Long before Martin Scorsese would become for lack of a better phrase, Martin Scorsese was hungrily trying to get his personal film Mean Streets some big studio support and distribution, particularly in light of friend Francis Ford Coppola's success with The Godfather. However Scorsese felt that his was a film closer and truer to his experiences growing up. But not everyone wanted to see another crime family film in New York at the time, with Paramount declining to release the film. Warner took the work on, and the rest would appear to be history.
Scorsese wrote the film with Mardik Martin (Raging Bull) and directed the film himself. Charlie (Harvey Keitel, National Treasure) lives in New York and works for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova, Animal House) collecting unpaid debts as part of a crime family. Charlie has aspirations for bigger things of himself within the family, but his destiny appears to be tied to Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, New Year's Eve), a friend of Charlie's who is a degenerate gambler who owes money to bookies across town. He also seems to have pissed off a lot of people through the city through the years, and when he pisses off one too many, the results may possibly by tragic.
One of the first things I discovered when I watched Mean Streets that still stays with mean now is how confident De Niro's performance is at such a young age. Johnny is brash and cocky, and refuses to admit his flaw, sometimes even after being called on it, as shown early in an exchange with him and Charlie when a guy comes into Charlie's bar overtly asking for his money. Even after Charlie politely says the guy is here after giving Johnny any way possible to tell the truth, Johnny still dismisses his presence. He's there, so what? That type of behavior can prove to be costly in the wrong frame of mind, and De Niro shows us that so well and shows us why he and Scorsese have worked together so many times through the years.
Along with De Niro, Keitel also does a splendid job of being the more "together" half of the duo, even though neither seems to have any real signs of greatness. Giovanni seems to have hired Charlie on more as a favor to unseen family members than anything else, and Charlie's relationship with Teresa (Amy Robinson) hinders any real shot he may have of legitimacy. Keitel juggles his misguided levelheaded nature well, to say nothing of his continued attempts to patch up Johnny's messes.
A lot of what you see in Scorsese films now really got the chance to shine in this feature: the use of music, slow motion action shots, the violence and brutality all get plenty of time to show itself here. Nods to some of the older films that Scorsese liked seeing growing up in New York as a child are even present as well. He was definitely learning his craft and was a ways from perfecting it, but seeing him cut his teeth on such a story when he would build and improve on it is fascinating to watch for its time.
Mean Streets does have some moments where it may be less refined than some of Scorsese's later works, but it remains fascinating, engaging and a wonder to watch for its own reasons. It may not be the prettiest girl at the dance after so many years, but it has got a charm worth exploring for crime drama fans and definitely for fans of the director, particularly now that it is out in high-definition.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Mean Streets receives an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and the results look good. A good portion of the film occurs in darkly lit areas and the black levels in them are superb, providing solid contrast, and shadow delineation looking natural also. Flesh tones are accurate and devoid of hues, and colors are reproduced accurately without saturation problems. There appears to be topical moments of DNR, but film grain is prevalent through most of the film and the production's gritty visuals are well-served.
At first one could say the DTS-HD Master Audio mono sound is a curious option, but if you are not familiar with the film the musical selections of Scorsese in it really get ample justices served to them. The Rolling Stones and other artists sound clear through the six channels, and in non-musical moments dialogue sounds clear and well-balanced through the feature. The disc also comes with English and Spanish mono tracks for an even more loyal experience.
The extras from the 2004 edition have been ported over to the Blu-ray. Scorsese's commentary (recorded separately with Martin and Robinson) is fascinating in and of itself. He states that it is not a film, but more of a declaration of who he is and how he was living his life at the time. He talks of his heritage and the translation of his name (Scotsman, in case you were curious), and his origins as a filmmaker, from working with Roger Corman to his feature work here. He talks of the character motivations and intents, the inspirations of the characters from the Hope and Crosby movies four decades earlier, and even talks about some Los Angeles Italian restaurants he ate in during shooting. Martin and Robinson provide their own perspective, but this is Scorsese's commentary, and it is a joy to listen to, even if you have seen the movie before. Amazing stuff. From there, not very much is left to be had. A "Back on the Block" segment (6:57) is little more than a vintage EPK for the film, and the film's trailer (3:41) closes things out.
Before Goodfellas and Casino, Martin Scorsese introduced Mean Streets out into the world, and the world has been better for both it and the contributions the directors has made in the years since. Technically the disc is excellent and from a bonus material point of view the commentary is worth it alone. Combined with the price point, owning this thing is pretty much a no-brainer.