|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 25 August 1998|
When I told a friend I'd been asked to review 'Mean Streets' on DVD, she was incredulous. "What can you say about 'Mean Streets' at this late date? It's a fantastic movie, it's seminal, watch it, the end?' "
She has a point. Although all three had worked before, 'Mean Streets' launched the careers of director Martin Scorsese and actors Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Along with 'The Godfather,' it is one of the most influential, written-about gangster films ever. Actually, since "The Godfather" is opulent and operatic and 'Mean Streets' is set in working- (and stealing-) class Little Italy, New York and is laced with the rock music of its day, the latter is the more accessible of the two. Since most budding filmmakers have relatively limited finances, 'Mean Streets' is also easier to emulate, which explains why for the last 25 years, anybody who follows the low-budget filmmaking curve has seen a few thousand homages to/rip-offs of Scorsese's movie.
The script by Scorsese and Mardik Martin introduced subtle, flowing new styles of characterization and dialogue. Watching the film, we see the beginning of whole schools of editing, shot composition and image juxtaposition.
For those who haven't seen it, here's a brief summary: 'Mean Streets' takes the point of view of Charlie (Keitel), a smart young man working in the local underworld, where his uncle is a big man in the neighborhood. Charlie could have a good future - except that he's plagued by excruciating religious guilt. He's in love with his neighbor Teresa (Amy Robinson), but his uncle disapproves of the relationship, as Teresa is epileptic. Worse, Teresa is the cousin of the volatile Johnny Boy (De Niro), whose bad temper and bad debts are making him a lot of enemies. Charlie sees it as his duty to protect Johnny Boy.
In this DVD release, the color is excellent, faithfully reproducing the rich jewel tones of stained glass and multi-hued electric lights and doing justice to the dense, ominous near-blacks of shadows. However, Chapter 15 is plagued by small white scratches on the print. This doesn't distort the image and may give some viewers a shot of nostalgia for revival theatre screenings, but it does raise some questions about whether or not there might have been a cleaner source for the transfer to DVD. The mono sound is very good for the most part, though some of the music gets a little tinny. The chapter headings listed on the inside of the packaging usefully note where each soundtrack song appears in the film.
If you've already seen 'Mean Streets,' you know how good it is. If you haven't, this film will help you understand not only the later work of Scorsese, but one of the chief influences on many of the films made in the last two-and-a-half decades.