakthrough Hit, establishing him as a major talent, and proved to be DeNiro's Star-Making Role. It was seen as the counterpart to The Godfather as it took a gritty, down-to-earth approach to the Italian American mob, showing them without the Affably Evil stylizations of Coppola's film. Much of what came to be Scorsese's Signature Style is visible in this film, including stylized camera movements, sudden violence, troubling religious iconography and use of popular music as scores.

It was also the first of Scorsese's films to deal with the mob, a subject he returned to with GoodFellas and Casino, later noting that all three films represent an informal trilogy of the Italian American mob from low-level hoodlums to power brokers.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Charlie is at least partly one for Martin Scorsese. His last name is even Scorsese's mother's maiden name (Cappa).
  • Bait-and-Switch: The ending momentarily implies that Johnny and Teresa are dying by showing a closeup of Teresa's bloody and feebly twitching hand and head, and Johnny staggering toward a white light while clutching his neck wound. Then it turns out Johnny is only walking toward headlights, and once paramedics help Teresa out of the car, she isn't bleeding too badly and can stand with a little help.
  • Bar Brawl: One breaks out when Charlie goes to collect a payment from a pool hall owner, the pool hall owner is reluctant to pay, and a brawl breaks out.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: New York looks rotten, filthy, awful. About thirty seconds in there's a shot of a guy shooting up in a bar bathroom.
  • Binge Montage: The scene where there's a Face Cam in front of a very tipsy Charlie at a party is a textbook example.
  • Blowing Smoke Rings: At the party for the returning soldier, Michael sits and calmly blows smoke rings while the others get louder and drunker, showing how he's somewhat removed from their circle.
  • Bullying a Dragon: After Charlie has gone out of his way to rectify Johnny Boy's debt situation with a neighborhood mobster, Johnny Boy not only refuses to pay but also insults the mobster to his face and threatens him with a gun. Not a wise move.
  • Country Matters: While Charlie is in bed with Teresa early in the movie, he calls her a cunt. She does not take it well.
  • Creator Cameo: Martin Scorsese plays hood Jimmy Shorts, the one who takes the shots at Johnny Boy at the end. He's also the voice of the priest when Charlie goes to pray in church at the start.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Played With. The guys certainly think they have a good life, but as the film goes on we see they're not in a great position. The older Mafia leaders (like Charlie's uncle Giovanni) hold all the power and use the mooks like pawns. They really don't have much of a life outside of hanging out in bars and restaurants and getting drunk, and for all the fun they have they also have their associates (like Michael) who see organized crime as Serious Business, with dangerous consequences.
  • Dirty Cop: The cop who breaks up the Bar Brawl then casually accepts "car fare" to Philadelphia—that is, a bribe.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Pushed to the limits of his patience throughout the film, Michael eventually acts on his threats after Johnny not only refuses to cough up the money but threatens Michael with a gun.
  • Door-Closes Ending: Sort of. The very last shot shows some of the windows of the apartment building. The old lady (played by Martin Scorsese's mother) in the far right window lowers her blinds. Smash to Black.
  • Enter Stage Window: Johnny Boy does this to get into Charlie’s apartment, finds Teresa and Charlie embracing, and finds out about their affair.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the opening scenes, Charlie is shown leaving confession in a church, while Johnny Boy is shown blowing up a mailbox For the Evulz.
  • Expy: I Vitelloni is used more as a point of reference than a blueprint for Mean Streets, but you can make a case for Moraldo/Charlie and Fausto/Johnny Boy.
  • Extreme Doormat: Both Charlie and Michael are unusually patient and lenient by mobster standards, but it works against them. Charlie is too attached to Johnny and goes out of his way to help his situation despite the fact that Johnny does nothing to help himself, putting himself in danger by merely associating with a loser like him. Michael is lenient enough to lower Johnny's debt by a full $1000 but he can't intimidate Johnny enough to get him to pay even that.
  • Facecam: Used during Charlie's aforementioned Binge Montage. Arguably the Trope Maker for "Facecam = intoxicated."
  • Fanservice: Even with pasties on, the topless dancers at the bar merit a lot of the camera’s attention. Later on, the bedroom scenes with Teresa show full frontal nudity (though not from Harvey Keitel).
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Johnny Boy=Sanguine (Teresa also counts), Charlie=Phlegmatic, Tony=Choleric, Michael=Melancholic.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Johnny Boy seems to be this. Charlie is the only one he has a close bond with, everyone else regards him as a loose cannon, and it's implied that Charlie's Supervision of him is what's keeping Johnny Boy in their circle.
  • Gangland Drive-By: Michael and Jimmy Shorts spray the car that Johnny is in full of lead at the end of the movie, after Johnny Boy goes way, way, way too far with antagonizing Michael. Apparently Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa all survive, although it's not completely clear.
  • Hidden Depths: Tony the Mook is apparently familiar with William Blake poetry, as evidenced by a throwaway comment about how he wanted to buy a tiger.
  • ISO-Standard Urban Groceries: Does Teresa have a long French bread roll sticking out of the grocery bag she carries home? Is there a quart of milk in there? Yes and yes.
  • Kick the Dog: Johnny Boy coldly abandoning Charlie and Teresa while she has an epileptic seizure due to their fight not caring if she'll make it. And just before that mock hers and Charlie's relationship by asking if she has seizures when she climaxes.
  • Made of Iron: The drunk played by David Carradine, who gets shot three times, turns and grabs his assailant and drags him out of the bathroom, gets shot a fourth time, grabs his assailant again, and appears to be winning the fight by the time they roll out into the street and he collapses. The gang marvels at this, and comparisons to Rasputin are made.
  • Manchild: Johnny Boy. Although, given his penchant for blowing up mailboxes, starting bar brawls, and sticking (unloaded) guns in the faces of mobsters he owes money to, it can be argued he's closer to a Psychopathic Man Child. In either case, he still has the emotional, intellectual, and mental maturity of a young—and rather dim—adolescent.
  • Mission from God: Somewhat disillusioned by the Catholic Church, Charlie seeks his own redemption for his sins by looking after Johnny Boy.
  • The Millstone: Johnny. When they finally get to collect a debt after a pool hall brawl, Johnny re-ignites the brawl gratuitously. On another occasion, even when Charlie's trying to help him, Johnny spends the money Charlie loaned him to pay Michael just out of spite. He then insults Michael, threatens him, behaves like an idiot. In the end Charlie is probably going to get into trouble for disobeying his uncle and helping Johnny.
  • Mooks: One of the earliest known uses of the term thereby making the film a Trope Namer. The whole movie, in fact, is about the day-to-day life of low-level mooks.
    "I still don't know what a 'mook' is."
  • No Ending: Michael, having been pushed way too far by Johnny Boy, stages a drive-by assault as Charlie is driving Johnny to Brooklyn with Teresa tagging along. After Jimmy Shorts pumps bullets into their car, Charlie crashes. Johnny is shot in the neck but apparently not fatally, as he stumbles away from the car. Charlie exits the car, shot in the hand. Teresa is also able to walk away, helped out by the EMTs after suffering a cut on the scalp. There's a quick montage of other characters from the film. Then the film ends.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Middle-Management Mook Giovanni is awful to Teresa because she has epilepsy.
  • Shout-Out: There are many movie references even this early in Scorsese's oeuvre:
    • The film Charlie, Johnny Boy and Teresa go to is Ligeia by Roger Corman (producer and Scorsese's old boss). The film is Scorsese's personal favorite of Corman's Poe films. One of the posters at the theater is for Husbands, directed by John Cassavetes, whose work was obviously an influence on this film, but also a tip-of-the-hat because Cassavetes personally encouraged Scorsese to put more of his life experiences into his films, which led to the creation of Mean Streets.
    • The finale, the montage of Johnny Boy's mooks friends and associates in their own life, intercut with Johnny and Charlie in the aftermath of the attack is structured like the end of I Vitelloni only with the opposite ending, the hero leaves the town in Federico Fellini's film but Scorsese's hero fails.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Johnny Boy.
  • Slice of Life: There isn't much of a plot, although Charlie's efforts to keep Johnny Boy from fucking up form a theme of sorts. It's basically a study of the lives of some mooks over a few days. Very much like the film's inspiration, I Vitelloni.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Johnny Boy (especially after he insults and threatens a mobster he's heavily indebted to).
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Johnny Boy is so much of this to Charlie that even Charlie's Mob superior—his uncle—warns him to stay away. Subverted in the end, it turns out that it's Charlie who's this to Johnny Boy, at least from Scorsese's perspective, who believes that Charlie was using Johnny Boy for his own selfish moral conflict.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Set in the latter part of The '60s, with September 1968 likely being the specific time frame (since that's the month the San Gennaro festival takes place and it's also around the time "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was peaking on the charts).
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Johnny Boy. Charlie manages to get his debt reduced by a thousand dollars and negotiates with Michael to lay off him until they can all negotiate a settlement, but not only does he do everything he can to not pay Michael back, by the time they meet face-to-face, he gives him a meager ten dollars (after spending most of his cash on drinks), then threatens Michael with a gun. All of this earns him a bullet to the neck, his survival unclear.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: "You don't have the guts" — followed by the target fleeing the premises sharpish, only to set up a drive-by in revenge.
  • With Friends Like These...: It's really hard to see why Charlie remains friends with Johnny Boy, not even causing Teresa to have a seizure makes Charlie turn on him or Johnny throwing all his hard effort to make things right with Michael into his face.