Here I would like to say unashamedly that this is my favourite Scorsese film and one of my favourite films of all time. It takes a comic approach to its portrayal of violence as it makes anti-heroes of the cast, from Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, Robert De Niro’s cold killer Jimmy Conway (in one of his most understated performances) and Joe Pesci’s almost cartoonishly comical Tommy DeVito, a character he was unable to shake in his future career. Goodfellas (often known as GoodFellas) falls approximately halfway between Martin Scorsese’s first major film dealing with New York gangsters and hustlers, Mean Streets (1973), and the popular long-running TV series The Sopranos. Surprisingly, this is a true story and is based on the biography of real-life gangster Henry Hill. The now 68-year-old Hill has recently come out of the woodwork. Presumably it’s safe for him to do so after years of being wanted by former mob associates (Hill was in the witness protection program) – he has made a number of appearances on TV and given magazine interviews. Scorsese’s film is Henry Hill’s story and Liotta, as Hill, narrates the story. Hill was able to go public about his story because those he grassed up are either dead or in jail.
The film begins with Hill telling us heroically that, “As far back as I could remember I’d always wanted to be a gangster.” The soundtrack launches into Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches. Henry starts off as a helper and runner for local hoods in a New Jersey neighborhood and soon befriends all the local gangsters who all seem to be called Tony or Paulie. They’re led by Paulie Cicero, based on a real gangster named Vario (Paul Sorvino). Over the years Hill becomes something of a big shot, makes money and starts dating a nice Jewish girl, Karen (Lorraine Bracco). He soon marries her, has affairs and children and moves into a respectable middle-class suburban area. But it’s not long before he’s involved in more dangerous rackets, not least when the mob plans a Brinks-style robbery that was the Lufthansa heist and becomes deeply entangled in the Lucchese family. Big mouths, greed and betrayal lead to most involved in the robbery being bumped off (even Tommy is sent to sleep with the fishes). Hill finds himself under threat, particularly when cocaine begins to take over his life, and feels threatened by his oldest friend Jimmy. Once the FBI round up all the remaining gang members, Hill is offered amnesty and protection if he grasses on his former gang. This is where we leave Henry – as a suburbanite in the witness protection program (in reality he was kicked off it in 1982 after just two years).
Ray Liotta came into his own as Henry Hill and never got such a strong part again. It’s based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi and based on the Hill’s memoirs. Scorsese and Warner Brothers paid $500,000 for the rights. The title was soon changed, so as not to confuse the audience with the 1986 film and TV series of the same name. Scorsese was brought up on the streets of New York, not far from New Jersey, and was able to relate to Hill’s tale. In some ways he perhaps saw that this was how his life could have turned out he had not become a director (see Mean Streets).
Music in the film plays an important part. As you would expect, there’s plenty of music in Goodfellas and much of it is highly memorable and consists of period doo-wop, swing, Italian-American crooners and Phil Spector’s bubblegum pop. But some of the most memorable uses are of rock music and drive the action. The best of these include Tommy and Jimmy’s vicious attack on a violent gangster surprisingly soundtracked by hippy Donovan’s song Atlantis. Others are connected to Hill’s drug addiction and his paranoia at the hands of the police and mobsters played to The Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man and Harry Nillson’s Jump the Fire. But the best of all is used on a couple of occasions, Derek and the Dominoes’ (including Eric Clapton) Layla. Now whenever I hear Layla I think of Goodfellas and I think the same can go for the uses of many songs in Scorsese’s films.
But it isn’t just the music that’s memorable. Nor is it just the film’s sense of style and excellent period detail, nor the New Jersey Italian-American accents, but it’s all of these things with lots of violence thrown in for good measure. Despite the excellent professional and understated menace of De Niro as Jimmy, or Liotta in the lead, it’s Joe Pesci’s performance as the violent Tommy that is most memorable. Henry Hill later said that his characterisation in the film is 99% accurate, that he really was a dangerous psychopath. His only criticism was that Tommy wasn’t such an integral or long-term friend as the film makes out and in reality he ‘disappeared’ and was never heard from again (whether this means that Tommy’s murder in the film is factually inaccurate or not is open to debate). He also swears a lot. One nerd counted the number of times “fuck” is said in the film – there are 296 times, half of those from Pesci.
Goodfellas is a memorable film that will keep the audience enthralled from beginning to end. For my money it’s probably Scorsese’s most entertaining film.