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.
Fitting that in 2020, when I sat down to watch Goodfellas 30 years after its release, we would have a president who amounted to a mobster. Here we have, still have, one of the greatest of American films generally, and certainly the most incisive and insightful one about the criminal life, because of how it tricks us emotionally into thinking the Mafia code actually amounted to something for those who lived inside it.
Most Hollywood mob movies are about kingpins who rise and then fall: Little Caesar, Scarface (both of them), The Godfather. Goodfellas is unabashedly about a low-level guy, someone who has just enough of a taste of the life to enjoy it, but who will never rise very far -- presumably because he's half-Irish and half-Italian, but really because of his urges to shirk the disciplines of the mob world. He never rises very high, but he he still has a long way to fall.
Nothing else in the 1950s New York neighborhood of young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) comes close to the swagger, the allure, of being a gangster, one of the unadmitted masters of the universe. When his father wallops him for playing hooky to hang out at the mob-run cabstand, he figures it's just the dues of pain he has to pay for his initiation into the life. And when he's arrested for hocking bootleg cigarettes, he's certain he's screwed, and doubly confused when his mob friends reward him.
"You told them nothing and they got nothing," his mentor, Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) tells him. "You learned the two most important lessons a man can learn in this life. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut." Cut to Conway's boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) applauding as they walk out of the courtroom: "Aw! You broke your cherry!" Freeze on young Hill cheek-pinched affectionately. Just like that, snap-snap, we've been initiated along with him.
The first hour or so of the film sets up Hill's "glorious time" -- the years when the mob could operate more or less with impunity, because everyone that could stand in their way was either ineffectual or corrupt or both. Henry, Jimmy, and partner Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) participate in a daring currency heist that makes them rising stars. He meets a firecracker of a woman, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who eventually becomes his wife, wide-eyed at the insularity of mob life. He has everything going for him; all he has to do is not get too big for his own shoes.
Then one night in 1970, everything begins to splinter. Tommy, always a live wire, loses what little temper he has when Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), a "made man", an untouchable in the organization, sasses him at a bar. The rhythms of Scorsese's scenes in this movie are like beating tides: just when you think the tide's gone out, a wave crashes over you from a different direction. And likewise, just when we think the argument's sputtered out, it explodes again, and this time Batts ends up a bloody heap in the trunk of Henry's car. They have to bury the body and pretend they know nothing, but first they have to stop off at Tommy's house in the middle of the night (and end up being fed dinner by his endlessly doting mother) to get the tools they need. Then, in a scene of even more macabre black humor, they find out the body's been buried in land slated for a housing development and have to dig it back up again. Riptide.
Batts's killing is Henry's first taste of defiance of the order of things. Many more follow, both components of and companions to his accelerating downfall. A stupid coincidence sends him and Jimmy to prison for several years, where he hustles drugs to make ends meet and support Karen on the outside. And once back out, he keeps up the hustle. The high of cocaine is second only to the rush of making solid bank from something his own bosses disapprove of, in the same way Tommy's wild-man antics are a rush for him. But it's not sustainable, and when all the threads holding things up snap at the same time, Henry realizes the only thing left might be to rat out his confreres before they just straight-up kill him anyway.
Scorsese has never made an easy movie or a simple one, and here he gave himself a tough job: how to keep the audience curious in, and fascinated by, these vile characters without insisting we like them. He starts with the allure he knows is there for us -- the tastes of power and privilege that come to young Henry and older Henry, and which we in turn also taste in their lushness and froth. He pads the soundtrack wall-to-wall with music that draws us back into their time. Consider when Scorsese, in a now-immortal sequence, takes three whole minutes to follow Henry and Karen through a back entrance at the Copacabana that leads to a front-row table installed specifically for them, all to the toe-tapping cheer of The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me". What a rush, to be able to walk through all the hidden doors of the world. What a thrill to share what they experience.
Yes, also also when they steal hundreds of thousands of dollars (in the very next scene) without so much as balling their fists. Maybe also even when they burn down a building for the insurance money. Or when they break the noses of jealous would-be boyfriends -- something that implicates and excites Karen as much as it vicariously thrills us in the audience; the guy had it coming, right? But maybe not when they ooze contempt for anyone who's not also a mobster. Or when they start murdering their own to keep them from talking about another, even bigger heist.
Then, in violent jumps, Scorsese unwinds it all. The violence that had a tinge of black comedy (Tommy breaks bottles over the head of a lounge owner who dares to dun him) now becomes revolting (Tommy murders a young man serving him drinks for talking back). The non-stop backing music switches from invoking nostalgia to a mocking Greek chorus. Finally, in another section of the film that has garnered universal praise, there comes a day in Henry's life where every phase of the life he's made for himself comes calling: he has to conclude a drug deal, keep his current mistress happy, make a flabbergastingly elaborate meal for his brother and family, and not succumb to the coke-fueled conviction that black helicopters are fluttering around just outside his field of vision.
What amazes me about this sequence, and the Copacabana sequence before it, is how they do not seem like directorial indulgences. Instead, they feel like logical extensions of everything set up by the movie beforehand. When Henry and Karen walk backstage, it embodies a plateau of their status as mobsters. When they run around all day, barely a step ahead of both duty and trouble, it's a showcase for how far they've fallen. The scenes cap off a mood, first in miniature and then in ensemble.
The trick to how the whole film works, I think, is in how Scorsese presents Hill not as a hero or even an antihero, but more like a case study. (One of his stated inspirations for the film's style was the then-rising form of reconstructed narrative documentary TV.) The more we see of Hill, the less he charms and the more he repels: his violence towards Karen, his smug indifference to Paulie (who sternly warns Hill away from dealing drugs, not because it's against the code but because he could get busted), his increasingly dissonant and self-serving narration, the amoral way he wrings what he wants out of three different women in his life at the same time. He's also fast becoming a relic of the past, something Scorsese hints at when he puts him at the mercy of a black doctor in one of his drug warps.
Glenn Kenny's excellent book on the film, Made Men, makes note of how Scorsese was potentially in contention with other directors to pick up Hill's memoir, Wiseguy. One of them was Brian de Palma, but he'd already made a great movie about a repellent criminal type, Scarface, and his kind of theatricality would have only given the material a new mythology to wrap around the old. Scorsese grew up in mobbed-up Little Italy, and knew firsthand about much of what Hill described in his own early years. This project was personal, and personalized. He knew how to evoke the mythos, but also how to pull it down from the inside.
Two of the great moviegoing experiences of my life were near-misses: Akira Kurosawa's Ran, which I saw only because a friend of my mother bailed and I stepped in; and Goodfellas. What, I thought, after the likes of The Godfather, was there to say cinematically about lives of crime? But great reviews (chiefly Ebert & Siskel's) spurred me to see it, and when I walked out it was clear the two movies had almost nothing in common. The Godfather was an operatic family tragedy, but Goodfellas was the first truly great American movie actually about organized crime and its contradictions.
The great irony of the mob life was how everyone in it thought it was a sweetheart deal, when in fact they were even bigger losers than the ones they ripped off. All this money, all this power, and they can't think of a thing to do with it except steal more, kill more, and eventually screw each other over. No matter how much Henry waxes rhapsodic about what he misses, in its heart the movie knows the romanticism of mob life is bullshit. At the end, all that's left isn't even a Byronic antihero, but a guy who rats on his compatriots and then complains he can't even get decent Italian food. He's no prize. But then again, more the fools us for expecting anything else.
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