Des Moines Double Feature: ‘Mean Streets’ & ‘The Irishman’
Want to know which movies are worth your time? The Des Moines Film Society has you covered, with the Des Moines Double Feature! In this series, we highlight two movies that pair well together, revealing aesthetic and thematic insights about each other.
This week, we’re shining a spotlight on two masterful films from opposite ends of Martin Scorsese’s incomparable career: “Mean Streets,” from 1973, and “The Irishman,” from 2019. Although separated by nearly a half-century of filmmaking, these two movies feel like true companion pieces, exploring similar themes of fraternity and loyalty — all from within the crime genre.
For all their thematic similarities, however, “Mean Streets” and “The Irishman” could not be more different in terms of tone and perspective. And for good reason, as the then-30-year-old Scorsese, an unproven director swept up in the brash image-making of the New Hollywood, is worlds apart from today’s Scorsese, a highly revered and established icon of cinema. With that being said, the two films undoubtedly inform our viewing of one another, as well as the entirety of Scorsese’s rich filmography.
“Mean Streets” was actually Scorsese’s third feature film, but it very well could be considered his first full-bodied work. The film introduces many of the legendary director’s most recognizable trademarks, from voice-over narration and roving camerawork to themes of Catholic guilt and the toxicity of male friendships.
Aesthetically, the movie is deliberately rough around the edges. Scorsese shot the film quickly and in real locations, allowing actual passersby to serve as his extras. In addition, the film’s many hand-held shots give way to a loose, documentary expression — one that merges the improvisational observation of cinéma vérité with the subjectivity of genre films, most notably film noir.
This subjectivity anchors the film’s otherwise meandering plot, which is more or less structured around a few days in the life of a ragtag group of petty criminals in Little Italy. Chief among these wannabe gangsters is Charlie (Harvey Kietel), from whose point of view the movie unfolds. When he’s not hanging around dive bars and movie houses, Charlie spends most of his time collecting debts for his loan shark uncle.
He also spends plenty of time and energy protecting his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a reckless loafer who owes money to numerous loan sharks. Naturally, Johnny Boy’s carelessness breeds much of the conflict in “Mean Streets,” but Scorsese is ultimately more concerned with his characters’ inner lives than with plot-driven action.
And this is where the simple brilliance of “Mean Streets” lies: in the film’s seemingly nonessential moments, those moments of plain connection that add texture — and, curiously enough, meaning — to its characters’ lives.
“Mean Streets” may feel bumpy and directionless at times — and especially unpolished when compared to Scorsese’s many later masterworks — but it remains a vivid glimpse into Scorsese’s own formative experiences as a youth. It also marked Scorsese’s arrival as an important cinematic voice and ignited one of cinema’s most fruitful director-actor partnerships, between Scorsese and De Niro. The pair would go on to work together on eight more films, many of them masterpieces, including their latest, “The Irishman.”
At first glance, “The Irishman” may seem like a comfortable retreat to familiarity for Scorsese, whose long career is most synonymous with the crime and gangster genre, from the aforementioned “Mean Streets” to “Goodfellas” to “The Departed.” However, “The Irishman” is not so much a retreat as a response — in many ways, an epitaph — to those earlier films.
Unlike, say, “Mean Streets,” which is couched in present-tense anxieties, unconcerned with consequences and eventual outcomes, “The Irishman” is in constant reminiscence. The movie is firmly fixated on life in the past, reframing the gangster genre from an unexpectedly sobering, reflective point of view.
To be clear, this perspective extends far beyond a voice-over narration that ruminates on past sins, as in film noir classics “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Indeed, “The Irishman” goes one step further by vividly outlining the aftershocks of those sins, the far-reaching fault lines that splinter families and destroy relationships.
Scorsese wastes no time in revealing these repercussions for his protagonist, beginning the movie in the denouement of the life of hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro). With his camera as magically untethered as it was in the furious grit of “Mean Streets,” Scorsese opens “The Irishman” in, of all places, a nursing home. The director allows his camera to rove down the white-walled hallways like a ghostly onlooker, eventually resting on the hard-edged, world-weary face of a wheelchair-bound Sheeran.
From there, Scorsese launches into flashback for Sheeran to recount his long life of sin. That life, as it turns out, began with humble, working-class beginnings, as Sheeran, a World War II veteran, details his first encounter with organized crime as a truck driver in a beef delivery scheme.
Sheeran’s supreme loyalty and taciturn demeanor in this endeavor brings him in the good graces of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). After some time, the powerful don introduces Sheeran to Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), sparking a series of events that forever alters the trajectory of Sheeran’s life and, indeed, the trajectory of this country.
To allow Sheeran’s long-winding life map to unfold, Scorsese refuses to proceed with a traditional flashback narrative. Instead, he begins the film’s initial flashback “in media res” — establishing a fluid story structure that returns to certain timelines, only to jump to the past and then ahead and then back to the middle.
The result is a rarefied view of a full and flawed life, both elevated and intimate, refracted in an order that mimics true reminiscence. All together, “The Irishman” forms a clear-eyed look at life on the verge of finality, challenging us to reconcile the decisions that will define us and, ultimately, embrace the impermanence that will make us all equal.
— Clinton Olsasky
“Mean Streets” and “The Irishman” are both currently available to stream on Netflix.