I recently read The Irishman described as the finale in the series of gangster films directed by Martin Scorsese. In fact, I think I read multiple, similar descriptions. One of those articles said the series began with Goodfellas. That and The Irishman sandwich Casino as a trio of based-on-the-memoir accounts of mafioso life. Once could easily hold forth on the similarities and difference between the three films and even what the implications of the films are on each other. For example, if we aren’t meant to take Henry Hill too seriously in Goodfellas, does that also tells us the Scorsese doesn’t take Frank Sheeran seriously in The Irishman?
Another retrospective review of The Irishman saw it as the end of a series starting with Mean Streets. This quartet forms Scorsese’s oeuvre involving the Italian mob. The ethnic distinction is important because we leave off the Irish-mob-centered The Departed and the also-Irish, proto-gangster Gangs of New York. Framing the series in this way means I’ve only seen the last three and never the “original.” Add to that, Mean Streets is part of the massive New Year’s Eve purge of Netflix streaming titles, so if I’m going to do it, I best do it now.
Obviously, I just watched The Irishman. Goodfellas I’ve seen a handful of times over the years, but not too recently. I’m pretty sure I’ve only watched Casino once. The point is, my impressions of these movies aren’t exactly comparing apples to apples; I watched each movie in very different contexts (where I was in my own life).
Goodfellas approached greatness, but fell just short. Unlike say, The Godfather, I don’t think Goodfellas is more than the sum of is parts. It has some absolutely great scenes and other excellent aspects to it, but some how doesn’t quite pull it all together for the finishing touch. This isn’t meant to be a negative commentary on Goodfellas – it’s often listed in the top 100 movies of all time – I’m just trying to articulate what kept it out of the top 10.
Let’s compare and contrast that to Casino. Casino came out five years after the success of Goodfellas and promised us more of the same. Add to that, it had Sharon Stone. Unfortunately, it failed to come together in the same way Goodfellas did, but without some of the key things that made Goodfellas great. Remember, I saw this a long time ago and I’m resurrecting old impressions, but to me it seemed overly long and meandering in contrast to the more epic-feeling Goodfellas. It’s legacy seemed doomed to be a-lot-like-Goodfellas without being Goodfellas. It did, however, have Sharon Stone!
So back to those Mean Streets, down which a man must go.
Mean Streets was both critically and commercially successful in its time and established Martin Scorsese as one of the names among Hollywood directors. It also ranks among those highlighted on various lists of historical films. For what its worth, while Goodfellas makes a handful of significant top-100 lists, Mean Streets is on only one, from the BBC. Looking at it through today’s eyes, I see it as in many ways experimental. Much of its kudos, at the time and after, are due to the ground that it broke. One might say the same of the decade surrounding its development. In particular, Mean Streets is, in part, a process Scorsese finding his way in the cinematic world.
The film does some things right. The integration of music with picture and story is excellent. Amazingly, the integrated soundtrack of the film still feels fresh after 46 years. Critics say the overall style has shaped the way that crime drama is portrayed on film and television to this day. The acting is natural. It is less obvious today, but I note that not one of the characters appear to be “acting,” as they would on a stage – they come off as entirely natural.
This work contrasts with the last three of Scorsese’s gangster films in that this is not a “true” story. The characters are not known, famous mobsters and the screenplay is Scorsese’s own, not based on a memoir. Apparently, it is a mix of real events that Scorsese witnessed, having grown up in Little Italy. At the same time, it lacks the questionable accuracy that accompanies a criminal who has contributed to the telling of his own story. Harvey Keitel’s Charlie Chapa seems a genuine article, struggling with his ideas about loyalty, friendship, and faith to be a good person – despite being also a criminal.
While the dialog sounds genuine, it is also unfocused. About half way through the film I decided that it is written to accurately capture the dialog between drunken men. What drunks say to each other may seem profound at the time and is nothing if not emotional, but to the sober ear it can be difficult to extract meaning. Likewise some of the camera work seems to have designed to capture the disorientation of drunken nights.
While that camera work may have been innovative and inspirational to future filmmakers, you don’t see too much that looks like Mean Streets in the cinema of today. For example, there is a fight seen where the camera tracks Charlie, close up and facing the camera, while he reels around the room. It is meant to capture the dynamic chaos of a fist fight. It may also* have been meant to capture the experience of being in a fight with Charlie. Not all experiments yield innovation however – some simply collect data points to tell us what not to do.
The contemporary review of Mean Streets in the New York Times said “some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter.” Is this a polite way of suggesting there isn’t much of a story there? In the decades since this film was made, the impressionistic story weaving of the 60s and 70s has been replaced by a compelling, driving force in stories that draw the readers/viewers in and propels them forward. Maybe we’ve lost something when we expect our art to do the work for us.
Even acknowledging this, I would have a hard time recommending that anyone watch this film except for historical purposes. Watch it either as a study of on the evolution of film or for an understanding of the early development of Martin Scorsese. But watching this one for entertainment? I think you might be better of with Casino. That one has Sharon Stone!
*I also read that some of the choices, such as the hand-held camera work, came about due to limitations in the production budget.