Released: September 21, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese; Screenplay: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi; Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Irwin Winkler
Cast: Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Chuck Low (Morrie Kessler), Frank DiLeo (Tuddy Cicero), Frank Sivero (Frank Carbone), Johnny Williams (Johnny Roastbeef), Mike Starr (Frenchy), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Jim Colella (Jim Colella), Samuel L. Jackson (Stacks Edwards), Frank Adonis (Anthony Stabile), Catherine Scorsese (Tommy DeVito’s Mother), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Julie Garfield (Mickey Conway), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Michael Imperioli (Spider), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry Hill)
- “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
A shocker, I’m sure, considering the name of this blog. There’s simply no getting around the impact that this film has had on me as a movie fan and it’s one of the rare instances where I am almost hesitant to even try and evaluate why. I don’t want to spoil anything by overanalyzing. I think it’s an undeniable masterpiece and serves as the perfect foil to the equally brilliant Godfather trilogy, giving a nice counterpoint to the romanticized view of organized crime that is often interpreted in Coppola’s films. If The Godfather is the romanticized view of organized crime, depicting regal mafia dons who rule as something akin to benevolent monarchs, then Goodfellas is the gritty rebuttal, portraying the actual crooks and soldiers who populate the underworld and the precariousness of their very existences.
This is not to say that I prefer one over the other – that’s an argument I can’t even reconcile in my own mind. But I do approach them differently and think that each gives a different picture of the same subject. Instead of seeing honorable, almost mythical men like Don Corleone, a man who deplores drug dealing and is portrayed as something of a conservative, in Goodfellas we are made to see what it is like for those just trying to survive in the underworld. We see the robberies, the beatings, the drug dealing, the completely senseless violence. And I suppose that the argument can be made that with the popularity of the film that it is somehow glorifying the violence, but I disagree. In the end, I think Scorsese makes it perfectly clear that this is not a glamorous lifestyle – things end well for no one.
The story is based on journalist Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, which is an account of the life of gangster turned informant Henry Hill. Hill, a half-Irish half-Sicilian growing up in Brooklyn, from a young age idolizes the Lucchese crime family gangsters that live and work across the street from his apartment. Seeing them coming and going as they please, doing whatever they like, Hill becomes determined to be one of them. This leads him to a job at the nearby cabstand run by Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), whose brother Paul (Paul Sorvino) is the neighborhood boss. Ignoring the pleas (and sometimes beatings) from his family trying to keep him away from the gangsters, the young Henry (Christopher Serrone) decides that this is the life he will lead. He no longer has any need for school, work, or other common adolescent pursuits. He just wants to learn how to make scores – as he says, a dollar here, a dollar there.
The story then progress as Henry (Ray Liotta) grows up, joining forces with lifelong compatriots Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). In Jimmy, Henry finds his mentor. A savvy criminal and a man who genuinely enjoys the crime and politics of the underworld. Since he is Irish, Conway can never be an officially made man. But he essentially functions with the same power as one, working for Paulie and overseeing the various schemes of Henry and Tommy. Tommy DeVito is the loose cannon of the crew, a sociopath who routinely flies into murderous rages. At the same time, he is a loyal friend and somebody who is capable of moments of hilarity. We see them pulling off all variety of heists – from simple stick-ups and truck hijackings to intricately devised airport thefts. And we also see the endless double-dealing and backstabbing that is routine in a world where your best friend could be your executioner. After stints in prison and movement into the world of drug trafficking, we see the lives of all the principals begin to unravel, leaving Henry to make a monumental choice: risk survival on the street or testify against his lifelong friends.
For a movie that is two and a half hours long, it moves at a breakneck pace, which was apparently Scorsese’s goal. He would later state that he wanted the movie to start like a gunshot and just pick up steam from there, ultimately reaching the point where things would be so out of control that they would have to unravel. Scorsese accomplishes precisely this and it is an example of how in control he was throughout the entire making of this film. Every time that I watch, it is glaringly obvious that you are witnessing a director who is confident to do whatever he wants on the screen. This is the film I turn to whenever I think of Scorsese’s technical virtuosity. There are sequences in this film that are just brilliant and show that Scorsese can match technical chops with anyone. The two famous tracking shots are sublime. The first is the introductions of all of Henry’s various compatriots in Paulie’s crew, with the camera gliding through a nightclub as Henry introduces each of them. Even more spectacular is the entrance of Henry and his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the rear entrance of the Copacabana. It is virtuoso directing, and the performances play it perfectly – I’m always struck by Liotta bumping into a table in the process and always think that most directors would have edited out such a misstep. It’s left in here and it feels so natural. Or how about when the bodies of members of the Lufthansa heist crew begin turning up throughout the city. The camera moves so gracefully in revealing bodies in Cadillacs or hung in meat freezers, with the strains of the piano exit from the classic song “Layla” played in the background. Scorsese evidently had “Layla” played live on the set while shooting this sequence.
Most impressive of all for me is the chapter near the end of the film that is referred to as “Last Day as a Wiseguy.” By this point in the film, Henry’s life is spiraling completely out of control. He knows that he is in hot water with Jimmy and Paulie and is relying more and more on cocaine as his only steady income. In the process, both he and Karen have developed significant personal cocaine habits. On this day, Henry is trying to juggle various tasks – delivering silencers to Jimmy, meeting his cocaine connection, picking up his brother, organizing the next smuggling trip for a girl – and is stressed beyond his limit. Putting him even more on edge is the fact that he is certain that there is a helicopter following him everywhere he goes. Scorsese is able to visually portray this sense of paranoia and stress in the way that he films and cuts the footage. Teaming with longtime collaborator and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, they utilize quick jump cuts to show the frenetic pace at which Henry’s coked out mind is moving. It really does convey the fact that this man’s life is at the breaking point and that he could snap at any moment. Plus, the soundtrack to this entire sequence is just about perfect, jumping between styles and moods – Tripping Daisy’s “Jump Into the Fire,” “Monkey Man” by The Rolling Stones, “What Is Life” by George Harrison, Muddy Waters’ “Manish Boy.” It is wildly paced, as it should be.
The strong ensemble cast once again proves the fact that Scorsese has a knack for extracting top-notch performances from everyone in his films. I can’t think of any other performance in the career of Ray Liotta that stands out to me, but he shines as Henry Hill. In my mind, he’ll always be Henry. Robert De Niro certainly had better performances while working with Scorsese, but he plays Jimmy the Gent with the calculative and callous nature necessary for the character. Paul Sorvino as old-school boss Paulie Cicero is brooding and believable. Lorraine Bracco also deserves recognition for her portrayal of Karen Hill, Henry’s feisty wife who is eventually consumed by the gangster lifestyle as well. It is interesting to watch her progression from naïve housewife to basically a co-conspirator in her husband’s drug operations.
But the award winner of the bunch, and the tour de force of the film, is Joe Pesci. I said it a few weeks back in my review of Raging Bull, but I’ll go ahead and repeat myself. Seeing some of the more frivolous roles of his career – things like Jimmy Hollywood, Gone Fishin’, and The Super – makes it easy to lose sight of what an incredible actor Pesci can be. His role as Joey LaMotta is still probably his best, but his portrayal of Tommy DeVito is very close. He is the modern-day version of characters like Tom Powers or Cody Jarrett from the golden days of Hollywood. The man is a psychopath and his sudden, unexpected outbursts of violence truly are startling. Instances like his killing of the young kid Spider (Michael Imperioli) for failing to bring him a drink are jarring, even to someone jaded by killing in mafia movies. At the same time, Tommy is a character that can be incredibly funny. Everyone is familiar with the famed “I’m a clown?” routine between Tommy and Henry, but there are other moments that always make me laugh as well. Things like Tommy trying to convince Henry to go on a double date with him or his feigning worry when Henry predictably stands Karen up on the second date. Or after he shoots Spider and Henry declares that the kid is dead and Tommy matter-of-factly responds, “I’m a good shot, whattya want from me?” It’s horrible to laugh at something like this, but you can’t help but laugh at how normal all of this is to these men.
I could go on for days talking about my passion for this film and I love the fact that I could use this countdown as an excuse to revisit it yet again. I’ll just close by acknowledging the fact that this is the movie that made me realize that a film could be massively popular and entertaining while at the same time attaining the artistic level of “arthouse” films. Depending on the day you ask, there’s a good chance that I would name this my favorite film of all time, so it quite easily takes the top spot of 1990.
Other Contenders for 1990: This was actually an outstanding year of favorites for me. There are four films that I consider to line up nicely behind Scorsese’s masterpiece. The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing is another gangster film that has seen its stature grow over the years. At times over the top, and always maintaining the quirkiness that is synonymous with the Coens, it ranks among my favorites in their entire body of work. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne) is one of the few movies that has ever truly scared me and it will play with your mind long after watching. While it had no business beating out Goodfellas for Best Picture, I actually do really like Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. It is a bit too politically correct, but it’s still enjoyable. And finally, probably the most controversial of my nearlies, is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Is it anywhere near the same level as the first two? No, and Coppola's casting of his daughter was a horrible mistake. But there are certain moments that I really like in it and I think that it is much better than generally acknowledged.