The decades have flown by, but Mean Streets (1973) has not become the least bit dated, even though we know how the careers of all the principals have evolved in the years since, not to mention that the world just doesn’t look like that anymore. The age of the film—Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature—seems remarkable because its action occurs, emphatically, in the present tense. It is bursting with youth—both the director’s and the actors’—and with all of youth’s bravado, vulnerability, intoxication, self-doubt, self-assurance, impulsiveness, and restless energy. And it is so exactly of its moment that its moment has become for all time a moveable feast. We know people like the protagonists (I know a Johnny Boy and went to school with several Charlies), and yet every time you see the movie those archetypes become particular again, in the very specific physical presences of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. And we intuitively understand the film’s moral economy—a sliding scale that runs from Catholic shame to amoral abandon but is anchored in the loyalty, hierarchy, and permanent debt of the characters’ common inherited business—even if we live in circumstances far removed.
It was in the year of the film’s release that popular culture definitively swapped sixties idealism for seventies fatalism and cynicism. A lot of crime movies came out that year—or, rather, it’s hard to find many movies that came out in 1973 that didn’t have some kind of criminal angle. That was the time of Watergate, after all, when crime became the universal metaphor. So you had historical crime (The Sting, Dillinger, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), young-love crime (Badlands), Boston Irish crime (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), lone-avenger crime (Magnum Force), hipster crime (The Long Goodbye), car-chase crime (The Seven-Ups), comic police crime (Cops and Robbers), and tragic police crime (Serpico). Still, it seems slightly misleading that Mean Streets is often referred to as a “crime film.” It’s like describing Rocco and His Brothers as a movie about labor conditions in Italy in 1960. But then there isn’t a designated category for people pictures.
Mean Streets concerns Charlie Cappa (Keitel) and the many weights he carries: his church, where he feels unredeemed; his authoritative uncle, Giovanni (Cesare Danova), and the demanding criminal family to which they both belong; his girlfriend, Teresa (Amy Robinson), beautiful and intelligent but an outcast; and, above all, his friend Johnny Boy (De Niro), who is dangerously immature, unpredictable, and gleefully destructive, but who commands Charlie’s stalwart loyalty, perhaps as a path to redemption, perhaps to a bitter end.
The Roaring Twenties: Into the Past
Hollywood legend Raoul Walsh’s first movie for Warner Bros. is an epoch-spanning tall tale that takes inspiration from the New York City of his childhood and closes out a run of influential gangster films he inaugurated in the silent era.
The Heroic Trio / Executioners: To the Power of Three
Combining the influence of the wuxia genre, the Hong Kong New Wave filmmaking of the 1980s, and loony comic-book futurism, these two ass-kicking fantasias are dazzling showcases of female physicality.
Nothing but a Man: What We Can See in Ourselves
Released at the height of the civil rights movement, this deceptively simple tale of a working-class Black man’s search for love and self-worth broke ground with its realism, nuance, and intensity.
Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year
Through its echoes, resonances, and intricately branching stories, this cycle of films evokes the feeling that life, like the weather, is based on patterns too complex to ever be fully predictable.
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