As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
Thirty years ago, on September 19, 1990, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas hit the big screen and expanded my vocabulary to include a whole host of mafia terminology. This was interesting because it coincided with some of my first words – I was going on two years old at the time. Many folks my age may have similarly traded “mama” for “mobster”.
Yes, the American crime film and gangster classic was a hit in our living room and across the world, almost doubling its $25 million budget and winning a plethora of awards (though Joe Pesci was the only one who snagged an Oscar for his performance as the irredeemable, trigger-happy, Tommy DeVito). In 2000, Goodfellas was also deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.
Based on the 1985 book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese) and the true story of mobster Henry Hill and the rise and fall of his career in “construction” from 1955 to 1980, Goodfellas remains one of the most definitive gangster films of all time.
It is not the awards, release date or the fact that it was based on the life of a mobster-turned-FBI-informant that we remember, but the hard-hitting, stylish, memorable performances delivered by Hollywood’s best, as well as the high-intensity, drawn-out scenes for which Scorsese is renowned. While no one fancies getting whacked, the big stakes, green-bill lifestyle can be quite the temptress and we the audience are not immune to her charms.
The film kicks off by transporting us to New York, 1970, and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)’s current dilemma while driving along the highway: a flat tire. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) snoozes in the passenger seat while Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) rides along in the back. Nothing untoward about this scene as far as we can tell… except that it is the still-breathing body of Billy Batts, an “untouchable” member of the Gambino family, in the trunk – and not, in fact, a flat tire – that raises alarm.
The car pulls off-road and we got another problem: we gotta open the trunk. Tommy and Jimmy waste no time in executing a multiple-stab, four-gunshot combination on the already-bloodied body. Overkill? Nah. Better to be safe than sorry. Henry closes the trunk. Problem solved. Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ begins to play. Fuhgeddaboudit.
We jump back to 1955 and learn of the allure of the mob lifestyle through a young Henry’s eyes via first-person narration which gives us an intimate perspective. The closeup shots of the shoes, the cars, the jewelry focus our attention and immerse us in true Scorsese style. “To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” The outward appearance and commanding presence of mob members is a high gloss; polishing over the messy violence which the mob might suggest is behind the scenes. However, the film’s introduction puts violence front and center. (You haven’t forgotten about Billy Batts already, have you?) “Murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line. You got out of line, you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules.”
Long before Goodfellas blood and money painted a picture, but Scorsese created a new, heavy-set, moving picture: one that brings to life the day-to-day of mafia life while also showcasing the highest highs and lowest lows. It is a slow-paced film, but slow-paced with purpose. It is lifestyle-driven and by giving sufficient time to scene-setting and character introductions and interactions, the audience experiences the high-adrenaline – and anxiety-ridden – lifestyle of the mob. One scene that sticks in my mind is the restaurant scene between Tommy and Henry. Can you tell if and when Tommy is joking? I sure can’t. In fact, Tommy pops a young male bartender in a different scene following a similar “light-hearted” but gritty interaction. The audience, along with the characters, treads on eggshells. Pesci sure deserved that Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
As if taking us by the arm and leading us into the underworld, Scorsese walks us through some scenes that, in other films, would have simply cut from one room to another. When Henry arrives at the club, the camera follows behind him all the way through the winding entryways to his destination – the idea of control and influence is made clear to us. It is not just about the perks; it is how we arrive at them. “If we wanted something we just took it. We didn’t even think about it.”
A key feature of control beyond money, industry and influence is, as quoted earlier, knowing the rules. “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Henry passes this test with flying colors when he first gets pinched and ends up in court. It is an unconventionally celebratory display of the “game” played by the mafia. Encounters with law enforcement and the justice system is a cherry-breaking mob life experience and mere bump in the road. This is also (somewhat comically) illustrated in the Department of Probation scene. While waiting to be called before the board, Henry discusses the current scheme with Jimmy and Tommy in the hallway. No one said the mob had to be discreet.
Thunderous applause must also go to Lorraine Bracco who plays Henry’s wife, Karen Hill. She nails shedding the sweet, quiet, girl-next-door exterior when we are first introduced to Karen, to make way for the strong, hot-blooded Jewish Italian that she is. Goodfellas gives critical screen time to Karen and other women in several scenes which again invites the audience into mob life. Even the Hill’s female babysitter is in on the “business.” The mafia penetrates all facets of life and ultimately gets under your skin, as evidenced by the not-so-backseat role played by mafia women.
The actors’ commitment to their roles is admirable and is also testament to the film’s endurance. To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted with Pileggi, who had research material that had been discarded while writing the book. De Niro also often called Hill several times a day to ask how Jimmy held his cigarette, walked, and so on. Driving to and from the set, Liotta listened to FBI audio cassette tapes of Hill, so he could practice speaking like him.
This lengthy trailer captures a lot of what Goodfellas delivers in terms of story, but the Scorsese magic only washes over you if you watch the film in its entirety. However, if you do not have time for the two-hour and twenty-eight minute indulgence, the trailer may help relive some of the most memorable moments of one of the most memorable films of our time: