Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, May 2, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

Although it doesn’t really succeed in deglamorizing the mafia, Goodfellas comes closer to dissecting our fascination with it than any other film. Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, the film charts the highs and lows, the excitement and tedium of working for the mob and – extraordinarily for a genre that focuses nearly exclusively on the experiences of men – splits the narrative in two in order to tell the story from the perspectives of both Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco).

The story opens with a young Henry Hill, who remembers in a voice-over that he’d “always wanted to be a gangster.” He gets his break at a young age and spends most of his adult life slowly moving up the ranks and becoming friends with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci). From the beginning, even though the story is told from the perspective of someone who has gotten out of the mafia and who knows that one of his best friends was murdered in an act of mob vengeance, Hill’s voice-over is reverential. He still clearly idolizes the image of the mobster and what it means to be a one. “Anything I wanted was a phone call away,” he tells us at the end. Being a goodfella was something to aspire to and something about which he can be nostalgic because he knows that he’ll never again feel so important. “Today everything is different. There’s no action… I’m an average nobody.”

The voice-overs by Karen Hill are similar in tone. “One night Bobby Vinton sent us champagne. There was nothing like it… [Henry] was an exciting guy. He was really nice. He introduced me to everybody. Everybody wanted to be nice to him.” She knows that her husband is a criminal and in certain respects she’s afraid of that… but it also excites her and you can see that in a scene which takes place early in their relationship, when Henry pistol whips a guy for hitting on Karen then gives her the gun to hide. She admits to us that most women would have ended it there, but the danger which surrounds Henry is part of her attraction to him. In the voice-overs of both Henry and Karen, there’s a sense that if things hadn’t gone so far wrong and had remained as “good” as they were in the early days, there would be nothing for them to regret – even though Henry kills people and Karen is living off of money made from murder, robbery, drugs and prostitution.

But things do go wrong, and spectacularly so. The climactic scenes, when Henry is high on the cocaine that he’s supposed to be selling and convinced that at any moment he’s going to get busted, are some of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed. Director Martin Scorsese perfectly establishes a sense of claustrophobia and panic here, especially when Henry is convinced that a helicopter flying above is about to swoop down on him. This is the end for Henry, one way or another. But instead of going out in a hail of bullets, or spending life in prison, Henry testifies against the mob and is relegated to the middle of nowhere, an “average nobody” who longs for the days when he was important and life was exciting. In this sense, the film falls in line with other mobster movies by glamorizing/idealizing the lifestyle, but in other ways it also deconstructs the screen image of the mobster and, while the image remains glamorous, it isn’t quite as shiny as it was before Goodfellas took it on.

What really sets this film apart is the way that it deals with violence. These men kill in such a cold, dispassionate way. The deaths here aren’t “glorious” (as bloody as it is, you have to admit that Sonny’s death in The Godfather is framed in such a way to elevate it to the level of mythology); they’re simple, one of many brutal acts these men will partake in during the course of an average day. Take, for example, the scenes following the attack on Billy Batts. Henry, Jimmy and Tommy realize that Batts isn’t completely dead so they stop at Tommy’s mother’s house to get a knife and then stay to have something to eat. There’s nothing extraordinary about the fact that they’re about to kill someone (although they’ll come to regret this particular death later). It’s just one more thing, something that has become utterly routine and devoid of excitement.

Goodfellas would be a strong enough film in based on the force of it’s story (and how it’s told) alone, but it also has the good fortune of being perfectly cast. You really can’t imagine anyone other than Liotta, Bracco, De Niro and Pesci in their roles (especially Pesci given how the “Funny how?” rant is instantly recognizable even to people who haven’t seen the film). It’s the perfect marriage of story to storytellers, and an entirely rewarding viewing experience.


Anonymous said...

Nice review, Norma, of my favorite gangster film. I think that Scorsese went a long way toward de-glamorizing the gangster film, probably moreso than you do ... in this and "Casino," which is not quite the film that "Goodfellas" is, Scorsese shows that far from being tragic, mythical characters, these wiseguys -- especially the figures of Pesci and De Niro -- are vicious thugs with very few redeeming features.

Norma Desmond said...

I definitely agree that Scorsese has worked to demythologize the gangster image, but I find the reverential tone of the voice overs by both Henry and Karen difficult to escape.

There's certainly no doubt about the fact that they're portrayed as vicious thugs, though.

Michael Mendez said...

Thank you for your review of the greatest gangster movie and my favorite film of all time. Goodfellas is Marty having fun with the genre and using every trick in his book to tell the story.