In 1986, the crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi wrote a lurid piece of gangster non-fiction called Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. The book was an account of the life of Henry Hill, a Brooklyn-born, Irish/Italian mobster who went to work for the Lucchese crime family when he was 11 years old. Hill’s meteoric rise had a nearly harrowing denouement as he “ratted” out his lifelong Cosa Nostra and spent the rest of his life hiding out in the in Witness Protection Program. At once macabre and tantalizing, Pileggi’s reportage depicted everyday life in the mob with the pulsating rat-a-tat-tat of a Hollywood-style thriller, replete with all the requisite treachery and carnage. On the page, Hill’s recounting was blunt and unforgiving, and the “do or die” life of mafia street thugs contained all the elements of what the film critic Pauline Kael once identified as the “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” of cinema, an intersection of the carnal and the violent that, if executed with originality and imagination, could find startlingly original life on celluloid. As it happened, Martin Scorsese agreed.
When Scorsese was shooting The Color of Money (1985), he received the galleys of Pileggi’s Wise Guy. Scorsese was reluctant to consider revisiting the mob world and was pretty much convinced that the gangster movie had been rendered authoritatively by Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather. With his own Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese had himself dazzled in the genre, and he felt that the underworld of capos and kingpins was well-trodden territory. A new entry to the genre should be gritty and realistic, almost documentary-style in its portrayal, Scorsese thought. Such a world would need to conjure a milieu in stark contrast to the operatic grandeur of The Godfather or the Runyonesque theatricality of the James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson pictures released by Warner Brothers in its halcyon heyday. That world became Goodfellas, now 25 years old, and it remains Scorsese’s imperishable contribution to “wise guy” cinema, if not popular culture.
The enduring genius of Goodfellas, a movie that is as exuberant as it is relentless, is to demand that mafia life beckon your attention with a come-hither air, and to make the viewer forget they are watching unabashed psychopaths whose murderous rampages, oily racketeering schemes and lawless lifestyles redefine repugnance. But how glorious a repugnance it is. Even my countless viewings (I’ve long ago lost track of how many times I’ve re-watched the film) leave me with a pulse-racing glee and a hankering for more. Scorsese’s direction in the film is insidiously brilliant — it makes you fall in love with not with the “made men” as it were, but the streetwise, the hustlers and the reprobates. Even the film’s central characters, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci) are not the crime family’s pooh-bahs. They have filthy hands indeed, but their own lethal machinations make them seem like they are the Mafia dons so commonly depicted as omniscient and untouchable. If anything, these “goodfellas” are rock stars because they aren’t kings. Scorsese’s gallery of rogues are undeniably incorrigible, maniacal low-lifes, but what other film makes ferocious thuggery so compulsively watchable?
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” intones Ray Liotta as the film begins, a device Scorsese employs not simply to provide voice-over narration. Like the book, the film observes the ruthless and ultimately ruinous life in a crime syndicate through the prism of Henry Hill, who, as a pre-pubescent teen, observes the wise guys who ran the taxi stand in his Brownsville neighborhood with a wide-eyed wonder most kids would have reserved for Elvis. Scorsese’s own childhood memories of the garden variety mob-types that populated his own lower Manhattan enclave of Little Italy left him with a reporter’s eye for detail when it came to finding a spirit to the film that boasted a take no prisoners authenticity.
Indeed, Liotta’s narration, which wryly comments on the blood-soaked proceedings as his own life gets increasingly more complicated (and the corpses keep accumulating), still manages to elicit our empathy. For most of the film’s 146 minute running time, we are allowed to be spectators, worm’s eye onlookers to an environs that reveals a heightened sense of reality, yet it’s a reality that eschews the formality and canned codas of the slicker, more-overcooked mob pictures that both preceded and succeeded Goodfellas. (I won’t name names.)
While Goodfellas largely trades on the machismo of its male-driven realm, testosterone-induced drama isn’t its singular virtue. It is much to Scorsese’s credit that he cast Lorraine Bracco, late of The Sopranos, who plays Liotta’s wife Karen. Bracco, whose bravura performance is by turns innocent and Machiavellian, is as integral to Liotta’s grounded confidence as she is to the eventual cocaine ring that proves his (and their) undoing. If anything, many of the film’s mob wives are essential, even if they enjoy scant screen time. In one of the picture’s more dryly amusing scenes, Bracco attends a nail salon party with her fellow molls, in which her own voice-narration turns cultural and ethnic observation into an art.
Although Goodfellas no doubt feels like a tightly coiled, kinetically powered machine, much of its power is in its improvisation. Much of the dialogue was performed, but specifically not perfected in rehearsal so that the idiosyncrasies endemic to many of the film’s indelible characters and characterizations never go stale. Pesci’s Tommy, whom he unleashes as a mad-man untethered, is arguably the film’s supernova of a performance. (He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1990 for his role.) But even his inimitable scenes with lines that somehow should be put into the public record — “You think I’m funny? … What am I a clown?… I’m here to amuse you?” — were largely improvised and informed by Pesci’s own recollection of a mafioso, whose hair-trigger temper nearly put Pesci in danger when he told the guy that he found him funny.
Scorsese’s dynamic filmmaking style gives the film’s non-linear, even disconnected plotting an unadulterated power through his use of montages, ominous freeze frames and of course, Liotta’s breaking of the fourth wall. The soundtrack to Goodfellas, is very much its own character and to Scorsese’s great credit, the songs unfurl chronologically. The use of music in the film, which offers up Tony Bennett, The Crystals, Eric Clapton and others, spans a roughly 25 year period from 1955 to 1980. The lapel-grabbing intensity of the film is often leavened by a wide-ranging sample of the post-war American jukebox, and the film deploys its soundtrack perhaps as successfully as I’ve ever seen. Few films come to mind that could cleverly feature a gruesome murder in a Queens restaurant/bar and set it to the sounds of Donovan’s “Atlantis”. In one of the movie’s most integral scenes, Gambino honcho Billy Bats (Frank Vincent) is left like a slab of meat after taunting Pesci with his provocative and unforgettable, “Now go get your fuckin’ shinebox” utterances. The fact that this scene never loses its wallop-packing vigor, despite repeated viewings, is one of the many reasons Goodfellas remains evergreen.
For all the violence of Goodfellas, Scorsese imbues the narrative with brazen comic broadness that stops short of buffoonery, and it’s the director’s coup de cinema that even the most sadistic moments are absurdly enjoyable, even joyous. (The sight of a betrayed mobster’s body found hanging on the hooks of a meat truck comes to mind.) But even Scorsese undercuts Liotta’s own dewey-eyed view of mafia life with bouts of violence that leave even him in occasional shock. When Pesci shoots dead a young bartender called “Spider”(played by Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos), Liotta registers a painful outrage that suggests even he may be in too deep.
As the film’s end draws near, and Liotta has to give up the life to be what he calls “an ordinary shnook,” it’s not so much sadness for the film’s loathsome hoodlums (many of the scoundrels are either dead or, thanks to Liotta’s testimony, fated to spend much of their days in the clink), but the end of our buzz. Yes, the end of a viewing of Goodfellas often feels like a great come-down, the dissipation of a high, a touch of the post-partum after we’ve been floating for a while, pixilated by the magnetism of the sinister and the sinful. Goodfellas gives us an ability to lapse into transgression, if only in our imaginations, at least for a couple of hours. That’s Scorsese’s perversely thrilling gift. Who needs the sacred, anyway, when the profane is this much fun?