30-year-old Martin Scorsese had something unexpected to say about the mafia with “Mean Streets.”
He wasn’t just saying that being a wise guy is immoral. (It is). And he wasn’t just saying that being a wise guy is dangerous. (It obviously is).
In “Mean Streets,” Scorsese argues forcefully that mafioso is simply a bad job. If you are a young man looking through the Want Ads and you have the choice of applying to the Cosa Nostra or the Amazon Warehouse, you should probably choose Amazon. Both jobs are lousy, but at least Bezos gives you health insurance and a share of stock.
Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie: a regular guy who is stuck with a bad job in a bad neighborhood. Keitel’s performance is outstanding. You can hardly believe he’s acting (and that he isn’t really Italian).
Charlie is basically a good guy. He works for his mafioso uncle collecting protection money, but he’s a decent man. He’s calm, restrained, trustworthy, intelligent, and reasonable. We can understand why his sweet girlfriend, Teresa, wants to move away with him.
But Charlie’s got problems. His most pressing problem is his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is nothing like Charlie; he’s Loki in a Porkpie hat. Johnny Boy doesn’t mean to cause trouble but he’s an unpredictable loser. He owes money all over the neighborhood and loan sharks are hassling Charlie for it.
The sad thing is, Charlie would just pay off Johnny Boy’s debts. But Charlie doesn’t have $2000. This is far from the world of “The Godfather.” Charlie is taking all the risks of a mobster, but he gets paid like a working stiff.
The unique thing about this film is that the villain isn’t a man, it is the neighborhood itself. Martin Scorsese has written a subtle hate letter to New York’s Little Italy. “Mean Streets” isn’t just a poetic title; the neighborhood is Charlie’s undoing.
Teresa is right that they should leave together and get legitimate jobs. But Charlie can’t fathom a world north of Greenwich Village so he foolishly stays in the only neighborhood he’s ever known.
It’s perfectly obvious that Johnny Boy is nothing but trouble. But in Charlie’s suffocating little neighborhood, a childhood friendship feels too meaningful to voluntarily turn away from. Charlie isn’t being loyal; he’s incapable of seeing the forest past the trees.
Finally, Scorsese makes a surprising critique of his own Roman Catholicism.
The entire film pointedly takes place during the annual Feast of San Gennaro. Little Italy practically forces a spiritual man like Charlie to contemplate God and morality. Catholic guilt poisons Charlie’s young mind. One of the reasons that he makes self-destructive life choices is that he earnestly believes that he should be suffering for his sins.
Those who don’t love “Mean Streets” observe that it barely has a plot. And that’s true. Scorsese isn’t telling a story like in “Goodfellas” and “Casino;” he’s exploring the tragedy of life as a young Italian man in Little Italy. Charlie has no business being in the mafia but the neighborhood has a way of turning decent men into gangsters.
Charlie should be working in an office and living in a peaceful home full of love. Instead he hangs out with violent lowlifes and does an unpleasant, illegal job that leaves him perpetually broke.
Being in the Mafia is literally worse than working at Amazon. Yikes.