Anyway, while I don't expect to convince anyone of this, I contend that one film is the Scorsesiest of them all. One film encapsulates all the stereotypes so much that if you wanted a one-stop shop for a classic Scorsese movie, this should be the one. So forget Taxi Driver and the rest; Mean Streets is the one.
It just happens to be a bonus that Mean Streets is my favourite movie. I appreciate that it is not the best movie, or even the best Scorsese movie, but it presses my movie-buttons like no other.
Aside from possibly Tarantino, no director has utilised the power of a pop music soundtrack more effectively. There are songs that have been utterly redefined by their use in Scorsese or Tarantino's movies. Think of Neil Diamond's 'Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon' (or the near identical Urge Overkill version) and the first thought is Pulp Fiction. Similarly, the second half of Layla is now the soundtrack to De Niro's cleaning up killing spree in Goodfellas.
The soundtrack to Mean Streets is pretty much perfect. Aside from the obligatory Stones tracks (including the criminally neglected 'Tell Me') and Cream, there are classics from The Ronettes, Shirelles and Marvelettes. Johnny Ace makes an appearance alongside some proper Italian ballads courtesy of Giuseppe De Stefano and Renato Carosone. In short, it is inspired.
While it is true that Scorsese has reflected various American communities throughout his career, none of them are his so much as Italian-American. He even made a documentary movie by that title that centred around his parents - it's been a while since I saw it, but I remember it fondly. Anyway, Mean Streets is grounded firmly in the tightness of that community. One of the perpetual themes of commentary on the film is the extent to which it is basically Scorsese's life during the mid-60s. I came across this quote via youtube (of all places):
"In my mind, it's not really a film - it's a declaration or a statement of who I am and how I was living; those thoughts and dilemmas and conflicts were very much a part of my life up to that point in time...There is no message. It's something that came out of me organically. The only way to express it was: camera and dialogue and actors and color and music. In my mind it was a representation of who I was, my friends, and where I came from. The genesis was my life."
Robert De Niro
No actor is as associated with Scorsese as De Niro - not even DiCaprio, who has starred in more recent movies. (Interesting side-note: Scorsese's collaboration with DiCaprio came as a result of a recommendation from De Niro, who had worked with Leo on 'This Boy's Life'.) In Mean Streets, De Niro gives one of his most manic performances. Sure, he is more iconic in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but here he is hungry. The frenzy of Johnny-Boy is beyond compare.
The city is as much of a character here as Charlie (Harvey Keitel), Johnny-Boy (Robert De Niro) or Michael (Richard Romanus). New York and the Feast of San Gennaro form the backdrop for the story and adds and explains the heightened sense of chaos that the film relies upon. While it is far narrower in scope than some of the grander representations of the city (Manhattan, Die Hard 3), focusing firmly upon one small neighbourhood, it is still unmistakably a New York film - even if it was filmed largely in Los Angeles.
Mean Streets is significantly less violent than many of Scorsese's later films and by the same token, the vision of gangsters or organised crime is much more sedate. In fact, the most violent scene in the film is mostly played for laughs (the bar fight, you mook!). However, the threat of violence, even if it is more moderate, is pervasive and persistent and is what makes Charlie's penance meaningful.
The role of organised crime is far closer here to the Godfather, than to Scarface or even Goodfellas. It is a family business; it is immediate and part of the fabric of the community whether you approved or not. Part of the charm of Mean Streets is the intimacy of the presence of crime - the parochialism of Giovanni - he's just looking out for his nephew.
Scorsese's own family
Here it is almost certainly a matter of finance, but the appearance of la familia Scorsese is as much a trademark of the director as anything else. His mother appears twice in the film - once as the woman in the hallway and again as the woman shutting the window at the very end of the film.
Scorsese movies, even when they are deadly serious, reflect moments of life in which cracks of humour shine in. We see it in the famous 'You talkin' to me' scene in Taxi Driver, Jimmy 'two times' in Goodfellas, the whole of Afterhours. Scorsese can move from perilous to hilarious and back better than any director I can think of and Mean Streets is no exception. From the 'Mook' bar fight to the improvised conversation between Charlie and Johnny-Boy, when it needs to reflect the humour that is found in all aspects of life, Mean Streets is very funny.
It is well documented that Scorsese is a perpetual student of film. As a child he was sickly, and so most of his youth was spent at the cinema and he soaked everything in. If you've not seen A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, I cannot recommend it highly enough (I might have to rewatch it myself). In it, he not only demonstrates his knowledge of cinema, but his unbridled love of it. As such, even on this, his third feature (it could be argued his first real movie), his technique is already advanced. Given the lowkey and small nature of the film - in terms of its scope - and its moderate budget, Scorsese still manages to use the camera in ways that dazzle and draw you into the world. You can smell the world that Scorsese is showing you - that's a good filmmaker right there.
This is probably the most contentious point on this list. I find that Scorsese, because of his subjects, often portray positions that are regressive - sexist, racist, homophobic etc. The worldviews and assumptions of his characters are the worldviews and assumptions of the traditional and typically chauvinistic. However, Scorsese is not that character and so he often finds ways of subverting the regressive and raising questions of it, either through the story or through the lens by which the story is told. Raging Bull is probably the clearest example here.
Mean Streets is problematic in this respect. Scorsese addresses the racism of his home community. Charlie develops a crush on Diane - a black stripper played by Jeannie Bell (TNT Jackson). He recognises the prejudice of those around him and calls it to question, even though it gives him sufficient pause to miss his moment with her. More problematic however is the portrayal of a gay character, which is a grotesque caricature. No doubt this was a character that you could find in downtown Manhattan in the 1960s, but even so, watching it today feels uncomfortable.
The film, if it is about anything, beyond Scorsese's world growing up that is, is about Charlie's attempt to reconcile his faith to the world that confronted him in his neighbourhood, friends and family. The opening lines of the film read, 'You don't make up for your sins in the church, you make up for them on the streets. The rest is all bullshit and you know it.' The film is a playing out of this thesis. Charlie wants to be a good Catholic; he knows he's a sinner and he knows that he has to pay for that sin - the question is what counts as meaningful penance.
It is no secret that the young Scorsese's alternate career was the priesthood. He was very drawn to the seminary. His subsequent films have returned explicitly to the problems of religion and redemption both explicit (Last Temptation, Kundun and his most recent, Silence) and implicit (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) - but here, in Mean Streets, do we see Scorsese's faith - his admiration for St. Francis, his belief in the possibility of salvation in the world.
Anyway, there is it. I love this film and hold Scorsese to be possibly the greatest director of the second half of the 20th century.
As a bonus - here is a Q&A Scorsese did on Mean Streets in 2011