By Roderick Heath
My clothes may still be torn and tattered/
But in my heart I’d be a king/
Your love is all that ever mattered/
– “Rags to Riches” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, performed by Tony Bennett
Knocked out in bed last night/
I´ve had my fill, my share of looting/
And now, the tears subside/
I find it all so amusing/
To think, I killed a cat/
And may I say, oh no, not their way/
But no, no, not me/
I did it my way.
– “My Way” by Claude François, Jacques Revau, Paul Anka, and Sid Vicious, performed by Sid Vicious
1990 was a vintage year for gangster films. Francis Coppola revisited old turf with the underrated, operatic The Godfather Part III; the Coen Brothers made a typically skewed visitation to the Hammett/Chandler subgenre with Miller’s Crossing; Stephen Frears tried Jim Thompson’s hardboiled milieu with The Grifters. But it was Martin Scorsese who laid down the template for a glut of gangland portraits with Goodfellas, creating surely the most stylistically influential film of the following decade. Goodfellas’ punchy aesthetic is reflected in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), through to TV’s The Sopranos. Countless pseudo-indie confections made its tone-setting, narrative-driving voiceovers irritatingly popular.
After the cacophony that met The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas must have felt like safe ground, and Scorsese was handsomely repaid with his most generally admired work. For most of its running time, Goodfellas is an experiment in sheer cinematic motion – a deeply expressive virtuosity, structured like a cocaine binge, all electric pulse and giddy thrills to begin with, concluding in sweaty paranoia and collapsed perspectives. It’s impossible to forget the impact of first watching the film and being instantly hauled along by its compulsive force, the giddy, dirty life story Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates. We meet Henry during a moment of staggering brutality: his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) shooting and stabbing a groaning, bloodied man in the trunk of their car. Henry slams the trunk shut, and Scorsese freezes frame on his pale, sweat-flecked face, to the immortal voiceover announcement, “All my life all I ever wanted was to be a gangster.” In five minutes we know all there is to know about Henry and why he ended up confronting this, and why his expression looked like he was thinking, “Well, I knew there’d be days like this.” As it happens to Henry, so the film happens to us; the logic is there, but shit happens so quickly you hardly know it.
Henry’s a half-Italian, half-Irish, blue-collar boy (played young by Christopher Serrone) whose working-class life of straitened circumstances and furious belt beatings looks like excellent training for the brutality, avarice, and lordly authority gangland life offers. Henry starts his underworld career as a gofer for local Mafia heavy Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and the vibrating network of hoods, stick-up artists, skimmers, and scammers he patronises.
In the arc of Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas was important not just for being a return to the criminal milieu underpinning Mean Streets and Raging Bull – although, unlike those films, Goodfellas is about the men on the far side of the invisible line that Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Jake La Motta danced on – but also as a return to his neo-realist inspirations. Goodfellas achieves its great impact by fusing the slickest of modern movie technical, editing, and storytelling techniques, with a carefully expostulated charting of a specific milieu utilising a flavorful verisimilitude straight from the neo-realist playbook by using real ex-mobsters in the cast and the casting Scorsese’s parents in key roles. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi adapted Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Hill’s life, Wiseguys, which was dedicated to analysing and describing just how the mob works in all its sleazy, entrancing details.
The film warps our perspective, not just with Henry’s incessantly nasal, quick-fire patter reproducing a high-pressure salesman’s enthralling seduction of the senses whilst numbing critical faculties, with his constant phrasings (“it’s just good business,” “makes sense,” etc.) ad nauseum. Scorsese furthers the effect with tunnel-vision framing, edits, and dizzying camera movements – most famously, the single-take tracking shot in which Henry, trying to wow girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), treats her to the alternative entrance to the Copacabana, passing through kitchens and hallways, greeting chefs, waiters, necking couples, and celebrities with easy flair, to a table summoned from nowhere especially for this VIP. She (and we) is knocked flat by the effect. Much later, as Henry descends into coked-up, paranoid hysteria, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (this is the film credit he’ll probably want carved on his tombstone) go all out – whip-pans, flash edits, zoom shots, dollies, tracking shots, distorted sound, jaggedly intercut musical cues – in a sequence as impressive to film makers, who have hailed it as an experimental film construction in itself, as it is to ex-junkies for whom the sequence is queasily accurate.
Goodfellas shows how crime families are just that – families consisting of people who spend all their time together, living, dying, raising families in each other’s laps. Henry’s vicious upbringing makes him drawn to the earned respect and familial trust of the mob. He and Tommy are virtual favourite nephews to Jimmy’s corrupting uncle when he’s the local dapper gent, god to all the two-bit punks. When Henry is busted for the first time, he is greeted by a celebration (“You lost your cherry!”) as affirmation he has now passed the final rite of passage for a wiseguy. As Henry sells it, the Mafia life is the ultimate refusal to kowtow to moneyed authority and the deadening demands made on working-class men – befitting the Mafia’s roots in Sicilian quarrymen’s attempts at union-building (the Italian phrase “syndicate” that has come to refer to the Mafia, also means “union”) – who earn with sweat and (literal) blood a life of luxury and authority that ordinarily would be denied them.
That Tommy is an explosive psychopath is only of concern to Henry and Jimmy when he turns it on them – otherwise he’s the kind of scary force you’re glad to have in your corner. Tommy casually shoots a lippy waiter (Michael Imperioli) and is willing to risk assassination by their Mafia overlords to get revenge on obnoxious Bill Batts (Pesci’s old stand-up buddy Frank Vincent, getting his second beating off Pesci in a Scorsese film), a made man who teases Tommy about his childhood job shining shoes. Pesci’s signature moment – which, according to legend, Scorsese let him write and direct himself, and which did most of the work in capturing him his 1990 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is when, in joking over drinks, he suddenly seems to take offence to Henry calling him “a funny guy.” Although he eventually realises it’s a put-on, Henry is momentarily a deer caught in Tommy’s headlights. It’s entirely possible, and he knows it, Tommy might shoot him for the perceived insult. But most of the time, Tommy’s their trouble-prone, motor-mouthed kid brother whose mother (Catherine Scorsese in her most indelible performance for her son) pesters him to get married, and who cheerfully takes the boys to her place and has them sit down for dinner with her whilst Batts is locked in the trunk.
Batts’ death echoes right through the film, both as the first true reality check and a narrative refrain at various points: when the dons look for their missing paisano, when the trio have to dig up the rotting corpse from its forest grave, right through to when Tommy gets a bullet in the brain when he’s expecting to be made a member of the Mafia fellowship he has insulted by killing Batts. It’s a thoroughly deserved death, but Jimmy and Henry weep for their comrade.
The film’s second narrative voice is Karen’s. Bracco arguably gives the film’s best performance, sublimely communicating in body language her arc from fiery young suburbanite to a middle-aged woman addled by cocaine and cynicism. Karen is no innocent victim or clueless neighbourhood wife. She readily admits, when Henry sticks a gun in her hand, that it turns her on. Initially volatile, having been thrown together on a double date neither wanted, Henry eventually cements their relationship by beating a neighbour who molested her. It’s instantly apparent to Karen that Henry achieves the things – hard revenge, wads of cash, universal respect – most guys promise, and she swiftly lets herself be seduced by it.
Her own ironic perspective on events – she’s middle class, Jewish, independent-minded – sees her aghast at the classless, foul-mouthed, violent mob wives like Rosie (Illeana Douglas) she’s supposed to hang with, the industrial-grade brutality, tackiness, and socially incestuous people she’s now surrounded by. But she’s fine with that as long as Henry’s handing her inch-thick bundles of bills (and not that Karen and Henry’s tastes are especially superior – when they give a tour of their newly furnished house, it’s an empire of kitsch). She loses her cool steadily in dealing with Henry’s institutionalised infidelity with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), a lengthy imprisonment (she puts up with years of raising kids and struggling on her own without help – the moment he gets out, taking in their crummy house, he declares “We’re moving.”), until one morning he awakens with her jamming a revolver in his face, interrogating him about his girlfriend. It’s catching, this violence thing. The pair reconciles on the orders of Paulie – the Mafia’s family values are more about the potential security breaches of busted marriages than actual emotional concern.
Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy make most of their money through robberies, especially hijackings and skims done from the freight terminals at Idlewild/JFK Airport which is on their turf; Henry also, whilst in prison, branches out into drug dealing, which Paulie has strictly forbidden him to do. The cosiness of their lives finally shatters when they pull off one of the biggest heists in history, ripping off Lufthansa of several million dollars. It renders them the most triumphant group of criminals in the country and the most paranoid. Soon Jimmy’s got Tommy and other thugs assassinating all the noncertifiably trustworthy partners in the heist, like Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) and wig salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low), whom Henry tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save from Tommy’s ice pick. Morrie’s the kind of guy who’s just born to be murdered, a clinging, cajoling, money-hungry schmuck; we, and Henry, cringe in defensive longing. The film’s almost unique in showing how truly dumb and loosely organised most of these people are – Henry’s drug posse includes his wheelchair-bound brother, his sexpot girlfriend (who leaves cocaine-glutted cookware around her flat), and his superstitious stoner babysitter. Only violence and codes of ethics keep this world in motion, and finally Henry realises even these don’t necessarily count for much.
Morrie’s TV spot is a superb recreation of cheap advertising style, cementing another of the film’s strong aspects. Scorsese, always sharp with cultural reference and satire, also provided a blueprint for the increased pop cultural awareness of ’90s filmmaking, with his vividly utilised retro soundtrack and constant refrains to ephemera, like Henny Youngman entertaining at the Copa and polka king Bobby Vinton (played by his son Robbie), continually providing cultural context for the events portrayed. Early in the film, Tony Bennett’s gorgeous “Rags to Riches” blares, a height of Italian-American jazz-pop both declaring a cultural ascendency and providing an ironic counterpoint of emotional riches with the gangsters’ greed.
After the ugly fallout from the heist, Tommy is brutally whacked; confronted with an empty room that should be filled with Cosa Nostra elders, he ejects “Oh no!” before having his brains sprayed over the tiled floor. Jimmy begins to make overtures to Henry that sound alarmingly like invitations to get whacked after he’s busted by DEA officers after his day-long crack-up. Karen calls him paranoid until she herself feels mysteriously threatened when Jimmy seems to be trying to set her up for a gang assault on the pretext of selecting some second-hand furniture. This convinces them both to flee for the cover of the witness protection program. Henry shops Paulie and Jimmy out for stiff stretches, whilst he lives out the rest of his life in squaresville suburbia, haunted by the image of a vengeful Tommy shooting at him, to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk brutalisation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a logical end for a steady decline from glam to sham.
Made hugely famous by the film, Hill, now long divorced from Karen, got himself kicked out of the WPP for eagerly announcing his identity to anyone who’d seen the movie, went back to prison for a stretch, and now stars in every other cable TV documentary on the mob. (It’s an interesting job to compare the film with the TV-made film The Million Dollar Getaway (1991), about the Lufthansa heist, featuring John Mahoney as Jimmy the Gent. In the latter film, Jimmy is portrayed as a folk hero contending with the determination of his Mafia partners to kill all the good blue-collar boys who actually committed the crime and keep the dough for themselves.)
The final shot of Tommy blasting at the camera is a direct quote of The Great Train Robbery (1902), the first American narrative film, and western, and crime flick. As well as summarizing Henry’s final mood, it makes a statement about the history of filmmaking and American society, the long drift from Wild West banditry to suburban conformity, which Henry lives out in a particularly surreal, compressed version. Scorsese also puts in a shot of Karen watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film, which is both appropriate to her character – a Jewish kid alienated from her parents like Jolson’s titular hero – and another turning point in cinematic history, continuing Scorsese’s self-conscious motif. In the course of the film, he uses just about every narrative and cinematic trick extant, and these references seem to complement his awareness that in the 146 minutes of Goodfellas, he had found the perfect material to realise his own ideal of cinema’s potential.