Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
My grandmother, rest her soul, could tell stories of the gangsters she knew from her neighborhood. Her era was that of “Legs” Diamond and Dutch Schultz and could tell us stories about what it was like. I have to say that as a young child, all that did sound terribly glamorous and wonderful. It was only as I got older that I understood better what being a “gangster” meant and it didn’t look as good as the stories she told.
Goodfellas is a story told after her era, in the era of my parents and their generation of relatives. By this time, being a gangster was well beyond just protecting those who the law wouldn’t help, as the narration insists was what gave rise to the mob. By this time, they were well into robbery, drug trafficking, gambling, and more.
In 1955 in Brooklyn, it was a celebrated life to be a gangster. They were still the local celebrities, getting to go where they wanted to and do what they want. Henry Hill is growing up in this atmosphere and idolizes them, dreaming of one day joining their ranks. He is the son of Irish and Italian parents, who initially approve of his involvement in working for the mobsters, but change their minds. It didn’t matter by that point – he was in so deep that they made sure he was protected by threatening the mailman.
That is how Henry is drawn deep into the mob, as he proves his loyalty over and over again to these men that he idolizes. He grows closer to his mob buddies than he is to his own family. He gets married and begins raising a family, but everything always boils down to the code he and his mobster buddies live by; if their moral code says this is how their social order works, then that’s how it works.
This makes it hard for Henry in a few ways. His wife, Karen, who is of Jewish descent, doesn’t cotton to the idea of her husband having a mistress and won’t accept it despite the fact that it seems perfectly natural to the other wives. When Henry goes to jail for a time, she also struggles with the loneliness of a life without him and the distance she feels from people who were once her friends.
Based on the book Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi, who co-authored the screenplay with Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas is a mobster film through and through. It’s violent and makes no apologies or excuses for it. This is the way these people lived. It was a different time. The mobsters were smarter, not as flashy as many of them try to be now. They lived middle-class style live while hiding millions of dollars in cash in their homes. Their lives were insulated, to be sure, with no room for outsiders, but they lived among the general populace rather than among the rich, famous, and noteworthy.
The acting is tremendous. Ray Liotta gives what I would say is the performance of his career as Henry Hill. It’s based on a true story as told by Hill, so his role is the most pivotal. Every now and then, Hill would have this deer in the headlights look for a moment; as if he couldn’t believe what was going on or what had just happened. The moment would pass, however, and Hill would be right in there with the rest of them doing what needed to be done and was expected. These flashes are subtle and Liotta gives them just a moment without drawing them out too long. He and Scorsese (who also Directed) hit on the right beat for character. It’s probably the most memorable character I’ve seen in a mob flick and it’s done without being so over the top that it descends into the unbelievable.
Lorraine Bracco is Hill’s long-suffering wife Karen. She’s in as deep as he is once Hill comes home from the slammer, and it shows how the mob world evolved from the way it was depicted in The Godfather. Just as society changed with women’s liberation, so did the role of women when the husband was a gangster. No longer an innocent bystander, Karen is now an active participant. She gets savvy too, near the end, and learns to trust her instincts.
The rest of the cast is solid. In particular, I loved Paul Sorvino’s portrayal of mob boss Paul Cicero. He underplays the role so much which gives Cicero a quiet calm, like when you’ve been bad and your father comes home but says nothing. Cicero comes off as a strategist throughout the film, and he is probably the sharpest one of the bunch. His only mistake is the people he puts his trust and faith in who eventually diverge from the overall plan he has to venture out on their own.
Robert DeNiro gives another top-notch performance as Jimmy Conway. There are few roles I have seen him in that I don’t like and for that reason, I like him better as an actor than Pacino. His role here is secondary to Liotta, and you’d think an actor of his stature would have a problem with it. That doesn’t happen as his role is one he gives everything to and it comes off well for being one of the associates Hill is so deeply involved with.
Joe Pesci, who I am used to seeing in more comedic roles, is incredible. That’s just the only way I can describe him. He’s still somewhat comedic, only in a sociopathic way, and he steals just about every scene he’s in. He portrays his character, Tommy DeVito, as someone who is short-tempered and doesn’t consider any consequences of his actions. Someone insults him – he shoots them. Hearing Pesci’s laugh afterward brings on reactions of both recoiling in horror as well as laughing with him at the absurdity of it all, which is much the same way Liotta reacts as Henry Hill. The pieces of the lifestyle fit together so perfectly and I really believe it’s because of the excellent casting job.
Everything else comes off well. The pace of the film isn’t breakneck. The story unwinds at a natural pace and the only fault I could find was that Henry’s family seemed to be completely off the canvas until his brother was being picked up from the hospital near the end. It was sort of like they were shoved aside until needed and that just didn’t feel right. At 145 minutes, the film was already pretty long, although it didn’t feel it.
The cinematography is beautiful as Scorsese uses different camera angles and framing as well as shutter speeds to capture the moods of the time as well as the action. New Yorkers, especially those who grew up around the Five Towns area as well as south Queens and Brooklyn will likely recognize quite a number of the filming locations.
Scorsese wanted to make a mob movie that was really the way he remembered it, rather than the way gangsters were usually portrayed on film. He achieved that with Goodfellas. It’s got less romance of the mob and more of the bloodletting and violence which surrounded this lifestyle. I’ve watched the film several times and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.
• Cast & Crew Commentary with Director Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi, and more
• Commentary with Henry Hill & ex-FBI Agent Edward McDonald
• Getting Made
• The Workday Gangster
• The Goodfellas Legacy
• Paper is Cheaper than Film
• Theatrical Trailer
Categories: Movie Reviews