Mean Streets, the film that introduced Martin Scorsese as a major American filmmaker to watch, is now available to stream on HBO Max. The 1973 film was not his first movie, but it is the one that established many of the traits that would carry through for most of his work, including brutal, sudden violence, and internal conflicts driven by devout Catholicism. While Harvey Keitel is the star of Mean Streets, Robert De Niro stole the movie with his first role for Scorsese.
Mean Streets stars Keitel as Charlie Cappa, a young Italian-American torn between Catholicism and his work for a powerful Mafia boss. He also feels responsible for his younger, explosive friend, “Johnny Boy” Civello, played by De Niro. While Johnny Boy gets into deeper trouble with Mafia-connected creditors, Charlie tries to keep Johnny Boy alive, even if everyone thinks he needs to get as far from Johnny as he can. It all builds to a shocking finale. The film earned De Niro the Best Supporting Actor award at the 1974 National Society of Film Critics Awards. In 1997, Mean Streets was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
The film is packed with memorable scenes, from an unforgettable pool hall fight to the unbelievable introduction of De Niro, as well as the use of pop music that would later become a Scorsese trademark. At the time Mean Streets was made, De Niro was the star of Brian De Palma’s early films. Mean Streets was his first collaboration with Scorsese, and he made it count. De Niro isn’t the lead, but he steals the movie from Keitel. De Niro and Scorsese’s collaboration was revived for The Irishman in 2019, and they worked together again on Scorese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon for Apple TV and Paramount Pictures.
Mean Streets was the first time Scorsese got to make a movie that had its roots in his own personal experiences. In an interview with Deadline last year, Scorsese said it took himself years to realize that Mean Streets “was more about my father and him than myself and my old friends because my father was constantly making sure he wasn’t going to get killed or beat up.” Scorsese said his father knew people who were similar to Johnny Boy, and his father even stood by them.
“I wondered how you balance that, how you live a life like that. I don’t know,” he recalled. “I mean there’s two different things going on here I guess, and one is the compassion and the sense of responsibility for your brother and the other is trying to change and do better. Even if your uncles are failing again when they come out of a scrape, or out of prison. They try again, get a job, but then fall again and go back in. I saw it play out. My father didn’t go to church or any of that. He didn’t have to. This was what it was all about.”
In that same interview, Scorsese surprisingly said he isn’t sure he ever watched Mean Streets from start to finish since the film was released because it’s “too close.” He suggested the movie could never be made today since it was made for a very specific time. “There are things in it that I wish I could have done in a different way, but this was the nature of the making of this film. You had to do it with what you had,” he told Deadline. “There are elements of it that are…it was so truthful in a sense and honest that it’s difficult for me to watch. It was also made for a time when nothing else like it existed.”
Scorsese might believe Mean Streets couldn’t be made today, but the story still resonates. The film plants the seeds for Scorese’s later gangster movies, and it also has a lot in common with his other work. Mean Streets shows how Scorsese can present whole worlds to audiences and make them feel at home. On the surface, Mean Streets could seem inaccessible to anyone who didn’t grow up in Little Italy, yet the truth is we all grapple with guilt and we all have a friend who we want to support through tough times. It’s just important to remember that if “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays when your friend enters a bar, you might be in for a wild ride.