Death trips the light fantastic in 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. 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, and the movie’s based-on-true-events criminals were glittering superstars. Take the POV scene that puts us firmly on the inside. One-by-one we are 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 with no regard for human life, their bond would soon crumble under the strain of self-preservation. With wiseguys, everything is a joke until the joke goes too far; everything is about honour until it puts the individual in jeopardy.
Upon its release, some critics condemned Goodfellas for its glamorous depiction of organised crime, and it is 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 that Scorsese grew up in) is a community entrenched in crime, but from a juvenile perspective it is 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 romance, and here we are treated to the heady idealism of period crooners 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 (Paul Sorvino) 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. 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 always dreamed of being a gangster.
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. Henry talks about his superiors with great reverence, how they were untouchable with an almost licence to steal, and 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.
With that one shot, Scorsese changed the way audiences perceived mobsters. Its seamless spectacle seduced us as it does Karen, who is 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 is 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, and for a time they are impermeable to the pitfalls of everyday life.
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.
Karen’s first glimpse of the dark side comes when she hangs out with some of the gangsters’ wives, a beleaguered rabble who offer a crude glimpse of her future. Startled by the well-worn 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.
After Henry lands himself a short stint in prison, life becomes very different. Due to his Jewish roots, Henry can never be ‘made’, and once a bloodline outsider goes to the pen they’re on their own. A gangster through and through, 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, leading to a whirlwind 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, and can probably be attributed to the fact that those of his era had all but perished.
Though Liotta gives a career-best performance as the pockmarked, diamond-eyed Henry, it is his accomplices who tend to stay long in the memory. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam would more than a decade later in 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 who approaches mob life with an almost level-headed insouciance, 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. 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 is the commentator, the literal outsider looking in. Of Henry Hill, Pileggi would write, ”[Hill] 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.
Henry Hill : [narrating] Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies.
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 still 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, and 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 invariably turn to when looking for a vicarious thrill, but Pesci’s maniacal, hot-headed turn as DeVito is enough to give Freddy Krueger nightmares.
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 is impossible to tell. This is a man who lives for intimidation, who thrives on it, and his so-called sense of humour is 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 appals even Jimmy, a cold-blooded killer who was doing hits for mob bosses when he was sixteen. Later, when Tommy’s mistress says 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.
Still, Scorsese never allows you to become bogged down in the movie’s almost ceaseless acts of depravity. It is all too assured, too swift. It confidently takes the lead and tango’s you through the whole sick affair. It flat-out seduces you. Even when an increasingly paranoid Jimmy has an entire jewel heist crew whacked, we are 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 is 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.
Henry Hill : [narrating] 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.
It is Scorsese’s masterful use of narration that provides us with such an intimate experience. It also skews the lines between fiction and reality and in some instances melds with the action so flawlessly that it even throws up the odd surprise. Narration is often viewed as a backdoor shortcut to visual storytelling, but Scorsese has mastered the technique throughout the years. From Taxi Driver‘s weary capitulation to The Wolf of Wall Street‘s unabashed opulence, it is the driving force behind his movies, a signature that guarantees cinematic entertainment of the highest order.
In Goodfellas, Henry tells much of the story, but the narration alternates flawlessly between him and Karen, and there is a moment during the movie’s final act when Henry breaks the third wall by vacating the witness stand and addressing 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 immediately takes 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 cruelty comes on the heels of a narrational back alley, hoodwinking us into thinking that 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, the energy, humour and camaraderie shine through. This is humour of the distinctly gallows variety, the kind that only a gang of sociopaths could revel in, though 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 peeping 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 and authentic character that only adds to the perverse, matter of fact way 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.
Make no mistake about it, the events in Goodfellas are nothing to smile about, and despite the movie’s slick, rock star aura, what we are left with is a 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 movie 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.