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Director Martin Scorsese described one of his earliest films as an “an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract”. The second half of this description is key to understanding one of this legendary director’s oldest films. It is less about any single character, and more about the city setting, and recreating what it is like to live on the eponymous mean streets. This drive to capture Little Italy leads to inventive cinematography that is stylistically impressive, even if it means character and plot remain in the backstreets, hardly in the forefront.
There is a boundless energy and creativity to the cinematography in this film. Opening with a family home video style montage with “Be My Baby” playing in the background, your attention is grabbed already (in fact, the entire soundtrack is superb. Every song chosen is memorable, a joy to hear, and contributes to the mood of the scene). This opening is ironic, given the title, and the film’s dark depiction of Little Italy. It contrasts significantly with the destructive ending, to say the least. The network of characters depicted are an active volcano where violence erupts frequently. Everyone owes everyone money, and everybody is forced to pay up eventually. To capture this grim, dark outlook of the mean streets, Scorsese employs his signature range of shots. Seemingly every possible shot from tracking to tilting, some from the corner of a roof to some long close ups with Keitel’s face central to the frame, is used to recreate the city setting, and present an authentic, yet grim reality.
Despite one critic describing this movie as a character piece, I feel like characters sit in the backseat in favour of this authentic representation of the mean streets. Some of the minor characters feel like they have just stumbled in front of the camera, and then randomly fall out of shot again. They don’t appear to service the plot; rather, they help develop the sense of a vibrant city full of life. The main characters, for the most part, are not particularly memorable, which is quite disappointing in Charlie’s case, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel usually works wonders when he stars in a film. The Wolf is one cinema’s iconic roles, and he is only in Pulp Fiction for a short sequence! He doesn’t shine so brightly here.
Keitel is completely overshadowed by the one memorable character in this film: Johnny Boy, played by Robert De Niro. From his very first scene where he walks away from a letterbox bomb that he planted, walking with a clumsy, youthful excitement, De Niro portrays this off-the-wall, unpredictable character convincingly. De Niro steals every scene he appears in. Watching him is so much fun. He is funny, charming and entirely volatile at the same time. Unfortunately, Scorsese makes the unwise decision to leave him out for most of the second act. This adds to his unpredictable nature as a character, but makes the film far less entertaining as it could have been.
This film’s main concern is with recreating, almost anthropologically, the life of Little Italy. You could almost call it a documentary in its attention to detail. It is also very creative in its use of cinematography to create a panoramic depiction of the city. Using the legendary director’s signature style, maturing and developing throughout, Scorsese really gives the impression that this place is alive. Sadly, save for De Niro’s Johnny Boy, the same cannot be said for his characters.