One of the things that I love the most about watching the old classics is when you can so clearly see the beginnings of what later became such trademarks of a director, actor, even a genre. Martin Scorsese begins a long line of films about the gangs of New York with Mean Streets, a gritty look at the underside of New York City that foreshadowed much of the same stark realism portrayed in Taxi Driver a few years later. It reminds me of the minimalist realism of films like Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, another urban classic.
Robert DeNiro plays Johnny Boy, the fast talking kid who owes money all over town and never seems to care to pay anyone back. We meet other characters who owe people money, and their apologies at not being able to pay are genuine, they realize that they're not going to get late fees added to their debt or Last Notices, they're putting their lives on the line. There is genuine fear on their side and genuine malice on the side of the people they owe money to, but Johnny Boy just doesn't seem to care.
Harvey Keitel plays Charlie Cappa, who is constantly trying to get Johnny Boy to shape up and pay off what he owes, knowing the danger that he is in and frustrated at Johnny's lack of interest or care in the fact that he owes so many people so much money. Johnny and Charlie live in the same environment but completely different worlds. Johnny holds himself in and laughs everything off, occasionally venting his frustration in quick bursts of violence, Charlie is much more contained but is tormented spiritually. While Johnny gets himself into endless debt with people that collect by any means necessary, Charlie goes to confession and holds his fingers over flames to remind himself of the dangers of the afterlife should he mess up in this one. Catholicism is a major character in this film.
The movie is set in New York City in the late 1960s, where Scorsese grew up in presumably something of a similar environment. Something must have gone differently, since he ended up one of the most famous directors in the world rather than dead like so many characters in his movies do, but he creates this environment in Mean Streets that gives an incredible view into the dangers of the life that so many people lived and continue to live there. I've never even been to New York, but having seen so many of Scorsese's films I think I can understand why the environment could have had such an impact on him that it dominated most of his career as a filmmaker.
There are some classic scenes in this movie that would have been much more widely quoted were it not for the even more quotable lines from Taxi Driver. Mean Streets, for example, is where you find the classic speech by Robert DeNiro, I'll call it the "I borrow money from everybody so I owe everybody money so I can't borrow money no more so I borrow money from you because you're the only jerkoff around here that I can borrow money without paying back!" speech. I love that one, especially the expression on his face, he's having such a great time.
But considering the world that he lives in, it's almost understandable the way he cares so little about placing himself in danger. In a life as bleak and unpromising as the one that is portrayed in this movie, it is to be expected that someone will display passive suicidal behavior. Johnny knows he's never going to go to college, he's never going to be a doctor or a businessman or drive a nice car, he's going to grow up working menial jobs and live an obscure and meaningless life, in his eyes, and that's what the movie's about.
Charlie seems to have similar feelings, looking to the Catholic Church not only as a means of salvation and spiritual fulfillment but for meaning as well. Granted, that is a very common goal for people getting involved with religion of any kind, but even more in Charlie's case. He is certainly the level-headed one between him and Johnny, but his future is not a whole lot brighter. Regardless of how much more responsible Charlie is than Johnny or how hard he tries to get Johnny to straighten out and pay off his debts, they both live in the same world, and so do their debtors. It is a world that is described in the lyrics of one of the songs in the movie
"Have you ever had a wish sandwich? It's the kind where you take two pieces of bread and wish you had some meat."