Screenplay : Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi (based on the book "Wiseguy" by Nicholas Pileggi)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1990
Stars : Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Sivero (Frankie Carbone), Tony Darrow (Sonny Bunz), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts)
The first words we hear in the voice-over narration of Henry Hill, the central character of "GoodFellas" are: "For as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
The success of Martin Scorsese's stunning Mafia epic is twofold. First, he makes a strong argument why a gangster's life of crime and violence would be so tantalizing to Henry, and secondly, he portrays how that life paid off for a while, but eventually led to his self destruction and the destruction of all those around him. The film's main strength is that Scorsese somehow manages to make the Mafia life completely appealing and completely repulsive at the same time.
"GoodFellas" tells the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a lifetime gangster who is now an anonymous suburban resident in the government's witness relocation program. He told his story to the journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who worked with Scorsese to adapt the ensuing book "Wiseguy" for the screen.
An Irish-Italian kid who grew up on the streets in New York, Henry watched all the gangsters on his block get everything. In his narration, he exudes about how they could park in front of fire hydrants and not get tickets, and stay up all night playing cards, and no one ever called and complained.
Henry quickly found a way to get into the lifestyle, running odd jobs for Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the neighborhood boss. At fourteen, Henry proved his worth, and pretty soon he was skipping school on a regular basis, and making the Mafia his full-time job. When his father found out he'd been skipping school, his Mafia buddies took care of the situation by beating the tar out of the mailman who delivered the school's letter. When Henry got pinched selling stolen cigarettes, all the Mafiosos met him outside the courthouse with open arms, proud of him for "taking it like a man." All these scenes work intricately together to show how the lifestyle was irresistible to a young kid from a blue-collar family. He was a part of something important, and he didn't see how it could ever go bad.
By the time he was twenty-one, Henry was a full-time member, along with his buddy Tommy (Joe Pesci in an Academy Award-winning role), and the older, sly Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro). Everything in life was sweet because he had power and respect, even though he was really just a middleman. According to Henry, "Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies."This was the life he led, and he admits that he and the rest of the Mafiosos thought that living any other way was "nuts."
Henry met and married a Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who was naively enthralled with his power and money. Their marital bliss was short, as Henry tended to stay out all night engaging in various criminal and extramarital activities. The life had made him shameless, so much that he paid for an extra apartment for his mistress near his home. Karen caught on soon because Henry didn't do much to hide his transgressions. She quickly understood that she was left behind with the kids and the cooking while Henry was out taking full advantage of the lifestyle.
In its two and a half hour running time, "GoodFellas" covers a lot of ground. It digs deep into its characters, whether that be Henry's inability to know where to draw the line, the confusion and frustrations of his wife, or the random psychotic impulses of Tommy, who is just as capable of telling a hilarious joke as shooting someone in cold blood for no reason. Every actor in this film is in top form, easily conveying their characters' changing attitudes as situations around them evolved and declined over three decades.
Scorsese, who is arguably the most talented and vigorous director working in film today, is at his best in the most intense moments. There is no pulpy delusion that any of this is glorified. The violence is raw and sickening, and it doesn't discriminate. These characters lead a violent life, and they receive just as much as they dish out. And anyone can murder anyone else. Loyalty is an illusion, and betrayal is an everyday part of life. "GoodFellas" seems to reason that one of the major flaws in the Mafia lifestyle is that it relies so heavily on trust, when those you have to trust are lying, conniving, scheming robbers and murderers. The underlying message is that crime pays big for a while, but not in the long run.
As a cinematic experience, "GoodFellas" is a feast for the eyes and ears. Scorsese punctuates the action and period clothing (by costume designer Richard Bruno) with a searing soundtrack of period rock songs. Ever since Robert De Niro made his entrance in "Mean Streets" to music of the Rolling Stones, Scorsese has been known as a director who makes good use of musical cues.
He also uses incredibly deft camerawork, utilizing cranes, dollies, and zooms as well as a finely paced editing style that crams in volumes of information without being confusing. One scene in particular follows Henry and Karen from the street as they enter the back of a club, walk through the rear hallways, through the kitchen, and wind their way through the club around waiters and patrons, finally taking a seat and having a conversation. It's an incredible unbroken Steadi-Cam shot several minutes long that rivals the opening of Orson Welle's "Touch of Evil."
Logistic aside, "GoodFellas" is an unforgettable movie experience simply because of the pure emotion Scorsese embeds in every frame. You can feel the screen pulsating with emotions, whether that be anger or greed or joy or paranoia. In the last third of the film, Scorsese alters the plot structure by taking us through a day in the life of Henry Hill when he is at his lowest, attempting to pull off a cocaine deal, trade guns, and cook dinner for his family, all while sniffing half his profits, and sweating in paranoia that a helicopter is following him. Everything about the sequence, from the editing to the acting to the pacing, is an example of filmmaking at its very finest.
Many critics agree that Scorsese's 1976 film "Taxi Driver" was the best film of the seventies, and his 1980 film "Raging Bull" was the best of the eighties. Somehow I have the feeling that several years from now, many will be making strong arguments that "GoodFellas" was one of the best of the nineties, if not the best. It is, in a word, brilliant.
©1997 James Kendrick