Down These Mean Streets Essay

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Who can be surprised that Charlie, after the shooting, is on his knees?

Seen after 25 years, “Mean Streets” is a little creaky at times; this is an early film by a director who was still learning, and who learned so fast that by 1976 he would be ready to make “Taxi Driver,” one of the greatest films of all time, also with De Niro and Keitel.

He works as a collector for Giovanni, hearing the sad story of a restaurant owner who has no money.

Charlie is being groomed to run the restaurant, but must obey Giovanni, who forbids him to associate with Johnny Boy (“honorable men go with honorable men”) and with Teresa, whose epilepsy is equated in Giovanni’s mind with madness.

He walks past his friends, exchanging ritual greetings, and eventually he gets up on the stage with the black stripper, and dances with her for a few bars of rock ‘n’ roll.

He fantasizes about the stripper (Jeannie Bell), and later in the movie even makes a date with her (but fears being seen by his friends with a black woman, and stands her up).

The voice was Scorsese’s, but it possibly represents words said to him by a priest.

Later Charlie talks in a voice-over about how a priest gave him the usual “10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers,” but he preferred a more personal penance; in the most famous shot in the film, he holds his hand in the flame of a votive candle before the altar, testing himself against the fires of hell.“The clearest fact about Charlie,” Pauline Kael wrote in her influential review launching the 1973 film, “is that whatever he does in his life, he’s a sinner.” The film uses lighting to suggest his slanted moral view.

De Niro plays Johnny almost as a holy fool: a smiling jokester with no sense of time or money, and a streak of self-destruction. De Niro and Keitel have a scene in the bar’s back room that displays the rapport these two actors would carry through many movies.

The first time we see him in the film, he blows up a corner mailbox. Charlie is earnest, frightened, telling Johnny he has to pay the money.


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