Mean Streets is the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a wannabe Mafioso who is a collector for his uncle’s racketeering business, and not all that successful. Charlie accepts the gangster life as inevitable given the environment (Little Italy) he’s grown up in yet lives with daily guilt about his sins against the Church (sex, lust) and thoughts of hell. Charlie is protective of Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), the brother of Charlie’s girlfriend, Teresa which leads to destructive behaviors and actions.
While in film school at New York University, Martin Scorsese envisioned a trilogy of films, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and Mean Streets. Of the three, only the last two became films. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (titled I Call First at the Chicago Film Festival) began and ended as a student/young filmmaker project that provided years of lessons learned while providing audiences a realistic view of friends hanging out and messing around New York. The themes of religion, guilt, the Mafia lifestyle are themes in many of Scorsese’s films beginning in Who’s That Knocking at My Door and continuing in Mean Streets (as well as later films including Goodfellas and Casino).
Mean Streets doesn’t pick up where Who’s That Knocking at My Door left off but it does bring forward Harvey Keitel as the main character dealing with some of the same themes as J.R. Charlie and J.R. both use religious symbols to signify their Catholic beliefs including a candle representing the fires of hell and going to confession in the hopes of and seeking redemption and avoiding hell. In both films, J.R. and Charlie have conflicting feelings about their girlfriends. In the case of J.R., he deals with the Madonna-whore complex after learning that the woman he loves, The Girl (Zina Bethune) was raped. He loves her and wants to wait until marriage to have sex, but once he learns of this rape, he blames her and cannot see past it. For Charlie, he is confronted with staying to help his girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson) while she is having an epileptic seizure or following Johnny Boy to save him from more trouble. He decides to help Johnny Boy.
Watching these films for the first time in 2016, it is hard to comprehend the impact these two films made on audiences in the 1970s. They have a raw reality to life on the streets that seems commonplace today. Yet, at the time, it reflected the influence of the New French Wave and Italian Cinema. These two films represent Hollywood’s Golden Age; a very different film from American films of the past. They reflect a personal film, focused on characters above plot and dealt with moral ambiguity. These films also use the music of the time rather than a score specific for the film. In these, as in other Scorsese films everyone is flawed and dealing with their lives the best they know how; just like in real life.