Goodfellas is Martin Scorcese’s second movie in the Gangster genre, after Mean Streets. The movie starts off with Henry Hill( Ray Liotta), driving down in a car, along with fellow gangsters Jimmy Conway( Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito( Joe Pesci). They stop the car, open the trunk, and find the blood soaked body of another gangster, who is still alive. Tommy and Jimmy kill him off, and Henry, begins to go into a flashback, recalling his earlier days.
Growing up in the predominantly Italian working class neighborhood of East New York during the 50′s, he is fascinated by the fast cars and flashy lifestyles of the gangsters. He begins to idolize them, and wants to be one of them. As he says
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.
For him being the gangster is having the power to do what he likes and leading a life, out of the ordinary humdrum life of his neighborhood. Inspite of the repeated pleas of his Irish working class father, he begins to hang out with the gangsters, doing odd jobs for them and bunking school. He soon is intiated into the local Mafia gang, headed by Paulie Cicero( Paul Sorvino), and his right hand hit man Jimmy Conway. Henry slowly becomes a part of the gang.
Jimmy loves to hijack trucks, and soon he, Henry get together, along with Tommy De Vito. Tommy is the most dangerous of all, an aggressive hot headed psychopath, who is trigger happy. Henry earns his spurs by doing a robbery of an Air France flight. Henry is now totally intoxicated with the glamorous lifestyle of the Mafia, socializing with other gangsters, at expensive night clubs and restaurants. He dates and marries Karen( Lorraine Bracco), a Jewish girl, who initially is repulsed by his behaviour, but begins to admire him, when he saves her from a lecherous neighbour.
The trouble begins when Tommy and Jimmy, beat to death, Billy Batts( Frank Vincent), another gangster after Billy insults Tommy, mocking his early days as a shoeshine boy. The problem is however Billy Batts is a made man, meaning that he could not be attacked physically, unless his superiors consented. In short its big trouble for Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, as Batts belongs to the powerful Gambino Mafia family.
Would this be the begin of the downfall of their rise? What would happen to Tommy, Billy and Henry?
Based on Nicholas Pillegi’s book, Wiseguy, that chronicled, the rise and fall of real life gangsters in New York, the characters of Henry, Jimmy, Tommy were based on real people. Pillegi himself worked on the screenplay with Marty. Where the Godfather took a look at the fortunes of a Mafiosi family in New York, Goodfellas takes a look, at the Mafia through the eyes of an individual.Henry Hill is totally different from Michael Corleone or Tony Montana, for him being a gangster is something of a dream, the only way he sees out of his humdrum existence. He is fascinated by their world and most importantly by their power. As he says
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.
For him every small step he takes in the Mafia makes him feel important. In a way Henry is no different, from ambitious people who want to make it in the corporate world or IT sector. Marty also gets the detailing right here with regards to the Mafia hierarchy, as in when Henry is arrested and refuses to speak about his partners, he is initiated into the ranks, on his release from prison. On attaining status, he looks down upon the normal working class people.
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.
But for all his skills, Henry could never be a “made man” nor can Jimmy because of their Irish blood. It does not matter that Henry is half Sicilian( from his mother), but he can never be accepted. Both Jimmy and Henry would always be the fringe persons, doing the work, but not really being accepted into the inner circle. Marty here reveals the almost clannish nature of the Mafia, where the outsider is clearly defined.
Marty pays a generous homage to the European New Wave with many techniques implemented in Goodfellas. Extensive use of quick frames, freeze edits and long tracking shots is apparent throughout the movie. One especially memorable tracking shot is when Henry takes Karen, to the famous Copacabana night club, it’s a 3 minute long non stop one, as the camera follows, Henry over his shoulder into the club, through hallways, and then into a front row table. Quite reminiscent of the scene in Mean Streets, where Marty uses the tracking shot to capture Robert De Niro’s movement, as he walks along and then enters Harvey Keitel’s room through the window.
At times the movie goes into a documentary kind of mode, when Karen explains her life with Henry, and we have a photo montage shot, of the family life of the gangsters. What Marty does here is to strip away the glamor, the mystery behind the gangsters, showing them as normal people. As in the part, where Karen, calmly watches TV, while the detectives search her home.
The violence in Goodfellas is also visceral and raw. It’s absolutely without any feelings, the kind which makes you flinch. As in the scene when Billy Batts is beaten by Jimmy and Henry, its swift, brutal and cold-blooded. The gangsters in Goodfellas are different from those of the Godfather, they are not bound by any honor, they are unfeeling, ruthless.
Goodfellas is a classic, but it’s not an easy movie to watch. Not just the brutal violence, but the movie moves at such a rapid pace, that at times its like being on a roller coaster. Also the camera work, is absolutely realistic, and the tracking shots can make you dizzy. It is a movie that does make you flinch at times, with its sheer raw intensity.
The soundtrack of Goodfellas is in a class by itself. Marty here uses pop and rock songs from the past to capture the mood and the characters. In the opening credits it starts off with the song “Rags to Riches” by Tony Bennet, in a way setting up the movie’s tone. When the adult Henry Hill comes into the frame, we have the song “Stardust” by Billy Ward. Karen and Henry’s entry into the Copacabana club has “Then He Kissed Me” by Crystals in the background. It’s not just the songs but also the way Marty, inserts those songs in vital moments in the movie, that really makes them memorable. The soundtrack of Goodfellas, deserves a separate post by itself. Quentin Tarantino, would do the same couple of years later with Reservoir Dogs, another memorable soundtrack.
Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, does a good job, portraying the more level headed character who rises and then falls. Robert De Niro, is as usual brilliant, in the role of Jimmy Conway, the person whom Henry adores. However compared to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, i would rate this as one of his less memorable performances. He is however great in that scene, where he learns of Tommy’s death.
The scene stealer is however Joe Pesci, as the hot-headed, psychotic Tommy De Vito. One of the more underrated actors, Pesci is a live wire, bristling with energy, sharp wit and a psychotic tendency in one of the best nasty guys portrayal on-screen. Pesci’s peculiar whiny voice also adds effect to the character. He is especially brilliant in that famous Michael Spider scene, where he sadistically shoots down a helper in the bar.
Also Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, seemed to have some influence of Goodfellas. Especially the way, both Samuel Jackson & John Travolta, go about their business casually, you know the “gandha hai, par yeh dhandha hai” funda. Or maybe just my opinion, but would love to know if you do Marty’s influence in Tarantino’s movies.