Eighteen years after The Godfather portrayed a Mafia ethos based on family ties and a code of honor, GoodFellas came along to show the flip side.
There is no romance here. No looking out for one’s people. No myth of a moral code. Instead, GoodFellas is about psychopaths who steal, kill and ultimately betray each other. It’s two-and-a-half hours of blood, depravity and—that most American of vices—greed. Director Martin Scorsese summed up his subjects’ wiseguy lifestyle in three words: “Want. Take. Simple.”
Oh, and by the way, it’s a brilliant movie packed with dozens of colorful characters. The soundtrack of songs from the 1950s through the ‘80s compliments the action (and was, reportedly, among the most costly in movie history). GoodFellas is edited so tightly and flies by so fast that you may want to watch it again. Immediately.
Scorsese, in an interview with film critic Gavin Smith, applauded The Godfather as “epic poetry,” while contrasting his film as “like some guy on the street corner talking.” GoodFellas, he said, serves as an antidote to The Godfather, “in terms of [the characters’] attitude. They don’t give a damn, especially when they’re having a good time and making a lot of money. They don’t care about their wives, their kids, anything.”
The movie is based on the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy (the title was changed for the movie to keep it from being confused with the 1987-90 television series Wiseguy). Pileggi, a renowned crime reporter, portrays the life of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Italian drug dealer, arsonist, truck hijacker, and extortionist. Hill, because of his non-Italian blood, could never become a “made man” in the Mafia. Or, as Pileggi told the New York Times, “He was an outsider, an observer. Henry was a thug, but he was a visiting thug.”
The movie script, co-written by Pileggi and Scorsese, doesn’t stray far from the book’s depiction of actual events. If anything, it’s grubbier than real life.
GoodFellas opens with a jarringly violent stabbing-shooting of a guy in a car trunk. The scene ends with the camera frozen on the face of Henry, played by Ray Liotta. “As far back as I can remember,” he calmly narrates, “I always wanted to be a gangster.”
We then go back to Brooklyn in the 1950s, where Henry, age 12, gets his start as a go-fer for neighborhood capo and father figure Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). He talks like a kid in love. “To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies.” The wiseguys, he explains, “weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted.”
For his internship, the youngster firebombs cars and helps fence smuggled cigarettes (for which he takes his first rap). As he matures, he graduates into more serious crimes, like, say, murder one. At no point does Henry show remorse. This is entirely about business.
His mentor is Jimmy “the Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), an amoral thief who, like Henry, cannot become a made man because of his Irish blood. His pal is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a punk prone to killing people who don’t treat him with enough respect. Tommy’s violent side shocks even his fellow mobsters. In one scene, Tommy degrades a young waiter named Spider (Michael Imperioli), forcing him to dance like “The Oklahoma Kid” and shooting him in the foot. Later, when Spider gives him lip, Tommy fires five shots into the poor kid’s chest.
Henry also meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs he impresses by taking to the Copacabana. In perhaps the greatest Steadicam shot ever, the couple winds their way from the Copa’s back door, through its kitchen, into the nightclub (all to the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”), to a front-row table, where they receive complimentary champagne and hear Henny Youngman crack, “Take my wife. Please.” Good times.
This three-minute continuous shot—inspired by Scorsese friend/rival Brian De Palma and his wonderful tracking shot of Sean Connery’s character getting murdered in The Untouchables—involved more than 400 precisely timed moments and is as graceful as a ballet. Henry greets everyone he passes—the maître d’, gamblers, other Goodfellas, and presses $20 bills into each waiter’s hand. The scene establishes him as a big deal—at least in the eyes of the woman who soon becomes his wife.
Henry and the gang mature into some damned talented criminals. They reach their apex with the $5 million theft of cash and jewels stored in a vault at JFK Airport. The plot is based on the real December 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist, the largest robbery ever committed on American soil at the time.
Of course, these being crooks, they eventually turn on each other. Rather than pay off the guys who actually stole the loot, Jimmy Conway whacks them (to the piano coda of “Layla”). “When they found Carbone in the meat truck,” Henry notes, “he was frozen so stiff it took them two days to thaw him out for the autopsy.”
Henry, by then a coke addict, becomes paranoid that he will be Jimmy’s next victim. So when he gets busted by the Feds, he immediately becomes a snitch, testifies against his lifelong friends, and gets a new life under the federal government’s witness protection program. There is no soul searching because, as Pileggi wrote, “He has no soul. He has all the moral fortitude of a cheap-jack stockbroker trying to hustle.”
Henry’s only regret, in the end, is that the high life is over for him. GoodFellas closes with a shot of him walking out of a small suburban tract house in his bathrobe and leaning down to pick up a newspaper. In the purgatory where the government has relocated him, spaghetti and marinara sauce is replaced by egg noodles and ketchup. “I’m an average nobody,” he complains. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
“He’s angry about it,” Scorsese said in an article in GQ. “And to a certain extent, I think that was a provocation of the audience, too—that these people lived this way, did these things, and he’s complaining that he can’t do it anymore.”
In its first public showing, GoodFellas bombed. A test audience in conservative Orange County, California gave it the worst preview grades in Warner Brothers’ history.
“People got so angry they stormed out of the theater,” Scorsese said. “They thought it was an outrage that I made these people so attractive.”
The studio considered holding back the film or recutting its violent scenes. Eventually, Warner Brothers released it without changes in September 1990 but sent it to fewer and smaller theaters than originally planned. Word of mouth and strong reviews helped it develop legs. By Christmas, it proved to be one of the year’s biggest hits.
Pesci won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and GoodFellas was nominated for five other Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That award was won by Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves.
All these years later, you tell us—GoodFellas or Dances with Wolves?
HIT: So many great moments, we feel compelled to mention one more. The portrayal of Henry’s final day as a wiseguy—the end of his downhill slide—is brilliant.
Strung out on cocaine, Henry’s got a full agenda: collect his wheelchair-bound brother from the hospital, unload some hot guns, make the Sunday gravy, pick up a drug shipment, and prepare it for distribution—all while dodging those helicopters that seem to be tailing him. In Henry’s frenzied state, each chore takes on equal importance. It hits the crash point when his drug mule, Lois, insists she must return to Rockaway to pick up her lucky hat before flying.
The scene is edited with fast, frenetic cuts. It’s backed by hard-beating samples from a dozen artists—the Rolling Stones, the Who, Muddy Waters, and others. You feel as jumpy and paranoid watching it as Henry appears on the screen.
“I’ve had a couple of people come up to me who were users,” Liotta told GQ. “And they said they would cue up that scene just to remember what that stuff could do to you.”
MISS: We can’t find anything to knock, so we’ll leave that to misguided Variety critic Joseph McBride: “Dramatically unsatisfying. . . . Undercut by the off-putting, opaque characterization of Ray Liotta [who] develops a flashy, pretty-boy persona. . . . Scorsese misguidedly abandons his focus on the mob community to tell the unrewarding story of a lone wolf. . . . The film rambles seriously, wearing out its interest at least half an hour before it’s over.”
What was he watching?
CASTING CALL: Al Pacino, John Malkovich, and William Petersen all turned down the role of Jimmy Conway. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were considered for Henry Hill. And Madonna was producer Irwin Winkler’s first choice to play Karen Hill.
Think about that: Tom Cruise and Madonna. Slightly different movie, eh?
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: What number is higher than infinity?
PIVOTAL SCENE: Henry deals drugs while imprisoned to keep his family from going broke on the outside. Upon his release, he’s feted at a party at Paulie Cicero’s house. After dinner, Paulie leads Henry into the backyard for a private chat.
“I know you did what you had to do in there. But I don’t want any more of that shit,” Paulie warns, his arm pulling Henry in tight. Paulie recalls another mob boss who received a 20-year sentence because one of his crew was selling behind his back. “Don’t make a jerk out of me,” he cautions. “Just don’t do it.”
Henry looks at his mentor in the eye. He emphatically vows to stay away from dealing.
Cut to the apartment of Henry’s gumad, Sandy (Debi Mazar). As the soundtrack blares “Gimme Shelter,” a bleary-eyed Henry dices a mound of cocaine with a playing card.
“I could see that this was a really good business,” he says in narration, noting that he cleared $12,000 in one week. His betrayal of Paulie would prove to be their undoing.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Watching GoodFellas is like going to the Bronx Zoo. You stare at the beasts of prey and find a brute charisma in their demeanor. You wonder how you would act if you lived in their world, where aggression is rewarded and decency is crushed. Finally, you walk away, tantalized by a view into the darkest part of yourself, glad that that part is still behind bars.”—Richard Corliss, Time
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: At times, GoodFellas seems like an audition for The Sopranos. Nearly two-dozen actors appear in both this movie and that landmark HBO series. Most notable are Bracco (Dr. Jennifer Melfi), Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Vincent Pastore (“Big Pussy” Bonpensiero), Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo) and Tony Sirico (Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri). Actress Suzanne Shepherd plays the mother of both Karen Hill and Carmela Soprano.
One more almost made it. The Sopranos creator David Chase has said that he talked with Liotta about the role of Ralphie Cifaretto, which was ultimately played by Joe Pantoliano, and ranks as one of the show’s all-time creepiest characters.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: That’s Samuel L. Jackson in the minor role of getaway driver Stacks Edwards. Jackson was 41 years old when GoodFellas came out. The late bloomer did not become a Hollywood star until age 45, with the release of Pulp Fiction.
GOOF: Henry Hill somehow goes from being right-handed to left-handed as he grows from a teenager to an adult. Of course, this is because the actor who played young Henry, Christopher Serrone, is a righty, while Liotta is a lefty.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Many of the small parts in GoodFellas are played by real mob figures. Scorsese felt they imparted genuineness to the film. “Mob guys love it because it’s the real thing and they knew the people in it,” said Pileggi, “They say, ‘It’s like a home movie.’ ”
Watch, particularly, for the character of Fat Andy, who is played by Louis Eppolito, a former New York City cop who also worked for the Lucchese crime family. Years later, Eppolito was convicted of murder and racketeering and received a life sentence.
BEST LINE: Could it be anything other than:
Tommy: “Let me understand this ’cause, you 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 fucking amuse you? What do you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?”
The discomforting scene between Tommy and Henry was borne out of an incident Pesci had as a young restaurant worker when he complimented a mobster on his sense of humor. Scorsese allowed Pesci and Liotta to improvise their dialogue. The other actors in the shot were not told what would occur because Scorsese wanted their unrehearsed reactions.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: There’s high, there’s higher, and then there’s Pesci in his prime. Just ask poor Billy Batts.
Batts (Frank Vincent) is a made man celebrating his release from prison in a bar owned by Henry. When Tommy also comes by, Batts takes a few verbal swipes, telling the one-time shoeshine boy to “go home and get your fucking shine box.” It’s major league ballbusting but Tommy, as a relative youngster, is supposed to take it from an older guy who’s his superior in the business.
He doesn’t. Instead, he leaves the bar, comes back when the rest of Batts’ party has gone, and—joined by Jimmy Conway—stomps Batts into near-death (the final blows come later). As they wrap Batts’ mutilated body in tablecloths, Tommy shows his only remorse, telling Henry, “I didn’t mean to get blood on your floor.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Shooting Henry Hill, a 2007 documentary by Luke Heppner, who tracks the real Henry Hill. You learn that Hill was eventually tossed from the witness protection program for ongoing criminal activity.
BODY COUNT: Ten, but it feels like a whole lot more.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”