So says Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a movie about the benefits and turmoils of life as a New York mobster. Though he isn’t entirely Italian, and therefore cannot officially become a “made man,” the mob has always been a part of Henry’s life – as a kid, he envied the guys that could get dates with all the beautiful girls, and the guys that could park in front of a fire hydrant and not get a ticket.
He envied the gangsters. He started his own mob career small, working for the Ciceros across the street, sweeping the floors and parking Cadillacs, and by the film’s conclusion, he’s running drug operations and ordering hits. Henry (Ray Liotta) narrates his story, and is crucial to the film’s authenticity and success. Through his eyes, the world is their world, and their power is limitless. “If we wanted something, we just took it,” Henry explains. “If anyone complained twice, they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”
When the fun and the action are over, Henry misses the good ol’ days. He has no money, most of his friends are dead, and his best friend tried to kill him, but after he finds safety in the witness protection program, he is still upset. “I’m an average nobody. Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
Scorsese, whom has never before captured this level of emotion in these people, has given his audience a look into the crime collective that is perhaps superior to The Godfather.
For sports fans, it is like having tickets on the 50-yard line, or right on the ice: though we are not directly involved in what’s happening in front of us, we can still feel the raw energy escaping from the field. Henry is an outsider to the actual mob, the audience has that in common with him, and that convinces us that we are on this journey across the law’s line with him.
Along with Henry are Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) – a distinct swagger follows him around as he slips twenties into everybody’s pockets – and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a character who can be the life of the party just as easily as he can be the death. Together, they watch each other’s backs as they go after everyone else’s; they form a binding team, which makes Henry’s final decision all the more shocking. Early on in the film, after the young Henry gets off of a distributing charge, Jimmy tells him he has learned the two most important things in life: “never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” After this statement, the irony of this film – which is based on the real-life stories of Henry Hill, whose testimony led to the arrests of many high-profile mobsters – snowballs until the end credits.
Henry’s life has always coincided with some form of violence. As a kid working for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), he would torch parking lots one day, and see someone get shot the next, but then he would come home to an angry father, and get beaten for skipping school. Though he does become a violent man himself, in comparison, he has the strongest conscious.
One of the many unusual things Goodfellas does well is give its leading lady ample screen time, which is generally rare in a gangster movie.
Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) narrates her side of the story, and admits to being attracted to Henry’s charm and his cool character as she is swallowed up by the mob life. When her neighbor makes advances on her, she tells Henry, who proceeds to pistol-whip the assaulter until he is lying on the ground bleeding. When Henry walks back to her house, and hands her the gun, she thinks out loud, “I know there are women, like my best friends. Who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”
Underneath the film’s violence is a tale of economic determination. Henry’s lifestyle wouldn’t lead to glamorous Cadillacs or gorgeous women on its own. Rather, in an effort worthy of the title “a twisted American promise,” he earns his pay. The film’s opening song is a fitting choice to make that point clear. That as Tony Bennet sings out “I know I’ll go from Rags to Riches!” Jimmy, on the other hand, likes to steal. And as Henry makes his way up the criminal hierarchy, Jimmy’s jobs grow in stature and reward, and lead right to the big, climatic heist. The real Lufthansa heist, in which almost six million dollars was stolen from the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Henry, mid-shower, jumps for joy when he hears the news.
Henry is purposely not the ordinary gangster. He doesn’t share the characteristics of a Corleone or a Capone.
But neither does Jimmy. Neither are Italian. It is instead the Pesci character who embodies the personality we have come to expect from this kind of film – the man that can explode. Pesci’s chilling, Oscar-winning performance leaves the audience, and all of the characters around him, on their toes, because one moment. He could be telling a funny story like a funny guy, and the next, he is colliding a beer glass into someone’s skull. In one of the film’s most recognizable and iconic scenes, Henry makes that exact mistake.
In Goodfellas, Scorsese shows just how masterful he is at his craft. Our view from the sideline is unmistakably breathtaking. The story is unique and captivating, and its execution, through fantastic performances by Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci, is just as powerful. It explains crime’s appeal to those without power, like Henry, whose upbringing made him not only aware of its power, but envious of it. Though the film lost out Best Picture to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, over time, it has not only been recognized by many organizations as one of Scorsese’s best, but as one of the best ever.
Rating: R (adult situations/language, nudity, violence)
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci
Written By: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
In Theaters: Sep 19, 1990 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 26, 1997
Runtime: 146 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros.
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR GOODFELLAS
Complex, volatile, ironic and disquieting, Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a masterly achievement in intense observation.
Is it a great movie? I don’t think so. But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking-journalism presented with the brio of drama.
Robert De Niro is reliably dynamic, and Joe Pesci’s portrait of a gangster with a sense of humour is hideously memorable, but there’s no doubt that GoodFellas fights a losing battle against numbness.
Goodfellas is a terrifying film because, like much of Scorsese’s best work, it is about the lives of avuncular psychopaths, and pretty-boy Liotta brilliantly encapsulates that fetid contradiction.