Stream On: Scorsese’s forgotten masterpiece ‘Mean Streets’

By on November 16, 2023

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.” (Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye)

When Martin Scorsese made his first feature in Hollywood in 1972 for the producer Roger Corman, the Depression-era exploitation film Boxcar Bertha, his mentor John Cassavetes told him, “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of s––t.” The criticism reinforced Scorsese’s conviction to return to what he knew. The result was Mean Streets, about what Scorsese had seen every day, growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy: the pervasive tension between the Church and the mob.


/Amazon /Streaming /🍅95%🍿84% /Trailer /1973 /R

Martin Scorsese once said that his whole life “has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” When he was 14, he enrolled at the Cathedral College on the Upper West Side, planning to study in the junior seminary and then take his vows. He lasted but a year, and went on to study English and film at New York University School of the Arts.

Taxi Driver (1976) is usually invoked first in superficial lists of Scorsese’s “best” movies, but his relationship with Taxi Driver star Robert De Niro began three years before, in Mean Streets, a Dostoevskian story of young Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) and his cousin “Johnny Boy” Civello (De Niro). Charlie (whose voice-over narration is by Scorsese) is someone who in another life might have spent a year in seminary, but now is a collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), a small-time Don in Little Italy. As St. Paul recommends in his first epistle to the Thessalonians in the Bible, Charlie prays without ceasing … out loud, which draws the mockery of his friends: “Who’s gonna help [Johnny] if I don’t? That’s what’s the matter. Nobody tries no more, tries to help us all, help people… Francis of Assisi had it all down.”

Johnny Boy, introduced to the accompaniment of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” (“born in a crossfire hurricane”), is Giovanni’s godson, a young psychopath who is tolerated perhaps because of his connections. Charlie and Johnny Boy hang out with and Michael (Richard Romanus), an ambitious gangster, at Tony’s (David Proval, The Sopranos) bar where they play billiards and drink.

Charlie reminds me of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (read it here), a “holy fool,” completely without guile; an innocent who is the source of amusement for others more … sophisticated. Myshkin is an epileptic, like Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny’s cousin with whom Charlie is having a secret affair.

In Dostoevsky’s novel, Prince Myshkin is torn between two women—a notorious kept woman, Nastasya, and a childlike Aglaya, as Charlie is torn between the mob and the church, and as Myshkin feels responsible for the soul of his acquaintance, the psychotic Rogozhin, Charlie tries to shepherd Johnny Boy through the mean streets of Little Italy.

De Niro is impressive as Johnny Boy, a punk with no impulse control and to whom nothing is sacred, including huge gambling debts; a kid who thinks nothing of emptying a revolver from a rooftop across the neighborhood. De Niro had caught everyone’s attention as a dimwitted southern baseball catcher (also a “holy fool” type) in Bang the Drum Slowly; here he is as fascinating as a coiled snake.

We see many of Scorsese’s techniques being fleshed out—long takes following characters around, especially as Charlie navigates a hellacious party in the bar and ends up passed out prone on a pool table. The bar scenes are mostly shot with a shaky handheld camera, sometimes in oppressive red lighting, while scenes in Charlie’s church, where he spends a lot of time, are static, colorful and lovingly framed. (Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Charlie tests himself by holding his hand over open flames, even in church.) The soundtrack is dominated by Derek and the Dominoes, the Rolling Stones and doo-wop, including the Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit,” a wonderful orgy of nonsense. Cream’s percussion-heavy live cover of Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out” accompanies an apocalyptic car chase and shootout.

Well worth the watch for students of film, Scorsese, theology—or Dostoevsky, too, in my opinion, and unfairly eclipsed by the flashier but still excellent Taxi Driver, three years later.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


Barnhill Contracting Company will receive sealed proposals for Manns Harbor – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-8), Kitty Hawk – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-9), Manteo – Youth Center on January 09, 2024. Times to be given on via addendum #01. See the following SCOPE OF WORK: BP 100 – General Trades, BP 105 – Final Cleaning, BP 205 – Demolition, BP 390 – Turnkey Concrete, BP 400 – Turnkey Masonry, BP 500 – Turnkey Structural Steel & Misc. Steel, BP 505 – Light Gauge Metal Trusses, BP 740 – Roofing, BP750 – Siding, BP 790 – Caulking/Sealants, BP 800 – Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware/Toilet Specialties/Accessories/Division 10, BP 840 – Curtainwall/Storefront/Glass/Glazing, BP 925 – Drywall/Framing, BP 960 – Resilient Flooring/Carpet/Base/Epoxy, BP 980 – Acoustical Ceilings, BP 990 – Painting and Wall Coverings, BP 1230 – Finish Carpentry and Casework, BP 1250 – Window Treatments, BP 2100 – Fire Protection, BP 2200 – Plumbing, BP 2300 – HVAC, BP 2600 – Electrical, BP 3100 – Earthwork/Turnkey Site, BP 3213- Site Concrete, BP 3290 – Landscaping. Scopes of work may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager.

Bid Location and Time: Bid opening will be held in the Barnhill Contracting Rocky Mount Training & GPS Technology Room: 800 Tiffany Bvld, Rocky Mount, NC 27804. Time is as follows: January 09, 2024 at 10:00am and 2:00pm. Times per packages to be given on via addendum #01.

Barnhill Contracting Company will receive, open, and read publicly all bids received in person in the Training & GPS Technology Room at the main office and listed with the virtual viewing at the link to be posted on Barnhill’s Plan Room.

Bids will not be accepted from bidders that are not pre-qualified. No facsimile or email submissions are permitted. Sealed bids are to be hand delivered to the bid opening location noted above or mailed Sealed Bids can be delivered before 9:00am the day of the bid to the Barnhill Contracting Company Office at 800 Tiffany Blvd., Suite 200 Rocky Mount, NC 27804. Attention “Clint Hardison.”

The pre-bid meeting will be held in Person & Zoom Meeting on December 06, 2023 at 10:00 am at the Barnhill Contracting’s Rocky Mount Main Conference Room: 800 Tiffany Bvld, Rocky Mount, NC 27804.

The pre-bid meeting link can be located on Barnhill’s online Building Division Plan Room ( https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b) and below. A preferred brand alternates meeting will be held via the same link at the end of the Prebid meeting.

Bid Documents can be viewed or downloaded through Barnhill’s online Building Division Plan Room (https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b) after 12/04/2023.

All Bidders are strongly encouraged to include opportunities for HUB participation wherever possible in their respective Bid submission.  HUB participation is a part of this contract and must comply with all requirements set forth in the Bid Documents.

The Construction Manager and Owner reserve the right to add pre-qualified bidders. The Construction Manager and Owner reserve the right to reject any and all bids. Should you require additional direction, please call Barnhill Contracting Company, (Clint Hardison – 252-802-0740).

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