Directed by: Martin Scorsese » Written by: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, 1990 » Region/Time: U.S.A., 145 minutes.
Starring: Ray Liotta as Henry Hill » Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway » Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito » Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill » Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero » Frank Sivero as Frankie Carbone.
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.”
Before the opening sequence of GoodFellas is over, the film has set itself apart from the gangster films that preceded it. The movie begins with the three major characters, Henry Hill, Jimmy and Tommy in a car together with a noise coming from the trunk. They pull over, open the trunk and see that the body in the trunk, Billy Batts, isn’t quite dead. He is unceremoniously stabbed and shot. The violence is quick, harsh and brutal with animalistic fury etched on the faces of Jimmy and Tommy. There is a freeze frame and Henry Hill begins to narrate his own film with the above quote. This dichotomy of darkness and nostalgia continues for the length of the film. Some scenes emphasize Hill’s obvious fondness for his time in the underworld while other scenes emphasize the horrific nature of the gangster.
In the early scenes of the movie, the nostalgic side dominates, although there are still bursts of violence, such as the beating Henry Hill takes at his father’s hands when his truancy is discovered. We see a young Henry Hill’s induction into the Paulie’s gang, his first mobster activities and the moment he meets Tommy and Jimmy. After he gets arrested for selling stolen cigarettes, Henry is met outside the courthouse by Paulie and Jimmy. Jimmy tells him that the two most important lessons in life are “never rat on your friends” and “always keep your mouth shut.” Of course, by the end of the film, Henry has opened his mouth and ratted out his friends.
The film skips to the grown-up Henry and, in an impressive, unbroken two minute shot we are introduced to the members of the gang. The camera tracks easily through the bar as each character passes in front of us, acknowledging us and implicating us with Henry’s point-of-view. We are re-introduced to his childhood accomplices, including Paulie and Jimmy, who look the same and Tommy, who is played with pent-up menace by Joe Pesci. A lighthearted dinner with friends—in which Henry tells Tommy that “You’re funny. You’re a funny guy”—quickly turns menacing as Tommy seems to take offence. “You mean, let me understand this ‘cause, ya know maybe it’s me. I’m a little fucked up, maybe? But I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?! I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny?! Funny how?! How am I funny?!” It turns out that he is merely joking, but the scene is important and memorable for the amount of danger and instability it infuses into Tommy’s character.
Of course, perhaps the most memorable moments in GoodFellas are in the boy-meets-girl sequence. When Karen and Henry are first introduced by Tommy on a double-date, they do not get along at all. When Henry stands up Karen at a later date, she has Tommy drive around until she finds him. She gives him a reaming out to end all reamings out, at which point he becomes attracted to her and does his best to win her over. At this point in the film, the narration and point-of-view begins to be shared by Karen’s character and we are introduced to this through a single tracking shot, scored perfectly to “And Then He Kissed Me” by The Chiffons, in which the camera floats magically in subtle slow motion as Henry leads Karen past the line at a crowded nightclub, through the kitchen and out onto the dining floor, a new table set up for them by the manager. This subtle use of slow-motion occurs several times in the film when Scorsese wishes to emphasize moments, often from Karen’s point of view, such as after Henry has pistol-whipped Karen’s attacker and given her the gun. “I know there are women like my best friends who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriends gave them a gun to hide, but I didn’t. I got to admit the truth, it turned me on.”
The film expands to include Karen after she marries Henry, but it is still primarily the story of Henry Hill as he becomes a successful member of the mob, marries Karen, takes on a mistress, gets jailed and begins to deal in cocaine and other drugs behind Paulie’s back. Upon his release from prison, Paulie demands that he stop dealing drugs, not because it is wrong (as Marlon Brando’s Godfather would portend), but because the prison sentences are stiffer and Paulie is determined not to die in jail. Needless to say, Henry continues to deal in drugs and the film begins to take on a cocaine-fuelled paranoid hue as the final minutes unfold.
Henry Hill’s story as a peripheral member of Paulie’s wiseguys is based upon a true story, and the crazy Tommy and paranoid Jimmy were also real people. It is good to remember this as characters are killed off to the strains of Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” – real people died so Henry Hill could live this way. But why would anyone want to live this way? The film provides two similar explanations, one from Karen and one from Henry. Karen: “None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for handouts.” Henry: “To me, it meant being somebody in a neighbourhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.”
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