Orson Welles said that a director's first film was always his best because he would put more into it and hadn't got into bad habits like developing a style yet. Mean Streets may not be Scorsese's first film, but it otherwise bears out Welles' words. Set in New York's Little Italy, Harvey Keitel plays Michael, who exists on the fringes of crime and whose dreams of managing a restaurant his money-lending uncle is about to take over are threatened by his affair with his epileptic cousin (Amy Robinson) and his terminally unreliable childhood friend Johnny Boy's pressing debts.
As with Goodfellas, it is plot-lite and style heavy, but where in the latter the style dominated, here it has a rough-cut and ready-dubbed feel that energises the film and accurately reflects the precarious state of the characters, be it financial, mental or moral. All the trademarks are here - the tracking shots down bars, the sudden explosions of violence, a popular music soundtrack that exists as much within the film as over it, the concern with incompatibility of religion with everyday life - but here they are fresh and integral to the film rather than carefully stage-managed.
If De Niro's unstable Johnny Boy now looks a bit too much like barnstorming with many of the tricks he has since pretty much worn out through over-use, Keitel's diplomatic lead and the astonishingly natural performances from the supporting cast are the real glue that holds the film together and convince us we are eavesdropping on real lives.
Filled with astonishing moments Mean Streets remains one of the few key American films of the early Seventies that still grabs your undivided attention with none of its original power diluted by time and imitation.