Warner Bros.' GoodFellas (1990) is director Martin Scorsese's stylistic masterpiece - a follow-up film to his own Mean Streets (1973), released in the year of Francis Ford Coppola's third installment of his gangster epic - The Godfather, Part III (1990). It is a nitty-gritty, unflinching treatment of a true mobster story about three violent "wiseguys" [Mafia slang for 'gangsters'], enhanced by the Italian-American director's own experience of his upbringing in Little Italy. It again reteams Scorsese with his favorite actor, Robert De Niro, who had appeared in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983).
The film's factual, semi-documentary account was adapted from both Nicholas Pileggi's and Martin Scorsese's screenplay - based upon Pileggi's 1985 non-fictional book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Film posters were subtitled: "Three Decades of Life in the Mafia." The real-life story concerned a low-level, marginalized gangster (or 'foot-soldier') of mixed ethnic roots (half-Irish, half-Sicilian) - Henry Hill, who ultimately broke the gangster's code of 'never ratting on your friends', and turned informant for the FBI and entered the Federal Witness Protection Program to save his life by disappearing from view.
The fast-moving, energizing, episodic story, with plentiful profanity (the F-word is repeatedly spoken by Joe Pesci's character), forceful editorial cuts and visuals, shifting points of view, and characters speaking directly to the camera, is told with voice-over narrative commentary by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). It includes about thirty years in his life, from his teen years as a Brooklyn Irish neighborhood kid to maturity as an adult gangster, covering the years from the 1950s to the drug-saturated 1970s when married to wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco). The additional voice-over of his wife's point-of-view provides even further insight into the all-encompassing culture and lure of life within the 'family.' Freeze frames sprinkled through the film accentuate the indelible, impressionable moments in Henry's experiences.
The film is backed by a pop/rock oldies soundtrack spanning four decades, beginning with crooner Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches," proceeding through rock 'n' roll, jukebox music and top 40 tunes, and ending in degeneration with punk rocker Sid Vicious' version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." The score adds another layer of meaning, mood and information to the fact-based tale.
The violent, carefully-built film was given six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) - and only Pesci won the Oscar. [Pesci's specialty was playing gangster-related roles, as in Death Collector (1976) (aka Family Enforcer), A Bronx Tale (1993), and in Scorsese's Casino (1995).]The Story
The major film credits zoom from the right of the screen, like speeding cars (heard on the soundtrack), and freeze for a moment. The film, "based on a true story," begins with a pivotal night-time scene that introduces the film's three major characters. It is a major turning point for each of them. [The scene is repeated within its proper context later in the film].
Three organized crime mobsters are in a white-top car cruising down a freeway. An inter-title notes the location and time: New York, 1970:
- Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) - the driver
- Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) - in the passenger's seat
- Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) - in the back seat
A thumping sound forces them to pull over into a grassy area and investigate - they open the trunk. Inside is a bloodied mob member [identified later as Billy Batts (Frank Vincent)] wrapped in white tablecloths. Tommy can't believe the man is still alive and stabs him multiple times in the chest with an enormous butcher knife. Conway puts four bullets into the already-limp body. Henry witnesses the enormity of the violence and then slams the trunk shut.
A simple zoom shot and then a freeze-frame holds on Henry's face, as the main title credits play (with a blood-red title for the film). His autobiographical, defiant narration (in voice-over) confirms his choice of a lucrative, criminal lifestyle (that brings him from 'rags to riches'):
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.
["Rags to Riches," performed by Tony Bennett.]
East New York, Brooklyn, 1955
The young Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone), a teenager in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood in the mid-1950s, is attracted to and impressed by the flashy, expensive clothes and cars of hoods who would congregate at the Pitkin Ave. Cab. Company across the street from his family's tenement apartment. The scenes of Henry's teenage years begin with a side closeup of Henry's star-struck, reflective eye as he intensely watches his idols - the 'gangsters' who use the taxi stand as their front. Fascinated, he longs to "be a part of them" and the glamour:
Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren't like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.
"The boss over everybody in the neighborhood" is the local Mafia boss overlord Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) - "Paulie might have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody."
Henry's family of seven living in a "tiny house" is composed of his wheel-chair bound brother Michael (Kevin Corrigan), his Irish construction worker father (Beau Starr), his Sicilian mother (Elaine Kagan), two sisters, and another brother. The Ciceros came from the same part of Sicily as his mother. ["Can't We Be Sweethearts", performed by the Cleftones.] Rather than attending school, Henry is adopted by Paulie, and becomes a "full-time" errand boy/apprentice for the cabstand workers, e.g., parking Cadillacs of wiseguys, running numbers - these appealing activities make him feel important:
I was the luckiest kid in the world. I could go anywhere. I could do anything. I knew everybody and everybody knew me...I was part of something. And I belonged. I was treated like a grown-up. Every day, I was learning to score. A dollar here. A dollar there. I was living a fantasy.
When confronted with his school truancy record by his harsh, miserably unhappy, "pissed off" father, Henry is beaten with a belt - the image freeze-frames, leaving its impression on Henry's consciousness and a bruise on his face. Outside the post-office, the young boy identifies the mailman who delivered the school letter, and the startled postal delivery man is threatened: "From now on, any letter from that school to that kid's house comes directly here. You understand?" The image again freeze-frames as the postman's head is shoved into the hot oven of the neighborhood La Bella Vista pizzeria. "How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bulls--t?" ["Hearts of Stone," performed by Otis Williams and the Charms.]
["Sincerely," performed by the Moonglows.] During a backyard, outdoor barbecue, the mobsters cook up sausages and peppers on a grill. A bulldog sits as a supplicant at the noble, syndicate boss Paulie's feet - as do all the other low-level guys who are under his control, because he confidently heads the mob group that "offer(s) protection for people who can't go to the cops":
Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie and he got a piece of everything they made. And it was tribute, just like in the old country, except they were doing it here in America. And all they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off. And that's what it's all about. That's what the FBI could never understand. That what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops. That's it. That's all it is. They're like the police department for wiseguys.
Henry is commissioned to break the windows of cabs in a rival cab company and set them on fire. Under the tutleage of Paulie and his stoolies, Henry's self-esteem is boosted as he is emancipated from all connections to his family and becomes subverted to the criminal lifestyle of good times. He boasts of his new-found respect: "People looked at me differently and they knew I was with somebody...At thirteen, I was making more money than most of the grown-ups in the neighborhood. I mean, I had more money than I could spend. I had it all." The camera again freeze-frames as an explosion rips through the gasoline tanks of the cars behind him - he appears engulfed in hellish flames. When he appears at home one day at the door, dressed as a hood with a beige, double-breasted suit, silk shirt and tie, and black lizard shoes, his mother is aghast: "My God! You look like a gangster."
["Firenze Sogna," performed by Giuseppe di Stefano.] Henry grabs pizzeria aprons and wraps the gunshot, bleeding hand of a man who staggers into the pizzeria - it was the first time he had ever seen anyone shot. Paulie didn't want anybody dying in the building, but Henry felt like helping the man. His mentor comments: "I gotta toughen this kid up."
["Speedo," performed by The Cadillacs.] In the cabstand one night, after the camera pans across a cold-cut sandwich table, Henry delivers food and drinks to the wiseguys who are playing card games. He basks in the illusory power and influence of the gangsters he associates with: "It was a glorious time...It was when I met the world. It was when I first met Jimmy Conway." Henry is awe-struck and jubilant as the legendary, "twenty-eight or twenty-nine" year old Conway "worked the room" by shoving hundreds into the pockets of the doorman, dealers, and the bartender. A $20 dollar bill is slipped into Henry's pocket as he meets mob boss Paulie's notorious, "feared," but charismatically-magnetic hitman Jimmy Conway [the frame freezes on Jimmy's face]:
What Jimmy really loved to do, what he really loved to do was steal. I mean he actually enjoyed it. Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.
Jimmy's real love is theft - during a hijacking/robbery of the driver of a trailer truck in a deserted area near the airport at night, he intimidates the man after looking at his driver's license: "You might know who we are, but we know who you are, you understand?" Jimmy was one of the city's biggest hijackers of "booze, cigarettes, razor blades, shrimp and lobsters...And almost all of them were gimmies. I mean they just gave it up, no problem. They called him Jimmy the Gent." The scams are successful because "drivers...used to tip him off about the really good loads, and, of course, everybody got a piece."
Henry is introduced to Jimmy's apprentice youngster - full Sicilian Tommy DeVito (Joseph D'Onofrio) who is about his own age. Tommy calls him: "Hendry." While selling untaxed cigarette cartons out of the back of a car trunk, Henry is "pinched" by two city detectives and brought to trial. ["Parlami d'Amore Mariu," performed by Giuseppe di Stefano.] When led out of the courtroom, Jimmy's hand is wrapped around his young protege's shoulder and Henry is rewarded with a "graduation present" - a $100 dollar bill tucked into his shirt pocket. He is respected for maintaining the mob's strict ethical code of silence ("the two greatest things in life"):
Everybody gets pinched. But you did it right. You told 'em nothing and they got nothing...I'm proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man and you learned the two greatest things in life...Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.
[The film's entire plot is foreshadowed here - Henry, an outsider, will probably never be able to fully live up to the mobster's code of silence.] Outside the courtroom door, Paulie and the cab crew proudly greet him with open arms as he is initiated into the ranks of the goodfellas: "You broke your cherry." Again, the frame freezes on the wild congratulatory scene - this experience is another major imprint of mob life and its ethos upon Henry's adolescent mind.
["Stardust," performed by Billy Ward and His Dominoes.] At this point, the plotline moves ahead about eight years to 1963 - Henry is twenty-one and has become completely incorporated and seduced into the irresistible life of the mob, although he is still an outsider. He and Tommy, now young adults, are leaning against a car outside the Airline Diner next to Idlewild Airport, robbing freight being moved in and out of the airport. With family connections who work in the industry, they are tipped off about the best jobs:
By the time I grew up, there was thirty billion a year in cargo moving through Idlewild Airport and believe me, we tried to steal every bit of it...It was an even bigger money-maker than numbers and Jimmy was in charge of it all. Whenever we needed money, we'd rob the airport. And to us, it was better than Citibank.
["This World We Live In" ("Il Cielo in una Stanza"), performed by Mina.] In a nightclub scene, the mobsters hang out at Sonny Bunz' (Tony Darrow) Bamboo Lounge, a nightclub where bookmakers, hoods, and other partners in crime congregate. Each of them greets - often in Sicilian - the camera as it tracks fluidly and gracefully through the restaurant and leads the audience on a tour:
- Anthony Stabile (Frank Adonis)
- Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero)
- Mo Black's brother Fat Andy (Louis Eppolito)
- Frankie the Wop (Tony Lip)
- Freddy No Nose (Mikey Black)
- Pete the Killer (Peter Cicale)
- Nicky Eyes (John Manca)
- Mikey Franzese (Joseph Bono)
- Jimmy Two Times (Anthony Powers)
The glamorous, macho life of socializing with other indulgent, high-status 'family' members and 'wiseguys' who lived on the cutting edge and splurged is intoxicating. Now glamorously dressed and fit, Henry is quickly swept away by the celebrity of it all:
For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked s--tty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
In the bar area, Jimmy and Henry orchestrate a heist of freight ("a half a mil comin' in, all cash") arriving over the weekend at the airport. They meet with Frenchy (Mike Starr), an Air France cargo worker, and plan a "big score" of "bags of money" coming in "from tourists and American servicemen who change their money over into French money and send it back here."
Meanwhile, the charismatic Tommy exhibits the first traces of his quick-trigger, psychotic, pathological temper as he entertains other mobsters with hilarious tales of violence laced with four letter words. Henry chuckles at his jokester pal: "You're a pisser. You're really funny. You're really funny." The comedic scene (improvised by the actors) immediately turns sour and the tension mounts as a seemingly-aggravated Tommy persists in asking - in a cold-blooded, fearsome, and ambiguous tone:
What do you mean, I'm funny?...You mean the way I talk? What?...Funny how? I mean, what's funny about it?...I'm funny how, I mean, funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I'm here to f--kin' amuse you? What do you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?...No, no, I don't know. You said. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the f--k am I funny? What the f--k is so funny about me? Tell me. Tell me what's funny...
Finally, the situation is eased when Henry uses humor to defuse his potentially-dangerous friend, but Tommy identifies his friend's mortal weakness: "I wonder about you sometimes, Hendry. You may fold under questioning." Then when he is embarrassed by cafe owner Sonny for owing "seven f--king Gs," Tommy breaks a glass bottle on Sonny's forehead.
In the next scene, a scared Sonny - with a bandage on his forehead from the injury, complains to Paulie about how Tommy's behavior (he's compared to "an arch criminal") is dangerous, disruptive and volatile to the self-regulating criminal world, but Paulie responds helplessly (foreshadowing an execution scene later in the film):
You think you're the only one? I talk to them a million times. They don't listen...What could I do? If there was something I could do, don't you think I would do it?...Tommy's a bad kid. He's a bad seed. What am I supposed to do, shoot him?
Although unaware of how to run a restaurant, Paulie promises to offer protection by becoming a partner. Sonny is now committed and beholden to Paulie:
["Playboy," performed by the Marvelettes.] Now the guy's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, he can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy's got to come up with Paulie's money every week. No matter what. Business bad? F--k you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? F--k you, pay me. The place got hit by lightning, huh? F--k you, pay me. Also, Paulie could do anything. Especially run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody's gonna pay for it anyway. And as soon as the deliveries are made in the front door, you move the stuff out the back and sell it at a discount. You take a two hundred dollar case of booze and you sell it for a hundred. It doesn't matter. It's all profit. And then finally, when there's nothing left, when you can't borrow another buck from the bank or buy another case of booze, you bust the joint out. You light a match.
Henry and Tommy make incendiary preparations to burn down the restaurant by stuffing flammable wads of paper into ceiling fixtures - a Bamboo Lounge matchbook flares into flames and is used to light the rest of the interior of the restaurant. They non-chalantly wait in a car on the curbside as the restaurant slowly smolders behind them while discussing Tommy's heated sexual frustrations. He asks Henry for a favor to help him get a date with Diane (Katherine Wallach), a "Jew broad" from the Five Towns who is "prejudiced against Italians" and won't go out with him alone. ["It's Not for Me to Say," performed by Johnny Mathis.] Reluctantly, Henry submits to a double date with Diane's girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) at the Villa Capri restaurant - he watches impatiently as Tommy stalls over dinner. Making their first acquaintance together, Karen narrates, in voice-over, her impressions of her rude, insensitive date:
I couldn't stand him. I thought he was really obnoxious. He kept fidgeting around. Before it was even time to go home he was pushing me into the car and then pulling me out. It was ridiculous. But Diane and Tommy made us promise to meet them again on Friday night. We agreed. Of course when Friday night came around, Henry stood me up. We were a trio instead of a double date that night.
["I Will Follow Him" ("Chariot"), performed by Betty Curtis.] Finding him at the cabstand with a bunch of hoods on the sidewalk, Karen charges forcefully at him and accuses him of lying: "You've got some nerve standing me up. Nobody does that to me. Who the hell do you think you are, Frankie Vallie or some kind of big shot?" But her proud, feisty display of her displeasure intrigues him:
I remember, she screaming on the street and I mean loud, but she looked good. She had these great eyes. Just like Liz Taylor's. At least that's what I thought.