Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco
Directed by Martin Scorsese
For Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), being a gangster was better than being the President of the United States. As a young boy in 1950s Brooklyn, Hill idolized Mafia kingpin Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and the made men around him, and even managed to apprentice himself to Cicero's organization as a low-level gofer and errand boy--much to his family's consternation. Hill grows up in the life, becoming a loyal soldier--or thug, depending on your perspective--and making a name for himself along with a couple of close friends, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci). Pulling off big scores, romancing and ultimately marrying the lovely Karen (Lorraine Bracco), rising through the ranks of the Cicero organization, Henry Hill truly may be living the American dream, albeit a violent, outlaw version of it. Until things start to go really, really wrong, and a few gentlemen representing the federal government make him an offer he may not be able to refuse.
The gangster picture as a genre is nearly as old as film itself, but there are, I think, three great filmed works that tell the story of La Cosa Nostra as a grand metaphor for America itself in the 20th century. The first two Godfather pictures portray a Mafia in ascendance, with young Vito Corleone emigrating from Italy in 1901, building a powerful criminal enterprise over four decades, and passing it on to his son Michael after the Second World War. In producer David Chase's acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos, we see a Mafia in decline; capo Tony Soprano presides over a decaying empire decimated by RICO prosecutions and the increasing abandonment of the code of omerta by made-men-turned-stoolies, eking out a living from penny-ante insurance scams and loan sharking. In between, forming the middle third of this trilogy, is Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas: the Mafia in the prime of its existence. The Mob may not have been at the absolute height of its power in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the bulk of the film takes place, but it had been around long enough to become an institution, long enough to have been at the center of Henry Hill's life from his earliest memories.
Based on a true story, Goodfellas accomplishes the interesting feat of showing vividly why the Mob life is so seductive to Hill without sugarcoating it at all for the viewers. As in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which also starred De Niro, Goodfellas portrays the Mafia as an avenue to a kind of life its protagonist could not expect to live without it. Whereas the earlier generation of mafiosi had their options limited by ethnic and anti-immigrant prejudice, however, the young men of Hill's generation, growing up in working-class families at the dawn of the postwar consumer society, are lured into the criminal life for economic reasons pretty much exclusively. Goodfellas' signature scene features a long, smooth tracking shot through Henry's favorite nightclub as he greets a colorful crowd of mobster friends, guys with names like Freddy No Nose, Fat Andy, and Jimmy Two Times, so named because he habitually said everything twice: "Gonna go get the papers, get the papers." Good fellas, all. Scorsese uses a number of these sustained shots to great effect, showing off the exuberant energy of a man on the rise in the New York underworld. But Goodfellas doesn't paper over the violence and danger of organized crime, nor does it romanticize the figure of Henry Hill, a thief and a cold-blooded murderer. If the viewer is ever tempted to sympathize with any of the characters as their world falls apart, it is not without a clear-eyed recognition that they've brought it all on themselves. Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his portrayal of the inconsistently psychotic Tommy DeVito, truly one of the most frightening characters to ever appear in a gangster picture, and any time at all spent watching him should be enough to convince any viewer that he surely deserves whatever it is that he's inevitably going to get, as does anyone with the bad judgment to voluntarily associate with him.
Points to ponder:
- Look for: two future Sopranos actors, Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Jennifer Melfi) as Henry Hill's wife and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) as the young waiter who can't seem to stay off Joe Pesci's bad side.
- Goodfellas is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy; the title of the film was changed to avoid confusion with the Ken Wahl TV series "Wiseguy," which premiered in 1987.
- The real Henry Hill was relocated to right here in Redmond, Washington, where he and his wife ran an Italian restaurant. After Goodfellas was released the federal government relocated them again.