So Marty missed out on the Big O after all. How timely, then, to freefall from the skies to the sidewalk and remember why Scorsese is, and always will be, the patron saint of American cinema. It's got nothing to do with polished, big-budget biopics and everything to do with a breakout gangster movie, shot by the former-would-be priest for probably half The Aviator's lunch budget. In 1973, it helped ignite the New Hollywood mojo and, three decades later, Mean Streets still blazes with raw, kicky exuberance. Still the definitive New York movie. Still the vital blueprint for Scorsese's entire career.
Popping the cap on the rituals and ruckuses of life in Little Italy, Harvey Keitel is small-time wiseguy Charlie, the Bronx's very own St Francis of Assisi and Scorsese's damnation-obsessed alter-ego. Torn between guilty loyalties - - to his loony, self-destructive cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), the Mob, his epileptic girlfriend (Amy Robinson), not to mention JC - - Charlie's learning that you can't keep your soul clean from the grit of the street. His personal penance to protect Johnny Boy puts him on a collision course with terrible redemption, the sacrificial climax in front of a baptismal burst fire-hydrant among Scorsese's most potent images.
And there is the young director, the assassin at the film's pay-off, like Polanski gleefully sniffing blood in Chinatown or Hitchcock chopping away in Psycho. But then, Scorsese is everywhere: discovering his kinetic fusion of docu-vérité realism (hand-held judder-cam, elastic tracking shots) and feverish psychoscape (impressionist lighting, skewed film speed and camera angles); capturing the street-level texture of Little Italy (his very own sin city) with a native's grasp; riding the rhythms of fast-talk (""What the fuck is a mook?""), noise, neon and violence with breathless energy; dipping into his own vinyl collection to wake Keitel with The Ronettes and send De Niro jiving up the asphalt to `Mickey's Monkey'.
And how about De Niro? The young Method-man is electrifying as reckless disaster-zone Johnny Boy - Mean Streets' holy fool stealing the film from Keitel, a role he'd wanted for himself. Crazy to think that, just a year later, De Niro would be winning an Oscar as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. The polar-opposites don't stop there: if fellow film-school brat Francis Ford Coppola's Mob epic puffed Hollywood's gangsters into metaphorical titans, Scorsese dragged the genre in the opposite direction, down to the grubby level of the street. As Marty flatly states in the opening voiceover, ""The rest is just bullshit and you know it.""