Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro are the brilliant young stars of "Mean Streets," and Scorsese artfully used their talents to tell a story set in the milieu in which he grew up: the Italian-American community in Manhattan's Lower East Side. But I think what really sets "Mean Streets" apart is the way Scorsese blends influences from American and European cinema to create a style uniquely his own. What I'm thinking of here is that the feel of the movie is rather like an American film noir and the acting style is similar to "On the Waterfront" (1954), yet the narrative and character arc are subtle like those in Italian and French films circa 1960.
The central character in "Mean Streets" is Charlie (Keitel), a twenty-something guy who lives with his mom in her apartment. But Charlie's career prospects seem promising because his uncle is a Mafia figure who is preparing to set him up in the restaurant business.
However, Charlie's life centers around a small group of neighborhood pals that includes the loose cannon Johnny Boy (De Niro). When Johnny Boy gets himself in big trouble, Charlie sets out to rescue him and ends up paying a price.
It's left up to the viewer to interpret the movie, but I see Charlie as a deeply spiritual man who believes he's a sinner and seeks atonement. When one of the characters refers to Charlie as "Saint Charles," he's only half-joking. I think the key to Charlie's character is given in the films first two lines, spoken in voice-over: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets."
The main relationship in "Mean Streets" is between Charlie and Johnny Boy, but I also find the secondary relationship between Charlie and his girlfriend (Amy Robinson) revealing. He grows angry when she suggests the two of them take an apartment uptown because what's important to him are the neighborhood and the guys in it. When she suffers an epileptic seizure, he doesnt even wait for her to recover before rushing off to resume his ongoing project of looking after Johnny Boy.
One of the most unforgettable things for me about Charlie's tale is that it's set against the backdrop of the Feast of San Gennaro, an elaborate annual street festival that goes on for several days. That gives Scorsese lots of chances to intercut fascinating exterior shots with the movie's many interior scenes. I think it's also interesting the way the inside of the bar where Charlie and his pals hang out is always shown bathed in red to underscore the film's theme of sin and atonement. In fact, I think the movie's cinematography and editing are terrific in general. Also, Scorsese enhances mood with well-chosen soundtrack music, including "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes, "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes, and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by The Rolling Stones.
The Special Edition DVD provides an audio track that has commentary on selected scenes by Martin Scorsese and Amy Robinson. The total length of all commentary is about 31 minutes shorter than the film, and scenes for which there is no commentary are automatically skipped over.
I found Scorsese's remarks well worthwhile, and I would like to have heard more from him. He talks about how his name is derived from the word meaning "Scotsman" and also about his early filmmaking, including directing the exploitation movie "Boxcar Bertha" for Roger Corman. He recalls that only seven or eight days were spent in New York shooting "Mean Streets," with about 20 or 21 days spent in Los Angeles.
Robinson, who was 24 and doing her first film when she played Charlie's girlfriend, comments on only a few scenes, but I think she brings a different perspective that is worth hearing. Her list of credits as an actress is a short one, but shes been involved in a number of movies as a producer.
The only other bonus material on the DVD of any consequence is the vintage featurette "Back on the Block." Made shortly after Mean Streets, this is a seven-minute film where Scorsese, then about 31, returns to Little Italy and walks around accompanied by two guys he grew up with there. I suppose this short was intended to convince the viewer that "Mean Streets" accurately captures the look and feel of Scorsese's old neighborhood.
On the next page Ive listed all the special features of the Mean Streets Special Edition DVD.