Waltz with the Devil: Goodfellas and Crime’s Whirlwind Romance

Goodfellas poster

Martin Scorsese’s spellbinding gangster epic is the score of a lifetime


More than a quarter of a century after its release, it’s easy to underestimate the level of impact that 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.

Unlike its literary source material, the movie delights in violence, wearing it like a bloodied mink coat at a members-only ball. Consuming the downright reprehensible actions of mob life was no longer a perverse compulsion, it was a diamond-studied whirlwind of a romance, the movie’s based-on-true-events criminals its glittering superstars. Take the POV scene that puts us firmly on the inside. One by one we’re introduced to a rabble of larger-than-life characters in an intimate meet-and-greet that makes us feel like a part of the family. We’re not horrified spectators from the outside looking in. We’re walking in our narrator’s Italian loafers. We’re living the mob lifestyle.

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 who have no regard for human life, their bond would soon crumble under the strain of self-preservation. With wiseguys, everything’s a joke until the joke goes too far; everything is about honour until it puts the individual in jeopardy.

Goodfellas cast

Goodfellas was criticised for its glamorous depiction of organised crime, and it’s during the movie’s opening scenes 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 (the kind of environment Scorsese grew up in) is a community entrenched in crime, but for Hill it’s a culture bathed in the summer glow of sentimentality, a neighbourhood of colourful characters who look upon their new recruit with an almost loving affection. Scorsese captures those moments in freeze-frame as if capturing a photo in time; a tableau vivant of period nostalgia. His use of music, essential to both the movie’s events and chronology, only adds to the sense of romance. Here we’re treated to the heady idealism of period crooners The Chantels and The Shangri-Las, the Harptones reminding us that ‘Life is but a Dream.’

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.

Henry Hill

In reality, the likes of local mob boss Paul “Paulie” Ciero (Paul Sorvino) are grooming the youngster to be a future soldier. 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’s the real bum, the personification of those immigrants who came to America as little more than slaves. Most 50s kids from Hill’s neighbourhood likely dreamed of becoming the next Babe Ruth, others of becoming pilots or astronauts or even the president of the United States. Hill, he always wanted to be a gangster.

Henry’s most successful years are as a young man, a time when he was already treated like royalty in his neighborhood, and there’s a scene in Goodfellas which captures the celebrity highs of the mafia lifestyle with dizzying aplomb. Henry talks about his superiors with great reverence, about how they were untouchable with an almost licence to steal. By the time he arrives to a specially laid table at The Copacabana, cinematographer Larry McConkey’s spellbinding Steadicam 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, to be a somebody, a fact that leaves date and future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) immediately beguiled.

Goodfellas Liotta and Bracco

With that one shot, Scorsese changed the way audiences perceived mobsters. Its seamless spectacle seduced us as it does Karen, who’s initially blind to Henry’s real profession, or at the very least unwilling to open her eyes to it. When Henry hands her a bloodied revolver after beating her busy-fingered neighbour with the butt end, she’s dizzy with shock, but also with excitement, admitting to even feeling ‘turned on’ by the whole affair. She sees her future husband not as a crook but as a working man with the drive to succeed where others fail. For a time the two are impermeable to the pitfalls of everyday life.

Karen’s first glimpse at the dark side of criminal life comes when hanging out with some of the gangsters’ wives, a beleaguered rabble who offer a crude vision of her future. Startled by the well-worn cynicism, Karen immediately confronts Henry, but for him and his newfound fellowship the con never ends. Even he seems fooled by his own spurious logic, convincing himself and his wife of their infallibility like a gambling addict who can only see the next bet. As far as Henry’s concerned, those who get caught are careless, and Karen is more than happy to swallow his vague rationale.

After Henry lands himself a short stint in prison, life becomes very different for Karen. Due to his Jewish roots, he can never be ‘made’, and once a bloodline outsider goes to the pen they’re on their own financially. In some ways, Henry has it better. Same as on the outside, there are different rules for wise guys; as long as enough palms are greased and the wine deliveries keep on coming, jail is a ‘Copa’ away from the streets. It’s also a place where bad habits are formed, leading to a landslide of paranoia and betrayal that culminates in the kind of breathless finale that only Scorsese can deliver. The fact that the real Henry Hill was never ‘whacked’ after straying from witness protection and doing time for drugs is considered an anomaly, one that can probably be attributed to the fact that those of his era had all but perished.

Goodfellas visit

Though Liotta gives a career-best performance as the pockmarked, diamond-eyed Henry, it’s his accomplices who stay long in the memory. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam would more than a decade later in Scorsese’s revisionist historical epic Gangs of New York, Henry acts as a window into characters who are more colourful. He may be a violent crook, but De Niro’s Jimmy is a paranoid egomaniac, Pesci’s astonishing turn as insatiable psychopath DeVito shocking a generation. That’s not to say Hill’s livewire performance is any less potent, particularly during a rock-infused climax of high-octane zooms and frenetic editing, but for the most part he’s the commentator, the literal outsider looking in. Of Henry Hill, Pileggi would write, ”He knew a great deal about the world in which he had been raised but he spoke about it with an odd detachment, and he had an outsider’s eye for detail.” In Goodfellas, Liotta portrays that exquisitely.

After a while, 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.

Karen Hill

Ultimately, this is Pesci’s movie. Scenes such as the one in which Tommy shoots a young Michael Imperioli for answering back and the butchering of a made guy who is supposedly off-limits remain deeply unsettling. Even more unnerving is the infamous ‘Why am I funny?’ scene, one that made such an impact on audiences it would become woven into the very fabric of our culture. De Niro is typically first-rate — in any other movie he would have been the star of the show — but in the same year that he brought us Home Alone‘s bumbling wet bandit Harry, Pesci gives the kind of fearsome performance that belies his squat frame, something which makes the character even more of a vile and irrepressible enigma. Horror may be the genre we turn to when looking for a vicarious thrill, but Pesci’s maniacal, hot-headed DeVito is danger personified. Whenever he’s onscreen alarm bells ring, his mere presence pushing you to the edge of your seat, and sometimes a little further.

What makes the ‘Why am I funny?’ scene particularly scary is that Tommy’s public display of dead-eyed cruelty is one big joke, and is so at the expense of a person who is supposed to be his best friend. Does he mean it on some level? Does he even know himself? As an audience, it’s impossible to tell, another factor that makes it so compelling. This is a man who not only lives for intimidation, he thrives on it, his so-called sense of humour merely a warped extension. When Jimmy applauds the wounded Spider for cussing out his ceaseless agitator, the joke ends in an act of brutal murder that appalls even Jimmy, a cold-blooded killer who was doing hits for mob bosses when he was sixteen. Later, when Tommy tells his mistress he’ll kill her if she so much as looks at another person, she does so with a nervous camaraderie, but you know she means every word, and it’s unlikely she’d be the only one to wind up dead.

Goodfellas trio

Though he never reached the lead player status of De Niro, Pesci very often stole the show as arguably Hollywood’s most consistent and undervalued supporting man. He’s such a versatile actor, as adept at comedy as he is drama, perhaps even more so than his high-profile contemporary. Just look at the difference between characters like Tommy De Vito and Home Alone‘s Harry, Jake LaMotta’s world-weary brother, Joey, and the eponymous My Cousin Vinny. To be able to inspire fear and joviality in such disparate proportions is nothing short of phenomenal. Watch the slippery, almost childlike beating suffered by Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2 followed by DeVito’s ruthless murder of Billy Bats over something as trivial as a drunken ball-breaking. It’s like you’re witnessing two completely different actors at work.

Asked if versatility was something that he actively looked for in roles, Pesci would reply, “Yes, definitely. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. It’s boring… it’s more exciting to do completely different things, and try to look different, to feel different, use other emotions, you know. Cause we all have all these emotions.” On how he was able to relate to someone as subhuman as the DeVito character, Pesci would explain, “Like I said, there’s parts of these people in all of us. I’m sure there’s times when you sit around quiet, and there’s other times you go to a football game and go crazy, you know. Your children must drive you crazy. You get into arguments with people… you feel like you could kill somebody, and you let the steam out. [DeVito] let the steam out in the only way he knew in his environment. He went way over the top. You know, he was crazy. So you ask me how I can relate to it? You can relate to it, on a different level, but you have to bring it, things that happen to you, instead you just make them things that happen to him… you’re in touch with all those feelings.”

You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?

Tommy DeVito

Terrifying and repugnant the film may be, but Scorsese never allows you to become bogged down in the movie’s almost ceaseless acts of depravity. It’s all so assured, so swift. It confidently takes the lead and waltzes you through the whole slick affair. It flat-out seduces you. When an increasingly paranoid Jimmy has an entire jewel heist crew whacked, we’re not repulsed by the frozen corpses and garbage-tossed bodies cropping up all over the city. We’re startled, but thanks to Henry’s wistful narration and the typically inspired use of “Layla (Piano Exit)” by Derek and the Dominos, it’s a montage imbued with a sense of nostalgia, one of few moments where we feel we’ve taken our foot off the gas, where we can finally pause for breath and reflect on the kind of roller coaster so thrilling we’ve almost forgotten we’re passengers. This is the beginning of the end for our terrible trio, and it feels like we’ve reached the end of an era.

It’s Scorsese’s masterful use of voice-over narration that allows us such an intimate experience, forging a relationship between audience and character in a way that makes us feel like insiders. It also skews the lines between fiction and reality, like the moment when Scorsese sends us a cute, self-reflexive wink through Henry Hill’s iconic, critic-baiting line, “Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in movies.” Other times it melds with the action so flawlessly it even throws up the odd surprise, luring us in and setting us up for the fall in a narrative sense. Narration is often viewed as a backdoor shortcut to visual storytelling, but Scorsese has mastered a technique that is key to his films, using narration as a slick visual accompaniment rather than a means to movie the plot awkwardly forward. There are no expositional jolts. It’s all so natural. From Taxi Driver‘s weary capitulation to The Wolf of Wall Street‘s unabashed opulence, it’s the driving force behind his movies, a signature that guarantees cinematic entertainment of the highest order.

Voice-over narration also allows Scorsese to stay true to the source material, providing us with the protagonist’s perspective and all the little details that make up such a complex and largely alien environment. In Goodfellas, Henry tells much of the story, but the narration alternates flawlessly between him and Karen. There’s a moment during the movie’s final act when Henry breaks the fourth wall by vacating the witness stand and addressing the audience directly as a whole courtroom continues on unaware. It’s the kind of moment you might see in a John Hughes comedy, immediately taking us out of a very serious situation, a parting shot of the now deceased Tommy DeVito decked-out in Jimmy Cagney regalia completing the picture of pop culture fantasy. DeVito’s whacking at the hands of higher-ups sick of his renegade ways comes on the heels of a narrational blind alley, hoodwinking us into thinking Tommy is about to get made, which, as Henry informs us, is like all of them getting made, a dream that suddenly drains away in a spurt of blood.

But for all the repeated stabbings, flip executions and bug-eyed cocaine finales, it’s the energy, humour and camaraderie that somehow shines through. We’re dealing with humour of the distinctly gallows variety, the kind that only a gang of sociopaths could revel in, but the question remains: what does that say about the movie’s audience? Is it funny to see a man’s wig come off while a gangster garrottes him with a telephone cord? Is there humour to be found in witnessing a poor rube’s business burn to the ground while the culprits quarrel over a double date or watching Henry throw up at a burial sight as his cohorts tease him with vivid images of sausage and peppers?

Thanks to Scorsese’s wonderful gift for storytelling there is, even if we do so through narrowed eyes and gritted teeth. The filmmaker delights in those ironies to such a degree that he even casts his real-life mother in the movie’s bleakest, most juxtaposing moment of revelry. As Tommy’s mother, Catherine Scorsese portrays the kind of warm, authentic woman who only adds to the perverse, matter of fact way in which these characters commit such atrocities, the gang partaking in a late-night supper while the ill-fated Billy Batts scratches at the boot of their car. Before this scene, it’s impossible to imagine that anyone could love such an inhumane psychopath. They’re so glib they even borrow a knife off the kitchen table to finish the job. Let’s just hope they never returned it, bless her.

If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.

Henry Hill

It’s amazing to think that, for such a high-profile director, Scorsese’s movies didn’t make much money, getting by on sheer filmmaking prowess. In fact, by 1985 he’d almost ostracised himself from the major studios having built a reputation for being a strictly indie filmmaker, The Color of Money, “a calculated business move” to get the studio heads onside again. Marty, who always put material above finances, just couldn’t help himself, 1982’s deliciously offbeat effort The King of Comedy and the hugely controversial The Last Temptation of Christ both losing money, the latter spending years in production purgatory due to protest letters from religious groups and a ballooning budget that made original distributors Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf+Western increasingly uneasy. Raging Bull and After Hours, despite being critically acclaimed, also did poorly at the box office, with returns that barely exceeded their budgets. In today’s money-obsessed industry, the likes of Scorsese probably wouldn’t have survived.

Goodfellas, arguably Scorsese’s finest achievement, or at the very least his most influential from a stylistic perspective, was a return to commercial form, but with a domestic gross of $41,700,000 on a budget of $25,000,000, hardly earth-shattering. The following year, the filmmaker would embark on another purely commercial venture with 1991’s De Niro led remake Cape Fear, which along with The Color of Money is arguably the least ‘Scorsese’ Scorsese movie, the director coming out of his element for the good of his career going forward. Joe Pesci would inevitably beat Bruce Davidson, Andy Garcia, Graham Greene and Al Pacino to the Best Supporting actor Oscar at the 63rd Academy Awards on March 25, 1991, but despite receiving a further four nominations, the much safer Dances With Wolves swept the board, the controversy surrounding Goodfellas perhaps too risky for such a notoriously political event. Scorsese, who’s been nominated for Best Director an incredible nine times, would have to wait until 2006 to finally win the award for Infernal Affairs remake The Departed, another belated gesture on the part of an academy that’s become renown for them.

Make no mistake about it, despite its joyous flourishes, endearing intimacy, glowing musical accompaniments and wonderful sense of gallows humour, the events in Goodfellas are nothing to smile about. Beneath the movie’s rock star aura is an authentic and brutal depiction of mob life, one that is crucially without repentance. When Henry delivers his own epitaph, just another average schmuck working the witness protection programme, the film is bereft of the moral lessons that such a rise-and-fall tale typically promotes, and you never get the feeling that our snitch is regretful of his former life, only for the fact that he had it taken so unceremoniously away from him.

Goodfellas logo

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Nicholas Pileggi &
Martin Scorsese
Music: Christopher Brooks
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker

2 comments

  1. Excellent essay, and I just LOVE “Goodfella”; it’s one of those gangster films I can watch over and over, have it running in the background, pick it up from any scene, whatever (the 1983 “Scarface” and “New Jack City” are the others like that for me). Just a colorful, direct, honest, brutal, abrupt film. I remain rivited to this day. Hey though, I feel the spirit of Billy Batts lived on throuh the character of Salvatore Leone in three of the “GTA” games (he he, “Badfellas”:-).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Eillio. Thanks for the kind words. It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie. Compulsive viewing, and it just flies by. Scarface is another I adore. New Jack City I feel has dated quite badly in some respects. It was certainly innovative that the time (it was the first hood movie I believe, though could be wrong) and there are things I still like about it but the screenplay is unconvincing at times. Snipes is fantastic though.

      Like

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