In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. -- Raymond Chandler
As a writer, critic, whatever, there are some things you put off writing about because you don't want to risk fucking them up.
As a filmgoer, there are some movies so perfect, so full of that essential something, ineffable and indefinable, that they seem to transcend the boundaries imposed by the definition of mere "entertainment"; or as simple cinema. They could be classed, in the truest sense, as our most valued and valuable living dreams, recurring dreams, visions of other lives, alien yet familiar, lives that we can return to, as a reveler upon opium returns to his or her private visions, under a cloud of shifting smoke.
I'll not say Mean Streets, the 1973 crime drama written and directed by Martin Scorcese from the scrapbook of his life (growing up in New York's Little Italy) is a "perfect" film; it damn near is, but that isn't the point. it is that it is so quintessentially an AMERICAN film, an American experience; a film that could be made nowhere else and in no other period of time. The actors and their performances, though, ARE indeed perfect. The cinematography is perfect. The dialog is perfect. The direction, incomparable. The soundtrack? You already know.
It has the most perfect opening sequence of any film I have ever seen. Charlie (played with unerring moral ambiguity and humanity by Harvey Keitel), awakes from troubled dreams in his lonely apartment. His inner dialog speaks:
"You don't pay for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it."
Charlie goes back to bed, and there's a sudden jump, a sort of visual skip between his head coming down, and resting on the pillow. It follows the staccatto opening salvos of "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes, the opening theme played over Super8 millimeter home movies of Charlie, Theresa, Johnny-Boy, Mario, Charlie's priest, his neighborhood; the memories of his life, his world. The celebration of birthdays and anniversaries, street parades, the pride of a people; Americana and the sweet, bubblegum, girl-group goodness of the song, hearkening back to an America That Was; t's short, but it's a powerful, riveting, unforgettable introduction.
Charlie works collecting for mafioso Giovanni (Cesare Danova), an older Italian man of a handsome countenance, who seems to hail from another age entirely. Meanwhile, he's having an affair with Theresa Ronchelli, Johnny Boy's cousin, a young woman with epilepsy and a seemingly neurotic disposition. Charlie finds himself torn between the rigors imposed on him by his strict Catholic upbringing, his absolute faith in the doctrine of eternal salvation and damnation, and the amoral nature of his underworld career (such as it is). His life, lived in between ruminations on fiery, eternal punishment, and partying on a Saturday night with drunken hoods, is a study in the psychological and ethical contradictions that both define and destroy a man.
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, looking as naff and ruggedly handsome as he ever has) blows up a postal box. It's how we're introduced to his character, who teeters continually on the verge of self-destructive psychopathy. Johnny Boy owes money to Michael (played with snake-like, submerged brutality by Richard Romanus), a small-time hood and loan shark who is a little too naive, little too bungling, and inexperienced for his chosen avocation. But he has a vicious, seething underside, and he's learning the ropes of his profession.
Johnny, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, can't make the vigorish. Charlie, Johnny Boy's friend and the lover of cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson, in a stellar performance), hangs out with the other "made men" at Tony's bar, a hotspot where sailors, hippies, go-go girls, and other assorted lounge lizards go to swing, baby. The mafioso, of course, might seem a little stiff to the other patrons, what with their impeccable suits and streetwise values; but even Charlie likes to groove to the Rolling Stones while lusting after a black stripper (Jean Bell).
The movie really begins at the bar, when in walks Johnny Boy, like Hell in shoe leather. In Charlie's mind, he complains noisily to God (as noted, Charlie is obsessed with sin and salvation, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory) that he sent "this walking through the door," but that, "Well, we play by your rules, don't we Lord?"
Johnny Boy has a woman on each arm. Not wanting to be embarrassed, he and Charlie go in the back, where Charlie informs him that "Michael has been riding my back all night." Johnny Boy gives an excuse as to why he hasn't kept up on his payments to Michael. The resulting dialog from De Niro has to qualify as one of the most brilliant monologs ever filmed for a motion picture.
Charlie's internal monolog is nearer the center of his own soul--it's not bullshit like Johnny Boy's, but the unvarnished truth of his spiritual struggle.
"It's all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don't f*** around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart... your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know... the worst of the two is the spiritual."
Boss Giovanni tells him, in no uncertain terms (it turns out, sagely) that, "honorable men go with honorable men." In other words, he needs to avoid Johnny Boy like the plague; and, by extension, his cousin Theresa, of whom Giovanni states baldly: "She's sick in the head." When Charlie objects to this description, stating that, "No, she has epilepsy." Giovanni remains unfazed. "Like I said," he retorts obliviously, "She's sick in the head." Charlie's world is a place of competing forces, pulling him inwardly and exteriorly in different directions.
Mean Streets itself proceeds like a steadily-mounting Dante's Inferno of variant circles of violence. A young, long-haired man (Robert Carradine), wishing to become a "made man," guns down a drunk (his brother, the late David Carradine) in the men's room of Tony's bar. Later, Charlie and his partner Jimmy (Lenny Scaletta), with Johnny Boy in tow, go to a pool hall run by the corpulent "Joey Clams" (George Memmoli). Johnny Boy, a whirlpool of chaotic offense that seems to suck the good vibes out of every situation he comes in contact with, offends Joey, who refuses to pay what he owes, and instigates a brawl, a scene with a revolving, roving camera right behind the shoulder of one of the attackers. Johnny Boy jumps on top of a pool table, defending himself with a broken pool cue.
After bribing the black cop that happens upon the scene, the men, still smarting from their wounds, make good their escape. The world they inhabit is corrupt, but even the corruption has rules and limitations.
Michael cheats a couple of naive teens out of thirty-five dollars, inviting Tony and Charlie to the movies with him. All the while he bewails, "How much this is costing me!" Tony has a young tiger locked up in a cage in the back; he caresses and pets the creature, which it is illegal to own, while his friends look on in terrified wonder. Johnny Boy goes onto the roof of a tenement building, shooting off a handgun. Earlier, he and Charlie have been talking while Johnny Boy lies, appropriately enough, on a headstone. In between, we have the seemingly neverending image of a street parade or celebration; to anyone not familiar with Little Italy or their culture, this will seem obscure. Is it a religious festival? A community celebration? It's a visual, thematic counterpoint, but fascinating.
Little Circles of Hell
Johnny Boy has dug himself in too deep with Michael. Meanwhile, Charlie fails to collect from beleaguered restauranteur Gropi (Murray Mostin), who confesses he can't make the vig. Giovanni later tells Charlie that "This Gropi has always been crazy." Gropi, he explains, went into where his beloved mama was watching television, told her he was sorry, and then went into his bathroom and stuck a gun in his mouth.
Whether this was what really happened or not, or whether it was Giovanni who actually had this overdue debtor "whacked" (as the viewer suspects), we are never made aware. But the result is the same: it brings home to Charlie yet again the damned, doomed nature of life, the punishments and sorry fate men prepare for themselves, as they plummet toward their own destruction. It is a foretaste of hells yet to come.
Giovanni, perhaps in an attempt to placate his lieutenant, promises Charlie that, as long as he avoids Johnny Boy, he can "have" Gropi's restaurant.
A party at the bar for a returned Vietnam vet, an old friend from the neighborhood, subtly underscores the dynamic of these children of immigrants: the promise of America as always the "last bastion of moral rectitude in the world" giving the lie to the essential falsehood, the prevarications of a country that needlessly destroyed a million lives and sent a man to his ruin by drafting him into a phony war for dubious purposes. The vet, drunk and suffering violent PTSD, attacks a woman out of the blue, seemingly without provocation. Charlie takes her in back and dances with her. It's an unforgettable moment of serenity after a storm.
Of course, these men are, like the outward, respectable image of America, also corrupt beneath the surface. Little circles of Hell opening up, one within another, like China dolls. Life imitating art, as falseness might be likened to the purest, most dastardly form of purgatory.
Charlie and Tony quote scripture, sometimes mockingly. Tony tells Charlie of his contempt for the church, of a priest who obviously told a fabricated story of a young couple's death, presenting it as truth to drive home a moral point. Johnny Boy, who, unlike Charlie, feels NO moral qualms or conflicts, continues to duck his payments.
The situation spirals down, unraveling when Michael confronts Johnny Boy at Tony's. Surrounded by their friends, Johnny Boy insults Michael viciously, handing him less than twenty dollars as payment and telling him that "I've borrowed money from everyone in this neighborhood so that I can't borrow money from no one else [...] you're the only jerk-off that I can borrow money from!" Michael lunges across the bar at Johnny Boy and is held back by Charlie. Johnny Boy produces his gun, holding it on Michael and daring him to make a move. The gangster exits but we already know the end, for Johnny Boy, is circling him like a vulture.
Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Theresa have a confrontation at her apartment. Johnny Boy determined to burn every bridge, to bite every hand thrust forward to help him, vulgarly insults Charlie. Charlie slaps him, throwing Theresa into a seizure. After this, some would have abandoned the self-destructive, suicidal Johnny Boy to whatever fate had in store; yet, Charlie continues to shield him; the three are, we indeed realize, "family."
They head to Jersey to "lie low" while things cool down. However, they never make it across the bridge; Michael pulls alongside them, his lieutenant "Jimmy Shorts" (Martin Scorcese himself, in an uncredited appearance) in the car. Three shots fired.
Charlie and Theresa are hit, and the car goes skidding off the road into a fire hydrant. Johnny Boy exits and goes staggering down an alley toward a light. (Heaven? Hell? Most certainly, this is an image suggestive of death) Charlie, still alive, sits amidst the spraying water from the hydrant, perhaps an image of redemption, rebirth, the cleansing property of water, in the sense of baptism. He and Theresa are taken by paramedics. Presumably, both survive. Johnny Boy we are uncertain of.
Lastly, as the movie ends, the death of a fictional gangster is being watched by Giovanni in an old movie, the motion picture fantasy or counterpart of his real-life character suggestive of the "mirroring" nature of our own conscious thoughts. Where does fantasy end and reality begin? Is Charlie's vision of Hell any less real because the idea of it exists purely back of his skull? Does the fictional narrative provided by Hollywood images of the criminal rogue flow into the reality of the lives lived by these men, who find themselves shadows of their celluloid selves, the real-life flickering images being memory and dream; but also the real, cold-blooded, hard reality of their day-to-day existences? Does the energy, the crystalization of a legend (or even stereotype) manifest in the world of physical actuality? Life may, indeed, imitate art, and vice-versa.
(The film, you will remember, began with the dream-like images of a Super8 film of Charlie's own life. It ends with literal Hollywood fiction. One seems to exist inside another, it is suggested, like a set of Russian dolls.)
In the groundbreaking Soviet film from the silent era, Man With a Movie Camera, the highly experimental documentation of post-revolutionary life, the director, Dziga Vertov, pulls back the camera on a crane, making the milling throngs below, in the city streets, seem in a gradual way to become insignificant insects, depersonalized and without an individualized identity. One slowly concludes that man, when viewed from a sufficient height, is little more than a glorified ant in a colony; albeit, one with the capacity and wherewithal to destroy his colony utterly.
But each microbial man and woman has their own story, their own people, their own fantasy, aspirations, and dreams of the world. Their own sense of "I." Mean Streets looks into one tiny cross-section of a world, exposing the ugly reality, the grim underbelly of it, where the individuals that seem so insignificant when taken from above, live and breed, breathe and bleed and die.
The self-destructive Johnny Boy, racing inexorably and stupidly, vulgarly toward his own doom, burning every bridge in his wake, is cleansed at the end, staggering toward a light in the alley, the arms of the Angel of Death; the fires of Hell, perhaps most deservedly. But, perhaps also, maybe the Gates of Heaven?
Charlie, at last, freed from his burden of caring for the doomed Johnny Boy, is cleansed by the waters rushing beneath him from the hydrant. He is baptized, renewed; "born again." He and Theresa survive. This one story in a million, this cross-section slice of the naked city, the tough, blood-soaked alleyways and bright, corrupt thoroughfares of urban America, has concluded.
Once, decades ago, I went to a church service to hear a man expound on the ideas of sin, salvation, death, Heaven, and Hell; all subjects that obsess Charlie. This man was a special guest speaker, who had, formerly, been in organized crime in Chicago. He had had a contract put out on his life, but it was unaccountably, miraculously lifted. Or so he claimed.
He confessed that his immigrant family had come here when he was but a boy because my father thought "the streets in America are lined with gold."
Yeah, and maybe some of them are. For some people. For all the rest, though, they are simply slathered in MEAN.