Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’: The Most Definitive American Movie of the Last Two Decades

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing — and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski at first viewing in ’98, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is enthusiastically recommended (warning: if you start don’t expect to get any work done for 15-20 minutes) and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its — ” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating ” — hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi: De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low:I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!'”)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody — real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but… let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy who is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t — or does not want to — believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.