Oceanu Reviews Vol. 2 ~ 'GoodFellas' (1990)
Out of all genres in American cinema, one of the most revered is the period piece. A film that examines a particular person or place over the span of several years or decades and showcases the highs and lows of them. Many directors have made successful period dramas over the years, ranging from medieval times through to the 'cowboy' era of the late 19th and early 20th century.
However, during the 70's, 80's and 90's, film directors were crafting new tales based on modern history. Some were based on complete fiction while others had elements of truth and fact in them. One such film that falls into the latter category is GoodFellas, a Martin Scorsese flick based on the novel Wiseguy by author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. Unlike fictional crime dramas such as The Godfather or Scarface, GoodFellas was based on the real life of Henry Hill and his involvement with the mob from 1955 through to 1980.
Released in 1990 to mostly positive reviews, GoodFellas has gone on to become one of the most celebrated gangster films of all time. Developed on a $25 million budget with a return of just shy of $47 million at the box office, GoodFellas showcases the life of a man working for the Italian-American mob in a more realistic and unconventional way. At least compared to other gangster films of the time.
That being said, however, just how does the film hold up? Is it as great as the critics claim? Let's find out.
Oh, and SPOILERS AHEAD for those who wish to see the film. Even though it's almost thirty years old at this point, I still respect people's wish to avoid being spoiled for something they haven't seen yet.
Narrative (Part 1) ~ 50's & 60's
GoodFellas begins in medias res. That is to say, in the middle of things. The opening scene sees three men in a car driving down a road late at night before hearing sounds coming from the trunk. At first, the three men seem confused by it wondering what the noise is. That is, until realization begins to dawn on their faces.
Pulling over, the driver opens the boot and we see a heavily bleeding man inside struggling to breathe. Instead of helping the man, however, the driver's two companions finish off the job by stabbing and shooting the man repeatedly to ensure he's dead. As the driver prepares to close the trunk, the camera freezes on his face and we hear the iconic opening line, 'As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster'.
Thus, we begin our journey into the turbulent life of Henry Hill.
We kick things off in 1955, as Henry Hill explains his life as a teenager. He always used to watch the sharply dressed Italians visit the cab stand across the street from his bedroom window and was fascinated by their lifestyle. Born to an Irish father and an Italian mother, Henry's parents were initially thrilled that he got a job at the cab stand across the street. However, things take a turn for the worse when Henry's father discovers that his son hasn't been attending school for several months.
Having taken a beating from his father, Henry confides in his friends at the cab stand who have begun to rely on Henry to park cars and deliver messages for them and assist him by confronting the local postman. After scaring the postman into submission, Henry continues working at the cab stand and begins to start making some good money from working with his boss Tuddy Cicero (played by Frank DiLeo). This, in turn, leads Henry into being introduced to Tuddy's brother Paul 'Paulie' Cicero (played by Paul Sorvino), the leader of the Italian syndicate in the neighbourhood. Henry reflects on Paulie's paranoia about the police, as he never conducts business in the open and passes along messages or approval through people to avoid being caught on tape.
In time, young Henry Hill (played by Christopher Serrone) is introduced to another member of Paulie's crew, Jimmy 'the Gent' Conway (played by Robert De Niro) who is courteous to people and generous with his tips. However, Henry also reveals that Jimmy has a history of violence, having gone to prison at the age of eleven and was a hitman for the Italians at sixteen. That being said, Henry explains that Jimmy's true passion was stealing. A passion that would be explored throughout the film.
Through Jimmy, Henry meets a young Tommy DeVito (played by Joseph D'Onofrio) who work together selling cigarettes out the back of a car in the neighbourhood. This leads to Henry being arrested but is ultimately released due to implied mob influence. As Henry is released, Paulie's crew come to the courthouse to celebrate and Jimmy tells Henry he's proud of him for keeping his mouth shut and not ratting out his friends.
From here, we jump eight years to 1963 where we meet an older Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) and Tommy DeVito (played by Joe Pesci) as they conduct a routine theft of a truck from Idlewild Airport which is parked at a local diner. Henry explains that Jimmy's operation frequently stole cargo from trucks coming from Idlewild Airport and had some of the drivers in on the take in exchange for their assistance. Henry goes on to say that this was unofficially sanctioned by Paulie's crew, who would use their union power to halt airport management if anyone tried to stop them.
Henry visits the Bamboo Lounge, a local restaurant run by Sonny Bunz (played by Tony Darrow). Here, Henry and Jimmy meet up with their contact Frenchy from Idlewild Airport (played by Mike Starr) who informs them about Air France sending a large amount of untraceable cash through the airport. As a result, Henry and Jimmy make plans to rob the airport and bring Frenchy in as their contact as he'll be the security guard on patrol that day.
Later that night, Tommy is telling a story to Henry and a few of their friends and the situation gets tense when Tommy takes exception to Henry's comment about 'being a funny guy'. Henry soon calls out Tommy on his trick and Tommy laughs it off but also smashes a bottle of wine over Sonny Bunz' head after he was asking him to pay back some of the tab that he'd racked up in the Bamboo Lounge. This scene in particular is meant to showcase Tommy's somewhat radical behaviour and goes a long way in establishing the loose cannon that Tommy can be.
Tommy's actions, as a result, leads to Sonny Bunz turning to Paulie for help. In the process, Paulie's crew take over the Bamboo Lounge and use it as an asset to buy up large amounts of goods to illegally sell on the street and, in turn, run the restaurant into the ground with bad credit. With the Bamboo Lounge useless, Henry and Tommy rig the place to catch fire. While waiting outside, Tommy asks Henry if he'd go on a double date with him and two women, one of which Tommy is trying to hook up with.
Reluctantly attending the double date, Henry meets Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco) and tries to find a way to wrap up the dinner as he doesn't want to be there. This ends up with Henry standing Karen up the following week as Tommy and his date are chatting while Karen sits there as the awkward third wheel. Fuming, Karen forces Tommy to drive her to the cab stand and she unleashes a tirade of anger on an unsuspecting Henry who is impressed by her and promises to take her out on another date. This leads to the Copacabana one-shot take in which Henry leads Karen through the back of the club and through the kitchen to the main area where they're set up with their own table at the front of the stage. It's here where Karen gets her first glimpse of Henry's lifestyle and contacts, as he's greeted by associates and sent a bottle of champagne by one of his friends from another table.
A few days later, Henry and Tommy conduct the Air France robbery with the help of their contact and security guard Frenchy. They break in to the storeroom and walk out with a bag of $420,000 cash, which they divide up between themselves, Jimmy and Paulie. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Henry pay a visit to their associate Morrie Kessler (played by Chuck Low) who runs a wig shop and owes them money. In the process, Morrie gets a phone call from Karen who asks to speak to Henry.
Running off to pick her up, Henry learns that her neighbour tried to feel her up in the car and he drives her home. Hiding a gun in his pants, Henry confronts the neighbour, Bruce, and beats his face in with the butt of the gun and tells him to never touch or talk to Karen again. It's at this point that Karen reveals to the audience through voice-over that she was 'turned on' by Henry's protection of her. This leads to them taking their relationship to the next level, as they get married against Karen's parents' wishes.
Despite this, however, Karen begins to feel in two minds about the whole arrangement as she attends one of the Italian wives' hostess parties. Here, she sees the wives talking callously about their husbands and children and sees a petty and obnoxious side to the women she's associating with. Regardless, things soon improve for Henry and Karen as they move into their own home and have their first child together. Although the police occasionally search the house, Karen does her best to try and be civil and courteous; something she feels makes her family seem more legitimate and better than the other Italian families.
Narrative (Part 2) ~ 70's & 80's
Then, we arrive in the 1970's. Specifically, June 11th 1970. Henry and Jimmy are hosting a Gambino family man named Billy Batts at Henry's bar, with his friends celebrating his release from prison. Things start off well until Tommy arrives at the bar with his date. Here, Billy Batts (played by the late Frank Vincent) teases Tommy about his past as a shoe-shiner in front of everyone. Although the rising situation initially is defused, Billy pushes it too far and infuriates Tommy which leads to an argument. Henry tries to calm down Tommy who then decides to leave with his date on the condition that Henry keeps Billy at the bar.
Later that night, Tommy returns alone after Billy's friends have left and proceeds to savagely beat up Billy with Jimmy's help. Henry locks the door so no one walks in and watches on as Billy is beaten and kicked to a bloody pulp. At one point, Tommy pulls out his gun and appears to shoot Billy in the mouth, although his gun is shown landing on the floor immediately afterwards. Grabbing some tablecloths, Tommy and Jimmy cover up Billy's body and carry him out to Henry's car, hiding him in the trunk.
From here, the trio head to Tommy's house to grab a knife to cut up Billy but are interrupted by Tommy's mother (played by Catherine Scorsese). Eating a late supper together, Tommy lies to his mother by saying that he hit a deer on the way home and needs to use the knife to hack off its hoof that got stuck in the grille of the car. Tommy's mother shows the trio her painting of a man with two dogs in a boat. Jimmy makes the comment that the man in the painting looks like someone they know to which Tommy laughs it off.
It's at this point that we arrive at the opening scene of the film, with Henry pulling over after hearing noises from the trunk. Opening the boot, Tommy stabs Billy repeatedly with the knife and Jimmy shoots the corpse a few times for good measure. Despite the trio burying Billy out in the middle of nowhere, Henry begins to worry about the repercussions of Tommy's actions. After all, Billy is a made man from a rival family.
Henry commences a secret affair with a woman named Janice Rossi and soon learns from Paulie that Gambino family men have been asking around about Billy. Soon, Jimmy and Tommy learn that the place where they buried Billy is about to commence development and so the trio drive back out and move the corpse to a new location, making Henry ill in the process due to the horrid smell. Unfortunately, Tommy's hot-headed nature rears itself again during a friendly card game in which he gets angry at the game's bartender Spider (played by Christopher Moltisanti) and accidentally shoots him in the foot.
During this time, Karen begins to get suspicious about Henry's behaviour and asks him if he's cheating on her to which he denies it. Later, at another card game, tensions between Tommy and Spider heat up again when Tommy teases Spider about his injury to which Spider tells him to go fuck himself. As the rest of Tommy's friends are impressed with Spider's attitude, Tommy himself takes exception with it. Pulling out his gun, he shoots Spider several times and ends up killing him, much to Jimmy's annoyance.
Meanwhile, Karen tracks down Janice Rossi at her apartment and begins hurling verbal abuse at her. Later, Karen confronts Henry as he wakes up in bed to a gun in his face. After calming her down, he proceeds to take the gun off her and yell angrily at her, citing his own fears of getting killed out on the street and now he has to worry about it in his own home. This leads to Henry moving out and going to live with Janice at her apartment.
However, Paulie and Jimmy soon arrive to talk some sense into Henry about going back to Karen. In the meantime, while things cool down, Jimmy offers Henry to join him on a trip to Tampa in Florida to collect some money from an outstanding loan. Unfortunately, the man in question that they beat up has a sister who works as a typist at the FBI. Once she finds out, she reports Jimmy and Henry to the feds who arrest them on their way back from Florida.
As a result, Henry is sentenced to ten years in prison. During his sentence, he makes the most of his time inside by selling pills and getting Karen to smuggle in food for him for meals. This is shown through the prison dinner scene in which Henry, Paulie (who is in prison for a year for contempt) and some of their friends are cooking a nice dinner for themselves. It's also revealed here that Jimmy is doing his sentence upstate in Atlanta. Tensions between Karen and Henry are also shown to be rocky as she sees that Janice Rossi has been to the prison to visit Henry.
From here, we jump ahead four years and see Henry out on parole. Reuniting with Karen, they head to Paulie's house for a celebration dinner in which Paulie pulls Henry aside and asks him if he knows anyone in the crew that has been selling drugs. Henry claims not to know and it's shown here that Paulie is starting to become paranoid about people in his crew as he wants everyone under him to stay away from drugs.
Disregarding Paulie's warning, Henry continues selling pills and expands into cocaine through his connections in Pittsburgh. During this time, he commences a new affair with Janice's friend, Sandy, and brings in Jimmy and Tommy on his operation. As a result, Henry starts making some serious bank and buys a new home for his family.
Things continue looking up for the crew as Morrie informs Henry about a large amount of cash and jewelry coming through JFK Airport. Passing on the information to Jimmy, Henry later hears on the radio about the event that becomes known as the Lufthansa heist. Jimmy's crew walk away from the heist with an estimated $6 million which, at the time, was the largest heist in American history.
Despite this, however, Jimmy soon begins to get paranoid about the people involved in the heist who are being reckless with their earnings. Additionally, the revelation that their driver 'Stacks' Edwards (played by Samuel L. Jackson) didn't dispose of the getaway van leads Jimmy into cleaning house. Using Tommy and Frankie, Jimmy sends them to execute Stacks followed by Morrie, Frenchy and several other contacts involved in the Lufthansa heist. Jimmy also has Frankie whacked later on as he was involved in the heist as well.
Soon afterwards, Tommy finds out that he is going to be made. While Jimmy and Henry celebrate at the diner, Tommy heads to a house with some men to conduct his ceremony. As it turns out, however, the ceremony is a set-up and Tommy is shot in the back of the head and killed. Jimmy soon finds out over the telephone from a contact and relays the information to Henry, who theorizes that this was revenge for the Billy Batts murder years ago.
Then, we jump ahead to May 11th, 1980. Henry narrates to the audience his busy schedule on this day as it becomes evident he's been gradually getting addicted to cocaine due to his pale complexion, frequent sweating and weary eyes. He starts off by driving to Jimmy's house to sell him some guns which he turns down followed by driving to the hospital to pick up his brother. Along the way, Henry sees a helicopter flying overhead and begins to freak out thinking he's being followed. After taking some medication from the doctor, Henry drives his brother home and puts him to work taking care of dinner with the help of the babysitter Lois before leaving with Karen to go shopping.
En route, the pair see the helicopter again and so Henry detours to Karen's parents' house to stash the guns. After going shopping, Henry and Karen pick up the guns from her parents' place and Henry drops Karen off home before going to collect the drugs from his Pittsburgh contact. From here, Henry meets with Sandy and the pair work together to mix and set up the cocaine in packages. Meanwhile, Lois makes a call from the home phone-line to her contact in Atlanta about her flight, something Henry explicitly told her to do on an outside line.
After dinner, Henry gets prepared to strap the cocaine packages on Lois but she insists on being taken home to collect her lucky hat. As Henry and Lois get in the car, the police move in and arrest them both. Henry soon learns about Lois' talking on the home phone which, combined with the heavy surveillance and the evidence left on Sandy's cooking utensils, implicates Henry in a major drug trafficking crime.
As Henry is imprisoned, he convinces Karen to get her mother to put up her house for his bail. Upon being released on bail, Henry immediately gets to work on trying to make peace with Paulie, who he fears will whack him. Unfortunately, Paulie decides to part ways with him for his betrayal, leaving him with a final parting gift of $3200. This leaves Henry in a desperate financial situation as his backup nest egg of cocaine was flushed down the toilet by Karen when the police raided the home.
With Paulie cutting off contact and realizing that they need to leave town, Henry tries to convince Karen to pack up with the kids and move with him. Karen initially refuses until after she meets with Jimmy who she feels is acting suspiciously. After confiding in her husband, Henry eventually decides to meet with Jimmy in the diner. During their conversation, Jimmy asks Henry to head down to Florida to whack someone on his behalf. It's at this point that Henry believes that Jimmy is sending him down there to be killed.
With no other option left to them, Henry and Karen meet with the FBI and broker a deal. Testifying against Jimmy and Paulie in court, Henry is given the chance for his family to enter the witness protection program and start a new life elsewhere. The film ends with Henry summing up his life with Paulie's crew, how he essentially loved living the high life. But now, as he says in his own words, 'and now it's all over'. The final shot shows Henry picking up the morning newspaper in front of his house somewhere in suburbia as he laments not being able to find a decent pasta joint in his neighbourhood. A fast cut to Tommy shooting a gun is shown to highlight the fact that Henry will now have to spend the rest of his life watching his back.
The narrative as a whole is quite compelling as it showcases both the glorified and gruesome elements of gangster life. Henry, despite his role as the main character, acts as a window in which the audience can have a first hand look at the world in which these characters live. Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito are terrifying yet enthralling characters, each in their own way. Paul Cicero is the quiet, stern leader and surrogate father figure for Henry. Karen Hill is the loving, yet equally fierce role of girlfriend and later wife for Henry who is a bit more involved and implicit in Henry's activities than she should be.
Although based on true events, GoodFellas manages to tell a captivating story that hooks in its audience and keeps a fairly concise and focused plot in place. It focuses on the important details while also fleshing out some side-characters and giving its cast a chance to shine.
From the get-go, it seems evident that Martin Scorsese was looking for particular talent when making GoodFellas. The actors who play both young and older Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone and Ray Liotta, respectively) both do a great job in their roles as the main character of the film. Christopher Serrone's portrayal as a young, cocky Henry Hill melds well with Ray Liotta's portrayal as a confident and enthusiastic associate of Paulie's crew. Ray Liotta himself also does a wonderful job in showcasing Henry's emotions through facial expression and voice over exposition, which helps the audience understand the gravity of a particular event or situation Henry finds himself in.
Robert De Niro, likewise, does an outstanding job as Jimmy 'the Gent' Conway. Despite his usually calm and cool demeanour as Jimmy, Robert De Niro manages to infuse the character with some sinister charm and intensity that, in some ways, makes him feel like much more of a threat than even Tommy. Case in point being his ruthless killing of the Lufthansa heist members; not only to distance himself from the crime but also, as Henry believed, to keep more of the profits for himself. De Niro's ability to shift from smiling friend to vicious enforcer as Jimmy makes him intimidating and a memorable character.
Joe Pesci's role as Tommy DeVito is arguably one of the most terrifying presences on screen, a feat which earned him an Academy Award. Pesci's ability to showcase Tommy DeVito as both an unpredictable 'wild card' and a fierce and loyal member of Jimmy's outfit is truly scary and fascinating. Particular scenes, such as his interactions with Spider (played by Christopher Moltisanti) and the infamous 'How am I funny?' scene with Henry Hill only go to prove that Joe Pesci demands his audience's attention. And he definitely gets it. Even Tommy's younger self (played by Joseph D'Onofrio) does a good job in setting up Joe Pesci's performance as a smartly dressed, intimidating young man.
Lorraine Bracco does a stellar job as Henry's future wife, Karen Hill. She manages to expertly encapsulate a myriad of different roles for Karen throughout the film and enforces her own form of intensity and intimidation. She's the loving, caring girlfriend, the terrifying jilted wife, the loyal, compassionate partner and mother and ultimately, Henry's only consistent confidant throughout the film. Bracco is given a much broader and diverse acting range than some of her fellow actors and it's good to see her talent being used fully.
Paul Sorvino isn't in the film quite as much as the rest of the cast but he still does a good job as the neighbourhood's leader, Paul Cicero. He's mastered the art of pulling off the angry Italian father face which reminded me of my old man in some ways and, in turn, allowed me to feel a deeper connection with the character. That being said, Sorvino's scenes are all a joy to watch. In particular, the prison dinner scene is one of my favourites as he, Henry and the other inmates all make a nice dinner for themselves.
The rest of the supporting cast all do a good job in their respective roles. Characters such as Frankie Carbone (played by Frank Sivero), Billy Batts (played by the late Frank Vincent), Sonny Bunz (played by Tony Darrow), Frenchy (played by Mike Starr), Morrie (played by Chuck Low) and Tuddy (played by Frank DiLeo) all perform well in their roles and help lead the story along for the main cast.
Audio / Visual
GoodFellas implements a number of ways in which it tells its story. On the audio front, there's the face-to-face interaction dialogue between characters but Martin Scorsese has also opted to use voice overs for Henry and Karen. This is used in a way to not only explain things to the audience through exposition, but also to communicate their private thoughts on a particular person, place or event. This is most clearly seen in Henry's final meeting with Jimmy or Karen's opinions on the other women at the hostess party.
Additionally, Scorsese's choice of music throughout the film is quite fitting. Instead of opting for an original score, he decided on using music from the various time periods shown through the film. Notable standouts here include the opening title song Rags to Riches by Tony Bennett, Jimmy Conway's introduction to the song Speedoo by the Cadillacs, the prison dinner scene with Beyond the Sea by Bobby Darin and Jimmy's decision to clean house with Sunshine of Your Love by Cream all lift important scenes to new heights with memorable music that melds naturally.
In terms of the visuals, GoodFellas utilises a number of different cinematic styles to tell its story. Martin Scorsese opts to use a number of flash freezes on critical moments to give Henry or Karen a chance to explain a particular situation or event to the audience. There's also a number of fast cuts used in some scenes such as Tommy's 'made' ceremony, some interactions with Morrie at his shop and the helicopter scenes.
Additionally, Scorsese also uses some interesting cinematic choices. Of particular note here is the continuous shot when Henry and Karen go on their date at the Copacabana club or the slow zoom-in shots of Paul Cicero or Jimmy Conway when they're making important decisions with specific songs playing in the background. These decisions and styles highlight Scorsese's versatility in capturing a scene with the maximum level of impact and information for the audience. It's quite a treat to see.
Overall, GoodFellas is quite a fascinating film. It manages to showcase the glamorous lifestyle of the Italian wiseguy while also highlighting the brutal, ruthless nature of organised crime. Henry Hill is a somewhat complex character who not only acts as a window into the world of wiseguys for the audience but also deals with his own complicated issues and addictions. The rest of the cast all do a wonderful job in populating the world of the film with realistic and believable characters and personalities with some characters such as Tommy and Jimmy infusing their own sense of intimidation and intensity into their respective roles.
The film's selection of music and cinematography are great and help in setting up important situations, places or events. Martin Scorsese showcases his passion for film-making in this movie and it goes a long way in proving what the original critics said. GoodFellas is a well-made film with a passionate cast and crew that all bring their A-game. It's hard to find much fault with the film other than personal interpretation and entertainment.
8.75 / 10
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