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#6. Goodfellas (1990) What is it about gangster movies that we can’t get enough of them? Since the days of D.W. Griffith, stories about mobsters have persisted to the point where the gangster genre has long since overtaken the western as the archetypal American metaphor, and like the western, it’s a malleable framework on which to hang just about any kind of story.
Martin Scorsese’s trilogy of gangster films, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino, rank among the best ever made, with Goodfellas as good as anything Howard Hawks, William Wellman, or even Francis Ford Coppola ever did.
Goodfellas is the true story of the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a foot soldier in a New York crime family. But it’s also much more than that. It’s about men and power and codes of honor and how people will abandon those codes to save their own skin. It’s about consequences, and how we’re more often than not the author of our own ruin. It’s a story that could have come from Shakespeare or Wall Street, so universal are the themes.
Goodfellas gets its ideas across through the actions of a rich cast of characters. One of Scorsese’s great gifts is a knack to find the right actor for every role in his pictures. Goodfellas has a large number of speaking roles, and even though the story belongs to the principle characters, who could ever forget the scene with Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Tommy (Joe Pesci)? “Go home and get your f*#@ing shinebox!” Or Morrie (Chuck Low), the toupee salesman with the cheesey commercials who’s always busting Jimmy Conway’s (Robert DeNiro) chops about one thing or the other. And then there’s Scorsese’s very own mother, Catherine, who plays Tommy’s mother and the straight man in a very funny dinner scene that takes place in the wee hours of the morning while a half-dead body bangs around in the trunk of Henry’s (Ray Liotta) car. Watching Scorsese’s movies, I get the sense that he worries over these minor characters with the same obsessive attention to detail that he does his stars, a move that pays off in richly textured stories that give the illusion of depth to what are actually two-dimensional characters on paper.
As memorable as the minor characters are, they never upstage the stars. At least not for long. Ray Liotta, who’d recently broken through as Melanie Griffith’s crazy, ex-con husband in Something Wild, holds his own against Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. He wasn’t a popular choice to play the Henry Hill, the central character, but the sense of a barely contained intensity that became his trademark, was perfect for the character. I saw an interview where the real Henry Hill described his life in terms of not knowing when you woke up in the morning if you’d live to see nightfall. As the years begin to take their toll on Hill, Liotta perfectly captures that sense of living on the edge and about to explode – either from an assassin’s bullet or a stroke.
Hill’s last day in the mob is especially fun – and nerve-wracking – to watch. Scorsese orchestrates a jittery sequence of events where Hill attemps to make a homemade Italian meal for his disabled brother, prepare his flaky drug mule for a flight across the country, sell some hand guns to Jimmy Conway, prepare a shipment of coke, and finally, to convince his wife that a helicopter has been following him all day. The cuts, the music, the acting all add up to Mulligan’s Stew of paranoia and suspicion that something bad is about to happen.
Robert DeNiro towers over the movie like King Kong, but when you stop to consider his performance, it’s easy to underestimate it. By that I mean that DeNiro has become so synonymous with a string of memorable New York characters, from Vito Corleone to Jake LaMotta to Jimmy Conway, that it’s easy to mistake him for those characters and thus underrate the job he does as an actor. It’s a common judgment from those not in the know, to brush aside a performance by deciding that the person in question wasn’t acting but merely being himself.
DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway oozes charisma, something that DeNiro, judging by his clumsy acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Gold Globe Awards, sorely lacks (so much for the actor just being himself). His Conway is one of those guys who seduces you into thinking that it would be cool to be a mobster. He’s a big tipper, a sharp dresser, and has a reputation for being as deadly as a cobra. DeNiro’s performance captures the essence of a self-assured manliness that most guys wish they possessed.
My favorite DeNiro moment in the movie is one where he doesn’t say a word. It’s late in the movie and Conway has had enough of Morrie’s ball-busting. He’s also paranoid about the Lufthansa job, the biggest heist of all-time, which he put together. DeNiro’s at a familiar haunt. He steps up to the bar and the action goes to slow-motion as Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” plays. It’s a vintage Scorsese moment that calls back to Raging Bull and Mean Streets. DeNiro is dressed in a suit. His graying hair is brushed straight back. He’s at the height of his power. He takes a drag on a cigarette and turns a quarter-turn to stare at Morrie, who’s leaving the bar. At first, there’s no expression on his face, but a slight smile pulls his mouth taut. He looks down, perhaps to tap-off a cigarette ash, then looks back to consider the man he’s thinking of killing. His eyes narrow as he takes a last pull off the cigarette. There’s no dialogue. No narration. Just music and behavior. And yet, DeNiro conveys what Hill describes a few seconds later – “That’s when I knew Jimmy was gonna whack Morrie. That’s how it happens. That’s how fast it takes for a guy to get whacked.” That’s what DeNiro brings to the table. He so inhabits his characters that he’s always being the character, and so it is that within a few seconds of silence we are witness to an internal dialogue that results in the condemnation of another character. DeNiro’s work is so complete that it render’s Henry’s narration, a few moments later, superfluous.
I think that’s why you don’t see DeNiro on stage. Where Al Pacino, a fine actor prone to fits of flamboyance and volume, thrives in the theatre, whether he’s doing Mamet or Shakespeare, DeNiro is an actor who lives in small, quiet moments that don’t translate to a darkened theatre with no closeups and certainly no slow motion. That’s not to say that Pacino is a better actor than DeNiro, but that Pacino has greater range.
Speaking of flamboyance and volume, the most memorable performance in Goodfellas belongs to Joe Pesci who landed the role of a liftetime as Tommy DeVito, Henry Hill’s partner in crime and Jimmy Conway’s protégé. Tommy is one of those roles that actors love, but often screw up by playing it too over-the-top, but Pesci maintains control of Tommy throughout the movie, taking him to the edge of caricature. Tommy is a despicable human being – murderously brutish, loud, and sociopathic. Pesci plays the biggest Napoleon complex ever captured on film, and Scorsese slyly tones down the horror of this animal by playing his psychosis mostly for laughs. It’s a shrewd move, and I’m sure that’s the way it was played in real life by the guys close to the real Tommy. How else do you deal with such a guy except to shrug off his craziness as just that – craziness.
An example of Tommy’s friends shrugging off Tommy’s behavior comes in two scenes dealing with a minor character named Spider, played by Michael Imperioli. Spider is kind of an apprentice mobster. He waits on the older guys just like Henry did when he was coming up. One night, the guys are playing cards and Tommy feels disrespected by Spider’s lack of servitude towards him. Tommy motivates Spider to move more quickly by pulling a hand gun out of his waistband and firing it at Spider’s feet. Tommy shoots Spider in the foot, but shows no remorse. In his mind it was Spider’s fault for not respecting him more. Later, with Spider’s foot in a cast, the guys are playing cards in the same basement. When Tommy teases Spider about moving slowly, Spider tells him where he can go. The guys all laugh and turn to Tommy and ask if he’s going to tolerate such disrespect. Feeling cornered and challenged, Tommy quickly draws his gun and shoots Spyder many times, killing him of course. And once again, Tommy returns to his chair and refuses to take any blame for the incident.
Perhaps the most famous scene in Goodfellas is the “funny” scene, where Henry compliments Tommy on a story by telling him he’s a funny guy. Tommy turns on Henry and ruins a lighthearted moment, with all their friends around, by boring in on him to find out what he meant by “funny.” It’s a scary moment that establishes much of what happens later in the film. It’s also a beautiful piece of acting and filmmaking.
The scene begins with the funny story that Tommy tells. Scorsese shoots it with two cameras and no close ups. This brings the gang into the action, and we get to see how things go from light and funny to tense and scary through their reactions to what is going on. These are hardened criminals, and even they are freaked out by Tommy’s unpredictability. The tension is ratcheted up with every re-phrasing of Tommy’s question –“What do you mean I’m funny?” Henry backpedals, groping for traction against the pressure from his psychotic interlocutor until at last he stands his ground and calls Tommy’s bluff. It’s an elegant set piece, but it’s also so much more.
Scorsese himself is like an actor in the story because of what he brings to the table as director. His bag of tricks adds up to what is arguably the finest technique in American cinema. In addition to directing a fine cast of actors, Scorsese employs many other elements that add layers of texture to Goodfellas.
The period detail is spot-on. We go to movies in part to escape, and what sucks is when you’ve bought into the fiction of a movie set in 1964, say, and then a ’72 Dodge Charger pulls into the frame and essentially pours a bucket of cold water over your suspension of disbelief. Goodfellas takes us from the late 40’s/early 50’s to the1980’s without a single hiccup. From the vintage tractor trailers that Henry and Tommy rob to the flashy clothes the mobsters wear to the vintage Cadillacs that Henry parks as a boy for local wiseguys, it all looks real.
Music conveys much in a Scorsese movie – time, mood, pacing – and no one is better than Scorsese at finding the right song for the right moment, like the way “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals adds a sense of drama, nostalgia, and irony to the Billy Batts bar scene.
The Billy Batts scene, along the with the “funny” scene, is emblematic of the way Scorsese uses humor in his movies. The heaviest scenes in the movie are also accompanied by some of the funniest moments. One function is to lessen the shock of what these men do. It’s a device that injects some humanity into these guys so we can still care about them. It’s also, by many accounts, the way these guys were and are. Nicholas Peleggi, in the commentary track that accompanies the dvd, says that the guys depicted in the movie were descended from a part of Italy with a strong oral storytelling tradition, and what we have are a bunch of men who are hardwired for stories like the one Tommy tells before he turns on Henry and scares the hell out of him. It’s to Scorsese’s credit that he masterfully takes a real life trait and uses it as a tool, a trick to seduce us into liking these guys, if only for a while.
Thelma Schoonmaker has edited movies for Scorsese going back to Raging Bull and Who’s That Knocking on My Door. I mention her because of the editing that she, and I presume Scorsese, did to heighten the storytelling in Goodfellas. The camera moves all over the place in this movie, and it’s all put together beautifully.
Scorsese is a bit of a showy director, and Goodfellas is full of flourishes that are as nervy as they are breath-taking. In addition to the camera work, he employs many freezes in the action, usually to introduce a bit of narration by Henry. They are like Robert Capa war photos, often blurry or dramatic in some way. Similarly, he uses slow motion, as described in my favorite DeNiro moment, to spend more time filling in a character. The same technique is used to great affect in Mean Streets, when we DeNiro enters the bar to the open notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”
There are many long SteadyCam takes in Goodfellas, like the introduction of the gangsters at the Bamboo Lounge where the camera becomes Henry Hill as the guys greet him in turn as he walks through the restaurant. But the most famously complicated shot in the movie has to be Copacabana scene. The camera follows Henry and Karen as they leave his car with a valet on the street and descend a flight of stairs to the basement of the building and enter a maze of halls that take them through a bustling kitchen and finally to the show floor, where the captain greets them and has a table set up beside the stage. It’s all done in one take, and is amazing to watch.
The funny thing about Goodfellas is that not one of these guys has any real depth. None of them change, other than they get caught or killed. Even Henry Hill, in the closing moments of the movie, laments the loss of the life he enjoyed as a gangster. He’s completely unrepentant, and only changes because it’s forced on him by the Feds. Despite what would be a deadly flaw in the hands of most directors, Goodfellas is a truly great film.
This brings us back to the question of what the movie is really about. On the surface, it’s about the inner-workings of the mob, but the real story goes deeper, of course. Scorsese’s movies have a morality to them, and even though these men are lawless, they operate by a strict code. And when these guys run afoul of the code, there are consequences, which lead to Scorcese’s trademark violence.
Real life is much the same. There are rules we’re required to follow in our various spheres, and as long as we follow those rules, we mostly get along. But when our appetites get the best of us, we expose ourselves to the consequences of violating those rules. Most of the time, we just get called out, but sometimes it results in getting fired or maybe divorced – which to many people would be as bad as getting busted by the Feds or whacked.
And so it is that Goodfellas has transcended its genre roots and become a classic of American cinema. Movies can only do that when they go deep and speak to something basic in those who see it, and I challenge anyone to watch Goodfellas and tell me that it’s nothing more than a good gangster flick.