• S.K. Chishty

Review: 'Meanstreets' plays like a Scorcese manifesto

Updated: Aug 10, 2020





Though it was his teaming up with Thelma Schoonmaker that helped him hone his style to perfection, Martin Scorcese’s debut feature plays out like a manifesto of all the things his cinema will come to be associated with:


From depicting loyalties among thieves, unpleasant lives bursting with passion and violence to depicting corrupt nexus between politics, police, and gangsters and to expressing religious and spiritual concerns - this film has it all.

I mentioned the word gangster above, but this is a film mainly about small-time crooks and hoodlums running after slim pickings and spending all of their money on booze and girls (mostly just booze). They get drunk, have a brawl in the pub, and then get drunk again.

The central figure of the film Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a Catholic man grappling with his spirituality and his friends. Especially, the loose cannon Jonny Boy (Robert De Niro). In the first scene he visits the church, the off-screen narration is almost like Scorcese whispering into your ears. Scorcese said that he felt the need to have Charlie’s inner voice different from his speaking voice. Tellingly, Charlie’s inner voice is Scorcese’s own. It underlines the same concerns that he would later elaborate upon in all his films, especially The Last Temptation Of Christ and the recent The Silence. Desperation to do the right thing but not knowing how to. It is not a crisis of faith but a crisis of how to express that faith while staying honest to the life you are leading.

Charlie’s life is the facsimile of his spiritual concerns. He works for his uncle and is torn by loyalty and deference towards him and his sense of responsibility and protection towards the volatile Jonny Boy, whose life is just a beer bottle away from careening out of control. Jonny owes half of the neighborhood money and has no intention to pay. Charlie does what he can, rising like a Christ-like father figure ready to sacrifice his everything but the tragedy here is that he is a flawed character himself. His hypocrisy of trying to 'do the right thing' and still dealing in shady deals is voiced by Jonny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) with whom he is having a hidden affair while also

having his eyes on others. It is an energetic, passionate, stylish, confident, and convincing film whose rough edges actually enhance the world it is depicting. It is also seminal because it sets the template for gangster/crime films which is followed till today. Impressed by the inventiveness and energy of the French Wave, Scorcese utilizes fragmented editing (sometimes it’s planned, sometimes, it looks like he had no option), and vignette-like narration to deepen the characters. His shot of a drunk Charlie with a camera strapped onto his chest is a precursor to the kind of delirious effect that selfie sticks are used to achieve today. His use of music is not just to evoke the era but also to satirically comment on these lives.

Both Keitel and De Niro play off each other really well lending urgency and added layer of realism and spontaneity to their roles. Looking at the posters today, most critic blurbs are all about De Niro, who indeed makes the role his own. But I feel that the two actors have very different characters to portray and Keitel’s depiction is appropriately sober and controlled. Mean Streets made several important careers on and off-screen and is a breakthrough foray into the seamy underbelly of America.

Scorcese will deviate often from crime dramas but this world will always be an obsession which he will continue to revisit with great success in his magnificent career.


Mean Streets made several important careers on and off-screen and is a breakthrough foray into the seamy underbelly of America.

Impressed by the inventiveness and energy of the French Wave, Scorcese utilizes fragmented editing to deepen the characters. The style becomes a mirror of the character's broken lives.


His shot of a drunk Charlie with a camera strapped onto his chest is a precursor to the kind of delirious effect that selfie sticks are used to achieve today. His use of music is not just to evoke the era but also to satirically comment on these lives.

Both Keitel and De Niro play off each other really well lending urgency and added layer of realism and spontaneity to their roles. Looking at the posters today, most critic blurbs are all about De Niro, who indeed makes the role his own. But I feel that the two actors have very different characters to portray and Keitel’s depiction is appropriately sober and controlled.

Scorcese will deviate often from crime dramas but this world will always be an obsession which he will continue to revisit with great success in his magnificent career.



#FilmReview #Film

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