Who You Callin Mook?

While Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather took home all the awards and racked up far greater box office receipts, Martin Scorcese's Mean Streets, released a year later, has had at least as great an influence on the gangster pictures made in the nearly three decades since. While The Godfather wasa lavish, sprawling, gorgeously shot, almost operatic family saga, Mean Streets was a skuzzy little number about none-too-bright, terminally repressed guys who kick the crap out of one another in dive bars and blow up mailboxes for no adequately explored reason. At one point in the film, they get into a rumble when somebody calls them mooks, even though none of them knows what a mook is. I don't know either, yet it somehow describes them all too well. Few would argue that Scorcese's was the better picture, but its portrait of the mob certainly feels closer to the messy, fumbling lives most of us know.

The story concerns Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time, New Yawk hood beset with a heavy dose of Catholic guilt, a particular liability given his line of work. His is a guilt so extreme that it drives him in what is probably the film's most famous image (as well as a foreshadow of a highly similar scene in Taxi Driver) to force his hand into the flames of a church's candle. He dreams of owning his own restaurant, settling down and leaving the thug's life behind, but he's paired in a fatal buddyhood with Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a charming rogue/loser's loser who serves both as Charlie's surrogate little brother and explosive id. Their bond is volatile, quasi-homo and so recklessly intense that, at one point, Charlie abandons his long-suffering, epileptic girlfriend (Amy Robinson) in the midst of one of her attacks so he can go talk Johnny Boy down from his latest tantrum. As Johnny Boy and Charlie follow their mutual path to damnation, it's up to poor Charlie to feel the guilt for both of them.

Keitel and DeNiro are shockingly young in the leads, sometimes looking like their own teenage sons, but both men already display the acting mastery that has kept them fascinating to watch through all of the great, not-so-great and abysmal movies since. As Keitel's girlfriend, DeNiro's cousin and, not insignificantly, almost the only female in sight, Robinson frankly doesn't do much beyond looking pretty and whining. Perhaps she suffers unfairly given the company she's keeping here, but it's rather unfortunately telling that she never acted again beyond a couple of TV gigs in the late 1980s.

There are critics—and their ranks seem to grow with each of Scorcese's latest mob pictures—who claim that the director has never topped Mean Streets, that every movie he's made since then stands in the shadow of this 1973 masterpiece. But while Mean Streets does possess the raw vitality of youth, a vitality that has perhaps inevitably waned from the director's work as the years have passed, the film is rather crude and unformed compared with Scorcese's best later pictures, a rough sketch for Goodfellas et al. Still, Mean Streetswas so unlike anything that came before it that perhaps we can forgive critics for never quite getting over the shock of its electrifying debut. A short lifetime after the film's original release, it still feels newer than the countless films that imitate it today.

Mean Streets screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 774-7694. Mon., 7 p.m. Free.

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