Gangster films are a curious form. The first or second The Godfather films are usually considered the best ever made, but, in reality, they are a bit over the top, melodramatic (in a Shakespearean sort of way), as well as hagiographic in their depiction of lowlifes. For those who don’t buy the Coppola films as the apex of the genre, there is the fallback position of Martin Scorsese’s films on organized crime: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Casino, The Departed, and his crown jewel: 1990’s Goodfellas, which clocks in at a much longer than experienced 146 minutes. The usual claim made for Goodfellas, especially vis-à-vis the Coppola films, is that they are more ‘realistic.’ Well, as with most claims in Hollywood, this is simply not so. Take it from someone who knew these types of people close up. That’s not to say that Goodfellas is not more realistic than The Godfather films, it is; and it also is a better film, for a myriad of reasons. It’s just that it’s not particularly realistic, as compared to real life. Like the earlier classics, Goodfellas is rife with hagiography of the gangster lifestyle, as well as being loaded with a number of highly implausible and flat out ‘never would happen in a million years’ moments. If one is really looking to get familiar with what real world gangsters are like (or were like a few decades ago), the two best films I’ve ever seen at portraying such are Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, and John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. Both films show the gangsters as often bumbling idiots, and most of the schemes and endeavors they partake in being rife with the ludicrous, as well as the dangerous.
For all its praise, Goodfellas lacks these qualities, as well as the dread that a viewer feels at the end of the Cassavetes film, wherein we know the hero (played by Ben Gazzara) is a walking dead man, even as we realize we really know almost nothing of this man we’ve spent a few hours with, and one so easily coerced into murder (and so efficient at it). Having stated that, Goodfellas is a masterpiece, well deserving of its six Academy Award nominations (it only won for Best Supporting Actor, for Joe Pesci). It is a visual and stylistic treat that is great in about every way a film can be labeled such. The lone caveat: it just is NOT in any way, shape, nor form, as realistic as its proponents claim it to be.
Before I detail why this is not so, let me briefly summarize the well known plot of the film. The film follows over a quarter of a century of the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a low level, half-Irish, half-Sicilian, gangster in the Lucchese crime family, in Brooklyn, New York, from the 1950s- when he got his in as a kid, through the early 1980s, when a drug racket he ran was busted, forcing him and his family into the Federal Witness Protection Program. The film follows his travails with three major mobsters: Paul ‘Pauly’ Cicero (Paul Sorvino)- a capo for the Luccheses; Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway (Robert De Niro)- a freelance Irish gangster who seamlessly waded between crime families because he made money for all of them in assorted rackets; and Tommy DeVito (Pesci)- a napoleon complected ‘little man with a big gun’ type who’s a psychopathic killer. All four of the main characters are based upon real life gangsters made famous in the nonfiction memoir of Hill: Wiseguy, written by journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the screenplay, along with Scorsese.
Initially, we see Hill enjoying his life in the Mob, especially when goombahs threaten a mailman for delivering bad report cards to Henry’s parents’ apartment. His dad had tried to beat some decency into Henry, telling him that gangsters were scum, but Henry saw them as heroes, and working class stiffs like his dad as the dumb suckers of life. Later, he hooks up and marries a Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco). And converts. She soon becomes accustomed to the life of crime and its rewards. Henry almost beats a neighbor of hers to death after she claims he tried to rape her. But, other than some small incidents like that, we see that Henry is basically a coward- one who fears his friend Tommy (see the scenes where Pesci does his famed ‘What do you mean I’m funny?’ routine) and his mentor Jimmy (see the growing rift between the characters late in the film). The pivotal moment in the film comes because of Tommy’s ‘Little Guinea’ temper: when he whacks (along with Jimmy) a made man from another family, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), because he teases Tommy. The film opens on that incident, and proceeds forward once it reaches that moment two thirds of the way into the film. It also provides some of the funniest moments in the film, when Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry, go to Tommy’s mother’s home for a hovel, and end up feting on pasta. Tommy also asks his mom to borrow a large knife because they ‘accidentally’ hit a deer and have to clean off some of the guts from the hood. This all ends up leading to the revenge murder of Tommy, when he thinks that he will be a made man, as well as the imprisonments of the three other main protagonists.
But, other travails abound, such as Tommy’s asinine and pointless murder of a young kid who served at the mobsters’ hideout, just for standing up to his abuse; and Pauly’s edict against selling or using drugs- which Henry violates, and leads him and Jimmy into a drug partnership that ends up with him having several affairs with sexy female drug mixers; one of whom Karen confronts. She later threatens Henry with his own gun. Then there is the Lufthansa heist episode, wherein Conway murders almost everyone involved with the score, after the plan is botched by Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson), the driver of the getaway van. Eventually, after Pauly turns his back on Henry, and Jimmy plots to whack him, Henry turns on his former pals, and puts them away for the rest of their lives. The film ends with him ruing his life in the program, as just another schnook.
I earlier mentioned the false dichotomy often brought up by comparisons of Goodfellas to The Godfather films. The best example of this comes from film critic James Berardinelli, who writes:
There are essentially two kinds of Mafia movies: those that romanticize the life and those that depict it with gut-wrenching clarity. The best known and most accomplished of these films, The Godfather, stakes out its territory firmly in the first area, leaving Goodfellas to stand atop the other. Both pictures have fully realized, three dimensional characters and strong atmospheres, but Francis Ford Coppola's effort embraces the mythos of the gangster, while Scorsese's exploration is more pragmatic. Violence is a key component of each, but it is a more brutal companion in Goodfellas than in The Godfather. Clearly, the different approaches adopted by the directors result in films that, while populating the same genre, are dissimilar in temperament and tone.
Berardinelli might be forgiven for his falling into the PR trap the film laid, but this sort of critical cribbing is just lazy reviewing. Goodfellas is every bit as mythologizing and hagiographic as The Godfather films, but if you’ve never really been exposed to that world, there’s no way the average moviegoer, nor critic, would know that.
Let me just give three examples of this legendry aborning that the film suckles, out of a dozen or more scenes or examples that the film presents. First, there is the old urban legend that the old line Mobsters were somehow anti-drug use, and forbad the use and distribution of drugs in their territories. This is blatant nonsense. The Mafia got big in the early 20th Century because of the Prohibition of alcohol, and remained in power for decades because of the prohibition of many ‘hard’ drugs. More than gambling, labor racketeering, prostitution, or smuggling of other goods, drug sales and distribution were the lifeblood of the Mob from the end of World War Two through the next few decades. The reason the old legend got started was twofold: 1) the Mobsters promoted the con themselves, to engender a sense that they cared for the people and businessmen they terrorized in their own neighborhoods, and 2) with the dawn of the late 1960s, and the rise of New Wave gangsters of different ethnic groups: Jamaican, Oriental, Hispanic, Russian, Israeli, and the rise of street gangs like The Bloods and Crips, as well as motorcycle gangs (The Hell’s Angels and others), the old line Sicilian Mafia found itself often on the outside looking in, on the drug business, and playing catch up against other groups, who effectively dictated terms of engagement while forcing or brokering their own ways into other areas the Mob still had a stranglehold on. Often, when a Mobster would claim he did not deal in drugs, this was true, but only because he and his crew/family, could not get in on the real action; there were never any ethical objections to drug dealing. After all, why would there be? These guys would murder someone over a ten dollar debt or a sideways glance from another guy at their woman.
The second example of hagiography that the film portrays is the claimed fact that Henry and Tommy, as kids, were somehow on a first name basis with the local don, Pauly Cicero. In real life this would NEVER have happened. Only a kid of a don might, MIGHT, be allowed such an in, but unrelated teens, especially a half-breed like Hill? Never! He would have been stuck doing low level chores, spending years only seeing the don at a distance. The don would never have even given a direct order to a kid, and never would a teen get an intimate knowledge of the workings of a crime family before even officially turning 18. This is a clear example of Hill’s braggadocio and flat-out bullshit that Pileggi did not have the smarts enough to scope out and call bullshit on. Hence, it has now become cemented as part of the legendry of the film and Mob life, in general. In reality, any don stupid enough to so easily trust a teenager (and we all know how responsible they are!) would likely have ended up dead or in jail alot sooner than the Cicero character did.
The third and final example of urban legendry that made it into the film and was portrayed as fact comes in the scene wherein the gangsters’ ‘cabana boy’ Spider (Michael Imperioli) is shot dead by Tommy, after being abused by Tommy earlier, then egged on by the other gangsters to ‘stand up’ for himself, does, then is killed when Tommy fires his gun, at the egging on of the other gangsters. It is probably the most cruel and senseless act of violence in the film, considering the boy is a gimp with no prospects and represents no threat to Tommy’s machismo. It seems like a perfect set up for the character, but just as in the ‘What do you mean I’m funny?’ scene, which supposedly happened to the actor Pesci, in real life, not his character (but is also a well worn tough guy move, that Pesci likely added in without Scorsese’s knowledge that it was bullshit), the shooting of the ‘Spider’ character never happened. It’s an urban legend in Mob circles that has been attributed to many gangsters, from Al Capone to Bugsy Siegel to assorted members of the Five Families of New York, as the quintessential ‘man with no regard’ temper. It’s used as a dickwaving device, told to possible enemies as a cautionary tale that the claimant is not to be fucked with. It’s a great moment, it fits in perfectly with the film, but it’s a total fiction.
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, is a two disk Special Edition. The film is transferred quite well, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, although there are a few scenes with streaks, and one scene with a line that persisted for over half a minute. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who worked with Scorsese on After Hours, The Last Temptation Of Christ, and The Age Of Innocence) experiments with lenses and types of shots, as well as everything else: freeze frames, staggered edits, jump cuts, steadicam, voiceover, breaking the fourth wall, and a great (mostly) rock score, including classics like Layla. Many of them directly scored to the action onscreen, and scored by Scorsese himself. The acting is top notch, as is the screenplay. A great example of a little moment that sticks in one’s mind comes when Hill enters the apartment building of one of his drug dealing girlfriends at night, and the light outside the building is on, then dims as, within a few seconds, the scene shifts to daylight; a nice poetic effect that can be easily overlooked in a film like this, brimming with more bravura techniques.
Disk One has the film and two audio commentaries. The first one is the cast and crew, and it’s a hodgepodge of comments randomly culled from years of interviews with Scorsese, Pileggi, Liotta, Bracco, Sorvino, Vincent, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina, cinematographer Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The best comments actually come from the reminiscences of Vincent, a longtime collaborator with Joe Pesci. Most of the comments are stiff and inappropriate, just forced into the film, often without scene specificity, and missing commentary on many scenes, which the DVD skips. Overall, it’s mildly interesting, with a few interesting tidbits revealed, such as Paul Sorvino’s preparation for his role, as well as his life as a wannabe sculptor and poet. Much better is the commentary by Hill and former FBI Agent Edward McDonald (who got Hill into Witness Protection). They play well off of each other, with McDonald mostly setting hill up for comments on specific facts of his life that the film represents. Oddly, although all the players in the film, save Hill, are dead, as of the 2004 recording of the commentary, several times the names of the real people the characters are based on are bleeped out. But, for gems on Mob life, this commentary far supersedes the first one. Disk Two has the extras, including the original theatrical trailer, and 4 featurettes: Getting Made is a half hour long film that is standard Making Of stuff. Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy is a quarter hour long encomium from other filmmakers on the influence of Scorsese and this film. Included are testimonials from Jon Favreau, the Hughes Brothers, Joe Carnahan, Richard Linklater, Antoine Fuqua, and Frank Darabont. Paper Is Cheaper Than Film is a storyboard to film comparison that runs less than five minutes. Finally, The Workaday Gangster runs just under ten minutes and is a hagiography on life as a gangster.
Goodfellas is a great film, and one of the greatest films on the Underworld ever made, but it is decidedly NOT realistic, despite all the hype. Nonetheless, it is a must see for fans of American cinema because, as of this writing, over twenty years on, it’s the last indisputably great film Martin Scorsese ever directed. Ah, but what a way to go!