The nominal star of Martin Scorsese’s second feature was Harvey Keitel but it was Robert De Niro, in a secondary role, who used it as a launch pad to stardom. In a fast, engrossing tale of crime, sex and Catholicism – particularly, in Keitel’s case, the fear of hellfire – both play lowlife Mafia punks in New York’s Little Italy. Keitel is the nephew of the local capo, who uses him as an enforcer; De Niro is his loose-cannon best friend, who has recklessly got himself into debt to the kind of people you really wouldn’t want to owe money to. Keitel worries about him; he worries about everything, especially sex, which he regards as the ultimate sin. Both are essentially losers, drifting – sometimes bored, sometimes happy – through a little world of casual, sudden violence and the possibility of death. Scorsese captures the mood and feel of these mean streets brilliantly. Keitel is splendid but the charismatic De Niro runs away with the film. Preceded by Martin Scorsese: True Confessions.
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