Martin Scorsese has made more indisputable classics than any other American filmmaker. And to see where it all began, you have to go back to Mean Streets (1973, R, 1 hr., 52 mins.). Following the age-old maxim “write what you know,” the then-30-year-old director aimed his jittery street-level camera at the neon-lit dive bars and smoke-filled pool halls of his childhood stomping grounds, New York’s Little Italy — a parochial, postage-stamp-size neighborhood run by wannabe mobsters like Harvey Keitel’s Charlie and Robert De Niro’s lunatic loose cannon Johnny Boy. Mean Streets, which is finally making its Blu-ray debut (and looks crisper and more vivid than ever), wasn’t Scorsese’s first time behind the camera — he’d already directed Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Boxcar Bertha — but it announced the arrival of an auteur with something serious to say. In a confession-booth whisper, Keitel’s Charlie delivers the film’s message during the opening-scene voice-over: ”You don’t make up for your sins in a church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home. The rest is bulls— and you know it.” Charlie, a sharp-dressed small-time fixer, is the voice of reason amid the chaotic swirl of his petty-criminal pals. His uncle, played with old-world charm by Cesare Danova, is a high-ranking mafioso who calmly metes out justice from the back booth of a coffee shop. But Charlie’s loyalty to his screw-up boyhood pal Johnny Boy strains his relationship with the Mob higher-ups.
Like Scorsese, De Niro had already been toiling on the outer fringes of the movie business before Mean Streets. But the pair’s first collaboration rates right beside Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. With his leather jacket, porkpie hat, and nihilistic smirk, Johnny Boy is all psychotic id — a ball and chain around Charlie’s ankle. And De Niro gives him a tragic grace, even as his long ledger of debts foreshadows doom. As his fate draws nearer, Scorsese adrenalizes the film with mad bursts of violence, dizzying camera flourishes, and the sinister sound of the Stones blaring from the jukebox. Some folks might regard Mean Streets as a sort of low-budget dress rehearsal for GoodFellas, but it’s much more than that. It’s the moment when a master found his muse. Sadly, the EXTRAS don’t live up to the occasion. Both a ”Back on the Block” featurette about the film’s locations and a commentary from the director are leftovers from previous DVD editions. Still, the Blu-ray upgrade deserves an A.