You might justifiably ask me why I’ve written at some length about The Godfather but not the other acknowledged masterpiece of modern gangster cinema, Goodfellas. Scorcese always had a disadvantage by virtue of coming after the epic saga told by Coppola, but even then I always felt by comparison Goodfellas was the lightweight, the junior version, that it lacked gravitas.
This is not altogether fair, since Goodfellas would wipe the table with almost any other mob movie, and does have the benefit (or otherwise) of being based on a true story by the real life Henry Hill and the Lucchese family (as documented in the non-fiction book Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi), rather than fictionalised nods to apocryphal events, as written by Puzo into The Godfather. It is included on the Library of Congress list of greatest movies, no small accolade.
But where the Corleone family are engaged in turf wars, the wiseguys of Goodfellas conspire to tell a tale of gangster culture. It’s their high-octane crime-fuelled living, the families and girlfriends, the wisecracks and drinks, the gatherings and authentic Italian food, the sharp silk suits adopted by the hoods and frothy dresses worn by the wives, the contemporary and traditional music, the arbitrary beatings and shootings, the whole lifestyle that drives forward Scorcese’s film rather than plot and character development.
True enough, on first viewing Goodfellas appears hugely watchable and the performances are impressive as they are multiply feted. Could I say any of them evoke sympathy or even empathy, let alone a flicker of admiration? No, barely ever do their justifications warrant our understanding or envy, certainly not the volatile and violent sociopath Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci. DeVito is at one turn laughing and joking, the next menacing with intent, and then killing with psychotic impunity. “Don’t mess with me” says his body language; you don’t dare take your eyes off him, but that is also the cause of his downfall after he kills a made man and suffers the consequences.
Pesci was the one actor to win an Oscar for this movie (Best Supporting Actor 1990), so it is no surprise his performance is undeniably effective, but I find it very difficult to watch. Deliberately so on Scorcese’s part, I’m quite sure. Wikipedia:
Joe Pesci did not judge his character but found the scene where he kills Spider for talking back to his character hard to do because he had trouble justifying the action until he forced himself to feel the way Tommy did…. According to Pesci, improvisation and ad-libbing came out of rehearsals where Scorsese let the actors do whatever they wanted. He made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines that the actors came up with that he liked best, and put them into a revised script that the cast worked from during principal photography. For example, the scene where Tommy tells a story and Henry is responding to him — the “Funny how? Do I amuse you?” scene — is based on an actual event that happened to Pesci. It was worked on in rehearsals where he and Liotta improvised and Scorsese recorded 4–5 takes, rewrote their dialogue and inserted it into the script.
Pesci is in good company too, with De Niro, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, the excellent Paul Sorvino (an undemonstrative character actor I have long admired), and Michael Imperioli (along with Bracco a regular on The Sopranos), plus every well-known Italian-American face on the casting books. Getting Italian-American actors to play mob family members (though Hill was of course part-Irish and therefore more like a cousin in the pure Italian families) has the advantage that they are imbued with the family culture and rituals that are core to the movie. It’s in their blood, and chances are some of them know the real McCoy too. The research required to do method school on these characters would certainly include rubbing shoulders with true life gangsters, without which they could not have acquired the cool and easy manner so essential to the roles. But for the women it was not so easy:
Lorraine Bracco found the shoot to be an emotionally difficult one because it was such a male-dominated cast and realized that if she did not make her “work important, it would probably end up on the cutting room floor”. When it came to the relationship between Henry and Karen, Bracco saw no difference between an abused wife and her character.
The detail and dialogue are authentic to a painstaking degree, carried off with swagger. The iconic moments that make any movie memorable are there to admire: the fine-slicing of garlic for the tomato sauce, the paranoia as Hill looks for the police helicopter, DeVito killing the guy who calls him a shoe-shine boy and so on. The ingredients are all there, but does it do what Scorcese intended? Wikipedia:
The film was shot on location in Queens, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Long Island during the spring and summer of 1989, with a budget of $25 million. Scorsese broke the film down into sequences and storyboarded everything because of the complicated style throughout. According to the filmmaker, he “wanted lots of movement and I wanted it to be throughout the whole picture, and I wanted the style to kind of break down by the end, so that by [Henry’s] last day as a wiseguy, it’s as if the whole picture would be out of control, give the impression he’s just going to spin off the edge and fly out.”
He claims that the film’s style comes from the first two or three minutes of Jules and Jim: extensive narration, quick edits, freeze frames, and multiple locale switches. It was this reckless attitude towards convention that mirrored the attitude of many of the gangsters in the film. Scorsese remarked, “So if you do the movie, you say, ‘I don’t care if there’s too much narration. Too many quick cuts?—That’s too bad.’ It’s that kind of really punk attitude we’re trying to show”. He adopted a frenetic style to almost overwhelm the audience with images and information. He also put plenty of detail in every frame because the gangster life is so rich. The use of freeze frames was done because Scorsese wanted images that would stop “because a point was being reached” in Henry’s life…..
And of the relationship with the real life Henry Hill:
The cast did not meet Henry Hill during the film’s shoot until a few weeks before it premiered. Liotta met him in an undisclosed city. Hill had seen the film and told the actor that he loved it. Two weeks in advance of the filming, the real Henry Hill was paid $480,000.
No doubt he did love it if he were paid half a mill in used notes, quite apart from the fact that this is more than a slight puff to the Hill ego, even as an FBI informant after being busted by the narc squad who does the unforgivable – he rats on the crime family he had grown up with, perhaps proving that you can only really trust your own flesh and blood, not an adopted son.
Ah, but the witness protection programme meant he lived the rest of his life under a new identity but in constant fear until his heart gave way at the age of 69. “Jimmy Conway” (AKA James Burke) and “Paulie Cicero” (Paul Vario) – De Niro and Sorvino in the movie – both died in jail of, respectively, lung cancer and inflamed colon, which shows you should stop smoking and eat healthily if you want to extend your life.
That was my failed attempt at irony: both did brilliantly to live as long as they did in view of the vicious environment in which they lived and worked. Plenty of potential stooges found their lives foreshortened en route, just in case they blabbed. In the Godfather, Carlo Rizzi is garrotted in the car after planning the murder of Sonny, where in Goodfellas Morrie Kessler gets a stiletto through the base of his head. Horses for courses.
OK, so a very good film in many ways though to me it peters out and doesn’t really go anywhere – other than prison. Is there a moral to this tale? Be grateful you have a boring life, maybe?