Take 20: Goodfellas
Goodfellas is one of four Martin Scorsese films included on the BBC’s Top 100 American Films list. Rounding out the top 20, it sits directly behind the other Scorsese / Deniro masterpiece, #19 Taxi Driver. I had never seen Goodfellas before, and when I saw that the Brattle was running a four day screening I was excited for the opportunity to check off a relatively recent film on the list. Released in 1990, Goodfellas is the most modern film in the top 20 by almost fifteen years. One of the many wonderful qualities about Goodfellas though, is that it transcends that decade along with the genre that it helped to define.
I am shocked to say that Goodfellas is likely my favorite gangster movie, (full disclosure:The Sopranos most strongly influenced my mafia palette). The obvious critical goliath in the genre, (The Godfather, BBC #2) is a portrait of a family experiencing power struggles and is almost Shakespearean in its scope and tone. Scorsese steps back and shows us a panoramic snapshot of the gangster life that isn’t one of somebody on the top looking down, a paranoid king atop their throne, but instead is viewed from the perspective of somebody in the middle, a foot soldier who always needs to be both looking up and over their shoulder.
When we first meet Henry Hill, he’s a kid in 1950’s Brooklyn who tells us right away that he’s always wanted to be a gangster. He idolizes the men who loiter outside the deli, languidly ribbing each other while they make cash hand over fist. Henry joins the crew, gets pinched, and keeps his mouth shut. The opening act of the movie admits that this film grows from the same roots as other mafia stories — it is a lustful embrace of 1950’s organized crime and the good old boys on the corner who kept the peace by greasing palms and creating an aura of power. Henry, the son of struggling immigrant parents (an Italian mother and abusive / alcoholic Irish father) is attracted to the respect the mob commanded in the neighborhood, and wanted in on the action even if it meant doing the grunt work. He is though, and will always be, an outsider because of his partial Irish heritage. Over the course of Henry’s career we will witness him standing on the precipice of the inner circle, and paying his monetary respects up the chain of command, but the space between in and out, made and not made, is chasm he’s never able to breech.
I was surprised by how often The Wolf of Wall Street came to mind while watching the movie, I had expected to be most stringently reminded of The Departed as Goodfellas next of kin. If anything, the film made me appreciate what had been lost on me the first time I saw tWoWS — Scorsese is masterful at playing both sides of our instincts. The beginning of the film is a romantic reminder that sometimes, damn, it feels good to be a gangster. Over and over again we see little Henry and little Tommy Devito, his predestined partner in crime, running schemes and living large. As a viewer, we have plenty of reason to root for Henry’s ascension within the ranks; everyone wants to be accepted into the power gang, to be respected and rich and exhilarated. It’s small time at first, but his role grows quickly and soon he’s seen counting fat stacks of cash and generally not giving a fuck.
Yet, just as he did in The Wolf of Wall Street, at the drop of a dime Marty will flip the coin and suddenly we’re spiraling out of control along with trio of wise guys we were just cheering on. The most direct example of this is how different it feels to watch the scene with the not-quite-dead guy in the trunk before the opening credits, compared to the experience of seeing it after we’ve felt Henry’s highest highs. Henry is forced to grapple with the cost of that levity and the respect he prizes. The cost to the viewer is that by embracing the early relatability, we allow Scorsese to also remind us that we must fear both the boom and the bust. We are forced to admit that the other side of our humanity can just as easily be manipulated — some of us would not be able to resist buying a new car after a big score, and maybe some of us would abuse our power as gangsters or rat on our friends instead of keeping our mouths shut. Our basic human instincts are twisted and teased into an ensemble of ingredients that Scorcese commands to his liking through the eyes and life of Henry Hill.
I think the most accessible example of this is how often greed and ego supercede a call for restraint among the crew. After the Lufthansa heist, they are instructed to avoid flashy displays of the unlaundered fruits of their recent haul — yet one by one they show up in new corvettes followed by wives in new mink coats. Robert Deniro’s character, Jimmy Conway is apoplectic at their childish submission to the cash burning holes in their pockets. However, Jimmy and Henry are far from innocent when it comes to rash and thoughtless actions. They ignored direct orders from their own boss and capo of the gang, Paulie Cicero, when he tells them to stay away from the drug game. Their greed overpowers their previous tendency to fall in line, the chain of command comes to second to their desire to make money and have access to unlimited blow. These are the first cracks in the levee that cannot withstand the onslaught of dissension in the ranks.
Nobody embodies the lack of restraint within the gang better than Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy Devito. He plays the role so well, I’ve spent the better part of the last week drastically rethinking my relationship to Home Alone and fearing for Kevin McAlister’s life more than ever. Tommy is an emotional wreck with a Napoleon complex and a trigger happy temper. His doughy, delicate, sense of self is easily provoked by those around him, and he is quick with the steel in a way that seals his own fate as well as his comrades. Tommy is the lynchpin of the plot. It is the result of his actions, in addition to his general lack of regard for the consequences of those actions, that propels the inevitable unravelling of the gang forward. He is emotional and unable to control himself, he drops bodies at the slightest challenge to his authority or insult, as if there is no chance he will face retaliation, legal or otherwise.
Tommy’s actions are what widen the cracks in the dam, and what cause Henry to question the foundation of his relationships within the group. Henry tells us that just about any misstep can get you killed by the people who are supposed to be on your team and it’s no longer clear where the enemy lines are drawn. Goodfellas balances two equal but opposing threats — the external threat of the federal government taking them down for criminality, against the internal threat of gang members who use deadly force even in the case of a simple slip of the tongue. Throughout the middle of the film, when Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy are most entangled, we are shown again and again that loyalty and trust are not mutually dependent.
Henry’s complicated relationship with “the family” extends to his connection with his actual family as well. I mentioned earlier that Henry forsaked his mother and father in order join up with the wise guys, but for the majority of the film his family is represented by the stellar Lorraine Bracco’s performance of Karen Hill. Karen’s is the only voiceover we hear in the film other than Henry’s, and another thing I loved about this movie is that her experience as Henry’s wife is never trivialized. I have said in the past that a particular pet peeve of mine is when women are treated as props in film, but in Goodfellas Scorsese values his female lead enough to show how her experience with the mafia as inextricable from Henry’s. They are introduced through Tommy, and in the early phases of their relationship we see Karen question her husband’s character and whether or not she’s going to fit in with the other mob wives — she embodies trepidation toward the mafia lifestyle as much as Henry did enthusiasm.
However, a few years after their marriage, she joins Henry’s downward trajectory and finds herself embroiled in the same litigious and life threatening predicaments as her husband. They have a roller coaster marriage, and I think it would be a stretch to say that true love was the saving grace of their relationship as much as a shared taste for expensive finery, but there is unquestionably a loyalty between them (not to be confused with fidelity) and even though they exchange stints of holding a gun to each other’s heads, it’s no surprise that when the shit hits the fan they retreat to the relative safety of the marriage.
If there is one thing that is undeniable about Goodfellas, it is that it portrays the malleability of allegiance. Beyond the themes of brotherhood and masculinity that are intrinsic to mob movies, Goodfellas allows us to see how fragile those platitudes are in reality. Scorsese is able to take the elements of a traditional mafia movie and twist them into a new shape that becomes something that honors those forebearers but still has a decidedly modern bent.