The Story (continued)
The camera pulls back on the gold, Catholic cross hanging around Henry's neck as the door opens on Karen's house for their next date. At the door's threshold, she covers up all evidence of the crucifix by buttoning up his shirt before her Jewish mother (Suzanne Shepherd) meets him and asks about his supposed half-Jewish heritage. Good-looking Henry answers: "Just the good half."
["Then He Kissed Me," performed by The Crystals.] As they make their way into the famed Copacabana club, the camera follows behind them - it is a three minute, non-stop, unedited take/tracking shot with mobster-in-training Henry greasing the portals at each step with $20 bills as they enter the circuitous world. The camera hovers just over their shoulders as they arrive at the front of the club, have their car attended by a valet, bypass the long line into the entrance by taking a side entryway, wind through hallways and then into the bustling kitchen area with cooks and helpers, pass other patrons waiting inside, and are set-up by the Copa Captain at a prime, front-row table (hastily resurrected out of nowhere and set up especially for them at ringside).
Karen is naively wide-eyed and impressed by his endless cash supply, his familiarity with everyone and his innumerable friends (one group sends over champagne), his power, and his slick waggering style: "You gave them twenty dollars each."
Karen: What do you do?
Henry: I'm in construction.
Karen: (She feels the softness of his hands) They don't feel like you're in construction.
Henry: Ah, I'm a union delegate.
"King of the one-liners" comedian Henny Youngman (himself) takes the stage and entertains with jokes - the camera cuts away from him to end the long, uninterrupted camera shot, although Youngman's monologue continues on the overlapping soundtrack as Henry and Tommy successfully execute their job - the Air France cargo heist at the airport: ["Look in My Eyes," performed by the Chantels.] "Air France made me. We walked out with four hundred and twenty thousand dollars without using a gun. And we did the right thing. We gave Paulie his tribute." Henry's self-satisfaction about doing "the right thing" reveals his loyalty and eagerness to please and be a rule-abiding citizen within the gangster world.
["Roses Are Red," performed by Bobby Vinton.] The relationship between Henry and Karen blossoms. At a beach club, they have lunch, during which he is educated about "signing" for tabs instead of always paying cash. Another night while ringside at the Copacabana, Bobby Vinton (himself) sends over champagne for them and Karen is also intoxicated - literally and figuratively - by all the lavish attention and the material excesses:
One night, Bobby Vinton sent us champagne. There was nothing like it. I didn't think there was anything strange in any of this. You know, a twenty-one-year-old kid with such connections. He was an exciting guy. He was really nice. He introduced me to everybody. Everybody wanted to be nice to him. And he knew how to handle it.
A crass, television promo-commercial about hair pieces ("Morrie's Wig Shop") that don't come off and will attract beautiful women plays on a television in Morrie Kessler's (Chuck Low) Queens Boulevard Wig and Beauty Salon in Queens, New York. Morrie complains to Henry about the high interest rates being demanded of him on the payoff of a loan to Jimmy. Impatient with the delay while watching the commercial in the front of the salon, Jimmy moves to the back of the store and wraps a telephone cord around Morrie's neck to strangle him: "You got money for that f--king commercial of yours." Morrie's own hair piece is dislodged during the scuffle.
Henry is called away to help defend Karen from an attempted rape assault by Bruce (Mark Evan Jacobs), a long-time friend/neighbor who lives across the street from her house. To retaliate [in one of his rare outbursts of violence in the film] for the unwelcome pass, Henry has a swift and brutal answer after driving Karen home - he grabs Bruce's hair with his left hand and repeatedly smashes him across the face with the butt of his gun in his right hand until he falls unconscious to the driveway. He marches back to Karen and hands her the blood-covered gun to hide (in her milkbox), and simply says: "Hide this." In a voice-over, she is turned on by his chivalrous, violent defense of her - and begins to lose her moral perspective and innocence:
I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.
The couple are married in her parents' home in a traditional Jewish wedding. ["Life is But a Dream," performed by the Harptones.] The wedding reception is a rich, catered affair held at the Chateau Bleu - an occasion for opportunistic business deals among the 'wiseguys' in attendance. Tommy's mother (Catherine Scorsese, the director's own mother) pesters her son about being single: "Why don't you be like your friend Henry, here. He's got a nice girl. He's settling down now. He's married. Pretty soon he'll have a nice family. And you're still bouncing around from girl to girl." The film comments satirically on the preponderance of similar names (the males are named after religious saints and the females after the Virgin Mary), making Karen dizzy during introductions:
It was like he had two families. The first time I was introduced to all of them at once, it was crazy. Paulie and his brothers had lots of sons and nephews. And almost all of them were named Peter or Paul. It was unbelievable. There must have been two dozen Peters and Pauls at the wedding. Plus, they were all married to girls named Marie. And they named all their daughters Marie. By the time I finished meeting everybody, I thought I was drunk.
As wedding present tributes marked "Best Wishes" are given by each of the families to Karen - now a mobster princess - Henry stashes the envelopes with $100 dollar bills into a white bag. Relations with Karen's parents are strained when the newlyweds move in with them, and Henry's recurring late night absences disturb Karen's mother - suspicious of his extra-marital activities and non-Jewish ways: "What kind of people are these?...He's not Jewish. Did you know how these people live?...You don't know where he is. You don't know who he's with...Normal people don't act like this."
["Leader of the Pack," performed by The Shangri-Las.] At a party hosted by Jimmy's wife Mickey (Julie Garfield), Karen grasps how different and exclusive is the world she has married and entered into. At a party attended only by crude, tasteless mobster wives, the priorities are all cosmetic and superficial - hair-brushing, hand lotion-spreading, and the application of facial masks. Insulated from the real world within another society where accepted standards of right and wrong are upside down, Jewish outsider Karen comes to defend their corrupt lifestyle and its economic freedoms:
Well, we weren't married to nine-to-five guys, but the first time I realized how different was when Mickey had a hostess party. They had bad skin and wore too much make-up. I mean, they didn't look very good. They looked beat-up. And the stuff they wore was thrown together and cheap. A lot of pant suits and double knits. And they talked about how rotten their kids were and about beating them with broom handles and leather belts. But that the kids still didn't pay any attention...After a while, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for hand-outs. Our husbands weren't brain surgeons. They were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners...We were all so very close. I mean, there were never any outsiders around. Absolutely never. And being together all the time made everything seem all the more normal.
Life within the amoral, social circles of the inbred gangster world "got to be all normal" with familiarity, but the criminal community also exacts a price - imprisonment within their claustrophobic society and loss of perspective. Cutting corners means robbing truck drivers, and having detectives show up at the house on a routine basis to search the premises. Non-chalantly and politely, Karen offers coffee and casually watches television as the men "go through everything". [The film on TV is a significant choice - The Jazz Singer (1927) (with Al Jolson singing "Toot, Toot, Tootsie") - it is a movie about a Jewish person trying to reconcile with estranged parents.]
There was always a little harrassment. They always wanted to talk to Henry about this or that. They'd come in with their subpoenas and warrants and make me sign. But mostly they were just looking for a handout, a few bucks to keep things quiet, no matter what they found.
In a photograph montage of wiseguy family life, they would congregate for every rite of passage, Jesse James Conway's (Little Jimmy) ninth birthday for example ["Happy Birthday to You."], or for card games, baby births, or island vacations ["Ain't That a Kick In the Head," performed by Dean Martin] - without any outsiders:
We always did everything together and we always were in the same crowd. Anniversaries, christenings. We only went to each other's houses. The women played cards, and when the kids were born, Mickey and Jimmy were always the first at the hospital. And when we went to the Islands or Vegas to vacation, we always went together. No outsiders, ever. It got to be normal. It got to where I was even proud that I had the kind of husband who was willing to go out and risk his neck just to get us the little extras.
The camera pans across Henry's (and Karen's!) bedroom closets to shamelessly show "the little extras" of the good life - rows of suits, shoes, dresses, and coats. Corrupted like Henry, she describes for him how much money she needs for shopping by holding her fingers a few inches apart, and rewards him with impromptu oral sex in the kitchen for giving her a wad of bills.
["He's Sure the Boy I Love," performed (spoken) by The Crystals.]
I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along
And he'd be tall and handsome, rich and strong
Now that boy I love has come to me,
But he sure ain't what I thought he'd be.
June 11, 1970, Queens, New York
In the Suite Lounge in Queens on a day in June 1970 - the beginning of the sequence which opens the film, a celebration is being held for the release of Mafia member Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) after six years of prison. A long-standing hatred between the marginal, non-full-blooded Italian outsiders and Batts erupts when Tommy arrives and they spar at each other, first with friendly kidding about Tommy's youth as a shoe-shine boy, and then with retaliatory, eruptive violence:
Tommy: Just don't go busting my balls, Billy, okay?
Billy: Hey, Tommy, if I was gonna break your balls, I'd tell you to go home and get your shine box. (To his friends) Now this kid, this kid was great. They, they used to call him Spitshine Tommy...
Henry, trying to diffuse the ill-will, makes a half-hearted attempt to quell the tension following the insult. ["Atlantis," performed by Donovan.] As the party breaks up later in the evening, Jimmy and Tommy gang up on Batts and brutally stomp and beat him with a gun into bloody submission. Jimmy is disgusted by the damage to his shoes: "F--king mutt dented my shoes." Since "his whole crew's gonna be looking for him," they wrap his body in white tablecloths to transport him "upstate" in the trunk of Henry's car to a place where he won't ever be found.
While at the house of Tommy's mother to pick up a shovel and knife, she serves them a full pasta dinner at around midnight, and questions her son about getting a "nice girl." (He responds: "I get a nice one almost every night, Ma.") The blood on Tommy's shirt is easily accounted for when he explains: "We took a ride out to the country and we hit one of those deers...Ma, I need this knife...I just need it for a little while...We hit the deer and his paw - What do you call it?...the hoof got caught in that grill. I got to, I got to hack it off." Tommy's mother shows them a painting she made of a bearded, white-haired fisherman with two dogs facing opposite directions. Jimmy jokingly aludes to Tommy that the fisherman resembles Billy ("Looks like somebody we know...Without the beard... No, it's him!") As they laugh around the table, the camera pans out the window and moves toward the trunk of the car, where Billy can be heard thumping around, still alive.
The film's opening scene is repeated and they bury the body in some remote Connecticut woods, as Henry narrates, in voice-over, about how violence - reluctantly- has become an accepted part of life in the 1970s. Murder is one of the expected "rules" of their society - but a depraved Tommy has breached convention, weakened their invincibility, and overstepped boundaries by not obtaining special permission to "whack" Batts, an associate member of the legitimate Mafioso:
For most of the guys, killings got to be accepted. Murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line. You got out of line, you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules. But sometimes, even if people didn't get out of line, they got whacked. I mean, hits just became a habit for some of the guys. Guys would get into arguments over nothing and before you knew it, one of them was dead. And they were shooting each other all the time. Shooting people was a normal thing. It was no big deal. We had a, we had a serious problem with Billy Batts. This was really a touchy thing. Tommy'd killed a made guy. Batts was part of the Gambino crew and was considered untouchable. Before you could touch a made guy, you had to have a good reason. You had to have a sitdown, and you better get an okay, or you'd be the one who got whacked. [A freeze-frame holds on Henry's face as the screen turns red and the noise of sizzling rises on the soundtrack.]
In the male-dominated world of the wiseguys, "Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends." Secrecy allows Henry to begin a 'lawful,' Friday-night affair with his buddies - he womanizes a mistress named Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo). ["Pretend You Don't See Her," performed by Jerry Vale onstage.] Meanwhile, a search by the Mafia is on for Batts. When Paulie questions Henry about his knowledge of the man's whereabouts: "Keep your eyes open, 'cause they're busting my balls about this bastard, all right?," he lies. ["Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," performed by The Shangri-Las.] Six months after killing Batts, the location of his body emerges as a "problem." It rests in a section of land sold to construct condominiums - the trio must return one night to the Connecticut woodlands and in the blood-red light of the car's headlights, they dig up the foul-smelling body. During the grisly unearthing of Batts' body, Tommy and Jimmy mercilessly tease Henry as he vomits from the stench: "Here's an arm...Hey, here's a leg. Here's a wing. Hey, what do you like, the leg or the wing, Henry? Or do you still go for the old hearts and lungs?"
To take advantage of his lifestyle, Henry's girlfriend Janice, a bridal shop employee, is "set up...in an apartment around the corner from the Suite. That way, I was able to stay over a couple nights a week. Karen was home with the kids and she never asked any questions, anyway. Janice and I were having so much fun, she started screwing up at work and I had to straighten out her boss a little bit." ["Baby I Love You," performed by Aretha Franklin.] The bridal shop owner is strangled into submission.
One night while playing a friendly card game in the basement of the Suite, the guys are being served drinks by Spider (Michael Imperioli), a young apprentice hood who stutters. Tommy delights in intimidating Spider and causing him to make verbal mistakes. Pretending that he is "The Oklahoma Kid" in a Bogart movie [Humphrey Bogart often played gangster roles in films, although he appeared in The Oklahoma Kid (1939) as a western cowboy villain], Tommy belligerently waves his gun in the air and shoots toward Spider, yelling: "Ya f--kin' varmint, Dance! Yahoo, ya motherf--ker...Round up those f--king wagons!" In his wild enthusiasm, he accidentally hits Spider in the foot. In Henry's home after an absence of two weeks, Henry's feisty wife accuses him of marital infidelities: "Something's going on!...I look in your face and I know that you're lying...Get out of my life!...You're a lousy bastard...Go to your ready-made whores. That's all you're good for. Get out of my life. I can't stand you."
During the next card game, Spider limps with a big bandage on his foot as he serves drinks and is derisively called "F--kin' Drop-along Cassidy." The boy talks back at Tommy: "Why don't you go f--k yourself, Tommy?" While everyone bursts in laughter, Jimmy teases Tommy about being soft: "Tommy, you gonna let him get away with that? You gonna let the f--kin' punk get away with that? What's the matter with you? What's the world comin' to?" Without warning, the short-fused wiseguy fires six shots into Spider's chest and kills him. After the sick, unexpected killing, Jimmy diffuses the toxic atmosphere by explaining his jest:
Jimmy: What, are you stupid or what? Tommy. Tommy. I'm kidding with you. What the f--k are you doing? Are you a f--king sick maniac?
Tommy: Well, who the f--k? How do I know if you're kidding? What do you mean, you're kidding? You're breaking my f--king balls!
Jimmy: I'm, I'm f--king kidding with you! You f--king shoot the guy?
With her two children in tow at her side, Karen uses the apartment building's intercom to publicize to the superintendent that "a whore (is) living in 2-R," and to threaten Janice: "You keep away from my husband, you hear me?...He's my husband! Get your own god-damn man!" Crazed with hurt and feeling unloved, she sits astride Henry's torso in bed with a gun pistol pointed at his face as he awakens [the gun is in focus and in the center of the frame aimed at the camera - and at the viewing audience]. Karen tries to scare him to come back: "But still I couldn't hurt him. How could I hurt him? I couldn't even bring myself to leave him. The truth was that no matter how bad I felt I was still very attracted to him. Why should I give him to someone else? Why should she win?" Violence from the streets permeates their bedroom. In a conference about his hysterical, excitable wife, Paulie and Jimmy counsel Henry to restore their marriage to monogamy: "...You gotta go back. I mean, it's the only way. You got to keep up appearances...Please, there's no other way. You're not gonna get a divorce. We're not animali." [For practical reasons, the two are kept together to prevent potential divorcee Karen from going to the FBI and testifying against her ex.]
During a brief hiatus with Jimmy in Tampa, Florida before returning to his wife, the two are picked up for beating up a bookie and threatening to throw him into the lion's den in the Tampa City Zoo. "It took the jury six hours to bring us in guilty. The judge gave Jimmy and me ten years like he was giving away candy." In the same federal prison in Lewisburg, Paulie "was doing a year for contempt." ["Beyond the Sea," performed by Bobby Darin.] Treated with respect by bribed guards and given special privileges under luxurious conditions, they prepare Italian pasta dinner meals with prime ingredients smuggled in (garlic, "veal, beef and pork," even lobsters, peppers, onions, salami, prosciutto, a lot of cheese, Scotch, red and white wine, and Italian bread):
See, you know when you think of prison, you get pictures in your mind of all those old movies with rows and rows of guys behind bars...But it wasn't like that for wiseguys. It really wasn't that bad. Excepting that I missed Jimmy. He was doing his time in Atlanta...I mean, everybody else in the joint was doing real time, all mixed together, living like pigs. But we lived alone. And we owned the joint.