Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Mean Streets (1973)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets...

Mean Streets heralded Martin Scorsese's arrival as a new filmmaking force - and marked his first historic teaming with Robert De Niro. It's a story Scorsese lived, a semi-autobiographical tale of first-generation sons and daughters of New York's Little Italy.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 33 chapters; rated R; 112 min.; $24.98; street date 8/25/98.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; Production Notes; Cast & Crew Bios.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/D/D

At this point in Martin Scorsese's career, 1973’s Mean Streets evokes interest mainly due to its position in history: this was Scorsese's first collaboration with Robert De Niro, and it also foreshadowed the themes the two would explore in later films. Unfortunately, since all of those more recent efforts are much better than Mean Streets, I had a hard time maintaining much interest in it.

In many ways, Mean Streets reminded me of a smaller-scale GoodFellas. They both focus on local mobs and they both feature serious "loose cannon" characters who complicate matters for everyone else. As “Johnny Boy”, De Niro takes that role here, and it's very interesting to see him offer such a performance. Since that time, De Niro's focused more on characters who display tighter control; they lose it from time to time, but for the most part, they at least attempt to keep themselves under control.

That's not the case with Johnny Boy; he's about as careless and irresponsible as they come. De Niro opens himself up more than usual and creates a rather broad characterization of Johnny Boy; while this is interesting to see, it makes him less believable, since one would assume someone would have dealt severely with this jerk quite some time ago.

The only real explanation for why Johnny Boy hasn't yet been handed his lungs stems from the fact that Charlie (Harvey Keitel) seems to feel the need to act as Johnny's guardian angel; he spends most of the movie struggling to extricate Johnny from his self-created jams. It never appeared very clear to me why Charlie was so dedicated to Johnny, and that vagueness spills over to Keitel's performance. Charlie's the main character inMean Streets but it never feels that way; in fact, every role seems to fall in the “supporting” realm. I thought Keitel's work here was rather flat; he's not bad, but there was never anything compelling about his acting.

Ultimately, I felt the same way about the movie itself. Yes, it's fun to view it as a novelty and see how it foreshadows Scorsese's style and later work - one scene when Johnny Boy walks into a bar accompanied by Jumping Jack Flash really stands out in that regard - but as a film, it simply doesn't hold up very well after all these years. The movie lacks focus and conviction; it seems to be more of a random assemblage of moments than a concrete story, and most of those moments aren't terribly interesting. Mean Streets offers little for anyone who's not a Scorsese fanatic.

The DVD:

Mean Streets appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the picture of Mean Streets seemed weak.

The image occasionally looked clear and bold, but for the most part, it appeared flat, hazy, and murky. I saw many flaws throughout the film; white spots, scratches, hairs, and grain all entered the screen on far too many occasions. Colors also seemed weak, with little strength to their reproduction. The picture wasn't completely terrible, but it appeared pretty bad.

The same thoughts applied to the monaural soundtrack of Mean Streets. I'm not carping because it was mono - that's not a big deal for such an old film - but the abysmal quality of the audio was the real problem. Mean Streets was something of a precursor for GoodFellas in the way Scorsese integrated pop music into the action. Neither film has a composed score; both use a variety of pop or rock songs to underscore the action. As such, it's awfully important that these tunes sound good.

Unfortunately, in the case of Mean Streets, the quality of the music appeared horrible. Occasionally a song sounds decent - the Rolling Stones' “Tell Me” being one of the more acceptable examples - but most of the tracks are harsh and terribly distorted. Check out the Ronettes' “Be My Baby” at the start of the film - it was a grating disaster. I hoped it would be an exception, but it was closer to the rule.

The rest of the audio mix of Mean Streets didn't work much better. Dialogue and effects were generally flat and tinny and could often be hard to understand. This film also featured some of the most poorly-integrated dubbed speech I've heard; the looped dialogue was often so jarring that I often felt I was watching a bad Japanese monster movie. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Mean Streets provided a rather poor experience.

If you’re looking for a fine roster of supplements to save this DVD, you’re going to be disappointed. On Mean Streets, we find nothing more than the film’s theatrical trailer, some decent cast and crew biographies, and some very brief text production notes. It’s a weak roster of extras for a drab and lackluster DVD.

I suppose that’s fitting, since Mean Streets remains one of Martin Scorsese’s least compelling movies. At times we can see the glimmers of greatness that occasionally emerge, but as a whole it seemed to be a muddled and uncompelling affair. The DVD boasts pretty bad picture and sound plus almost no supplements. Leave this one for the Scorsese completists.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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