VHS Revival takes to the streets with Martin Scorsese’s spellbinding gangster epic
More than a quarter of a century after its release, it’s easy to underestimate the level of impact Goodfellas had on modern cinema.
There had been seminal gangster movies before, but Martin Scorsese‘s flamboyant lens would change the way filmmakers approached the genre, which had always been eager to stress the pitfalls above all else. Without Goodfellas there would be no Jules and Vincent, porn star Dirk Diggler would perhaps never have made it to the silver screen in any way palatable, and The Sopranos would have struggled to make it past the pitch that would ultimately change television forever.
Meticulously based on Nicholas Pileggi’s autobiographical bestseller, Wiseguy, Goodfellas is arguably the most intimate account of mafia culture ever told, a tireless spectacle which follows Henry Hill’s roller coaster affair with both the seductive and fateful sides of organised crime. This is a world of reckless violence, lavish spending, serial adultery and sacred brotherhood, but also of strained relationships, drug addiction, paranoia, and ultimately betrayal. Hill and his associates were a tight-knit group, their indomitable force running roughshod over East New York during the 1970s, but as is inevitable with those with no regard for human life, their bond would soon crumble under the strain of self-preservation.
Upon its release, some critics condemned Goodfellas for its glamorous depiction of organised crime, and it is during the movie’s first act that Scorsese relishes in the seduction of mob life, a story of glitz and glam told through the sparkling eyes of a young Henry Hill. The Little Italy that Hill calls home is a community entrenched in crime, but from his juvenile perspective it is a culture bathed in the summer glow of nostalgia, a neighbourhood of colourful characters who look upon their new recruit with an almost loving affection. Scorsese’s use of music is essential to both the movie’s events and chronology, and here we are treated to the heady idealism of period crooners such as The Chantels and The Shangri-Las, while The Harptones remind us that ‘Life is but a Dream.’
Henry Hill – [narrating] One day some of the kids from the neighbourhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.
In reality, the likes of local mob boss Paul “Paulie” Ciero are grooming the youngster to be a future soldier, and under the tutelage of perennial super thief Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and sociopathic short fuse Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), it isn’t long before our protagonist has graduated from parking cars to burying bodies. The only other role model Henry has is his father, a man mired in the mediocrity of everyday life. Mr Hill works every hour God sends to support his family, but in Henry’s eyes he is the real bum, the personification of those immigrants who came to America as little more than slaves.
Henry’s most successful years are as a young man, and there is a scene in Goodfellas which captures the celebrity highs of the mafia lifestyle with dizzying aplomb. As a boy he talked about his superiors with great reverence, how they were untouchable with an almost licence to steal, and by the time Henry arrives to a specially laid table at The Copacabana, Scorsese’s spellbinding continuous shot has led us through the kitchens, past an obliging doorman and into a lounge full of high-flying well-wishers. This is how it feels to be a mobster, a fact that leaves date and future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) immediately beguiled.
For a while, Karen is in the dark about Henry’s profession—although you have to believe she suspects something—and when Henry hands her a bloodied revolver after beating her busy-fingered neighbour with the butt end, she is dizzy with shock, but also with excitement, admitting to even feeling ‘turned on’ by the whole affair. Soon, Karen is enjoying the fruits of her husband’s dubious labour as the two are embraced by their new family. She sees her husband not as a crook, but as a working man with the drive to get more out of life, and for a time they are impermeable to the pitfalls of everyday life.
Karen’s first glimpse of the darkside comes when she hangs out with some of the gangsters’ wives, a beleaguered rabble who offer her a crude glimpse of her future. Startled by the stone-faced cynicism, Karen immediately confronts Henry, but for him and his newfound fellowship the con never ends, and even he seems fooled by his own spurious logic. As far as Henry is concerned, those who get caught are careless, and Karen is more than happy to swallow his vague rationale.
Karen – [narrating] After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while all the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.
When Henry lands himself a short stint in prison, life becomes very different. Still reeling from her husband’s adultery, Karen is forced to smuggle drugs into prison for Henry as she struggles to provide for their two children. Due to his Jewish roots, Henry can never be ‘made’, and once a bloodline outsider goes to the pen there is no financial help forthcoming. Of course, Henry has no such domestic problems. Same as on the outside, there are different rules for wiseguys, and as long as enough palms are greased and the wine deliveries keep on coming, jail is a ‘Copa’ away from the streets. Unfortunately for Henry, it is also a place where bad habits are formed.
Against Paulie’s wishes, drugs soon become the trio’s bread and butter, and the three of them stray further afield until the bust of a lifetime sees their crew unravel in a whirlwind of paranoia and betrayal, one which culminates in the kind of breathless finale that sees a cocaine-addled Henry pursued as the law and the mob close in on all sides. Here, the music becomes edgy and frenetic, a suitable accessory. The fact that the real Henry Hill was never ‘whacked’ after straying from witness protection and doing time for drugs is considered an anomaly, and can probably be attributed to the fact that those of his era had all but perished.
Though Liotta gives perhaps his greatest performance as Henry, it is his accomplices who tend to stay in the memory. Like Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Amsterdam would more than a decade later, Henry acts as a window into characters who are much more brutal and unforgiving, and far more colourful. He may be a violent crook, but De Niro’s Jimmy is a paranoid egomaniac, while Joe Pesci, who would receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Tommy DeVito, plays the kind of insatiable sociopath who would truly define the movie. Scenes such as the one in which he shoots a young Michael Imperioli for answering back is particularly unsettling. Even more unnerving is the infamous ‘Why am I funny?’ scene, one that made such an impact it would become woven into the very fabric of our culture. Horror may be the genre we invariably turn to when looking for a vicarious thrill, but Pesci’s turn as DeVito is enough to give Freddy Krueger nightmares.
Goodfellas features instances of graphic violence which remain startling even by today’s standards—the repeated stabbing of made guy Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) perhaps the best example of the movie’s often stark brutality—but the energy and wit with which Scorsese approaches the material is irresistibly captivating, and in spite of its grim subject matter the movie is never dull or depressing. Through a series of techniques Scorsese is able to turn what are largely true events into something altogether detached from reality.
Welcome moments of flip comedy also help to alleviate affairs, ensuring that the director’s depiction of mafia life remains very much in the realms of entertainment. When Tommy and Henry set fire to ‘The Copa’ to claim insurance, the two of them are so busy quarrelling about a double date that they almost forget to leave as smoke plumes from the building behind them. After wrapping Billy Batts in a carpet and throwing him into the trunk of their car, the three accomplices stop off at Tommy’s mother’s house for a late-night feast before borrowing a kitchen knife right off the table. For them, the glitz and the grue waltz hand in bloodied hand.
Scorsese’s decision to use narration as a means to present his vision is also key to the movie’s cinematic appeal, skewing the lines between fiction and reality. Henry tells much of the story, but the narration alternates between him and Karen, and there is a moment during the movie’s final act when Henry gets up off the witness stand and addresses the audience directly as a whole courtroom continues on unaware. It is the kind of moment you might see in a John Hughes comedy, and it alleviates what is a very serious situation with a punchy pop-culture approach, a parting shot of the now deceased Tom DeVito decked out in Jimmy Cagney regalia completing the picture of cult cartoonery.
Make no mistake, the events in Goodfellas are nothing to smile about, and in spite of the rock star aura that Scorsese creates with what are essentially serial killers, what we are left with it a very brutal depiction of mob life, but one that is crucially without repentance. When Henry delivers his own epitaph, just another average schmuck living the witness protection lifestyle, the movie’s conclusion is bereft of the usual morality plays that come with such a rise-and-fall tale, and you never get the feeling that our snitch is regretful about his former way of life, only for the fact that he had it taken away from him.