Saturday, October 27, 2007

No. 1 - Mean Streets

While Raging Bull received more acclaim, and GoodFellas made more money, and The Departed won more Oscars, Mean Streets remains Martin Scorsese's best film.

It is his most autobiographical film, set in the Little Italy neighborhood where he grew up. While Mean Streets was actually Scorsese's third feature film, it represents the first time Scorsese's signature style came into full flower -- the expressionistic lighting, the slow motion, the jump cuts, the use of rock music and opera, the profane and self-destructive characters. But all of these stylistic flourishes conjoined with the deeper, more spiritual exploration of the narrative, not to overwhelm but to buttress Scorsese's thematic concerns.

Scorsese famously considered the priesthood before choosing another vocation, cinema, but Catholic themes remained with him. Mean Streets is his most religious film, in the sense that religion actually plays a role in the main character's life. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is working his way up the mob ladder, but he feels guilt. He obsesses about the pain of eternal hellfire, but he continues down a violent, self-destructive path. His own peculiar mode of penance entails helping out his crazy cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in a star-making performance). But there is no help for Johnny Boy, an inveterate gambler who is always in debt. Before long, Johnny Boy will drag Charlie down with him into an urban version of perdition.

There is a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere in this film. One gets the sense that the characters are trapped within a few blocks, and that escape is impossible. I also enjoy the ensemble cast. Keitel and De Niro play off each other superbly -- Keitel is the harried straight man, De Niro is the wild card (he literally enters the film with a bang, as he places a package in a mail box that explodes as he walks away). But Richard Romanus and David Proval are equally superb as two other neighborhood friends. There is an organic quality to the interactions between Keitel, De Niro, Romanus and Proval. They get so far into their respective characters that it feels like these four have known each other since early childhood. There is a sense of intimacy between them, which causes as much conflict as camaraderie. The one main female character, Theresa (Amy Robinson), serves as ballast to all the macho posturing. She is the voice of reason, but her boyfriend Charlie doesn't want to listen.

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