Three decades of mob rule gets aired out in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), a hard-hitting yet stylish retelling of famed writer, Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, ‘Wiseguy’; the unvarnished biography of professional mobster, Henry Hill. In retrospect, Scorsese’s milieu has been the gangster picture; almost a throwback to the fast-paced/ripped from the headlines approach that made the fledgling Warner Bros. studios famous back in the 1930’s; albeit, this time with Scorsese’s penchant for adding a patina of gloss, humanity and excruciating attention to detail to the exercise, populating his landscape with colorful characters (and even more flamboyant actors to portray them); also, ratcheting up the violence to truly cringe-worthy standards. Right off the bat, Scorsese gives us the lay of the land, a close-up on the trunk of a big ole Pontiac careening down a darkened road with our three central antagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy ‘the gent’ Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) nervously riding in silence. A few thumps echo from the boot, necessitating Henry pull over. Alas, the stoolie they’ve abducted and beaten to a pulp is still very much alive; Tommy angrily plunging a carving knife several times into the dying man’s chest and stomach before Jimmy joins in with a few choice shots from his revolver.
It’s been 25 years since this unsettling prologue shattered our preconceived notions of what a ‘mob movie’ ought to be. In the interim, other like-minded fare has come and gone; even Scorsese’s own, and arguably, equally as brilliant, Casino (1995). And yet, Goodfellas remains the benchmark by which all contemporaries are compared. Whereas the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone, in their respective opus magnums, The Godfather (1972) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) created a sort of visualized Grecian theatricality, even an elegance to the tales they told, Scorsese’s great gift to cinema has always been his ability to juxtapose the most profane moments of ultra-violence with a compelling narrative that diffuses its gratuitousness into truly compelling, edge-of-your-seat storytelling. In this regard, Scorsese’s ace in the hole is undeniably Nicholas Pileggi’s page turner, gleaned from first-hand accounts by the real Henry Hill. The voiceover narrations delivered by Ray Liotta are pure Hill, lending an earthy patina to Scorsese’s slick storytelling. Often, voiceovers are used merely to bridge a narrative gap – an economical way to carry the audience from one disparate sequence into another and still have it all make sense. However, Scorsese employs them to introduce us to the flavorful language of the wise guys; the cadence of their lingo painting an immediate impression of a world we are about to enter and inhabit for the next two and a half hours.
Goodfellas is, in fact, the ‘true’ story of Henry Hill; a mob-wannabe who, even as a boy, knew the good life was not to be had in the lower east side Brooklyn slum he and his family lived in, but in the compelling drama unfolding just across the street at Tuddy Cicero’s (Fran DiLeo) cab stand where the underworld elite conglomerate in their flashy suits. Of course, the cab stand is a front for mob operations and, even more obviously, our Henry (played as a youth with great conviction by Christopher Serrone) has to be a part of it. After all, what is there about his home life to inspire him? So, Henry enters a life of crime as the ingénue, the whole operation fronted by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorveno); a stoic mountain of a man, instilling fear and respect in his cronies and providing protection to his friends while keeping up the appearance of being just an average Joe; bribing local authorities on the side with illegal cigarettes and other choice luxury items stolen from the customs and excise depot at New York’s Idlewild Airport.
In the meantime, Henry (now played by Ray Liotta) and Tommy grow into two of the most lucrative operators for the mob; front men who enjoy the good score and spending their nights schmoozing with cheap broads and expensive liquor at the Bamboo Club. However, when Tommy smashes a champagne bottle across the proprietor, Sonny Bunz’s noggin (Tony Darrow) over a $7,000 bar tab, Bunz turns to Paulie for ‘protection’, suggesting it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Tommy just disappeared. The notion is hateful to Paulie, who very reluctantly agrees to go into business with Bunz for a time. The restaurant is deliberately run into the ground and then torched for the insurance money. A short while later, Henry and Tommy pull off the ‘Air France’ job; a heist of $400,000, it earns Henry a place of honor on Paulie’s team and also affords him the opportunity to pursue a romantic relationship with Karen (Lorraine Bracco); a girl he initially met through Tommy, but had virtually zero interest in pursuing. Alas, before long nature pulls in its predictable direction; the pair growing inseparable even as Karen finds some of Henry’s behavior uncouth to downright belligerent and frightening.
Jimmy and Henry shake down local toupee merchant, Morris Kessler (Chuck Low) for the money he borrowed from Jimmy to start his business. At the same time, Karen telephones Henry to tell him how a former acquaintance, Bruce (Mark Evan Jacobs) attempted to take advantage of her. In reply, Henry pistol-whips Bruce in the driveway of his home, instructing Karen to hide the bloody gun. We jump ahead to Karen and Henry’s wedding; Karen’s parents not entirely pleased with the arrangement – even less so, when Henry and Tommy stay out all night, incurring their wrath. Karen has reason to be concerned; attending a hostess party thrown by Jimmy’s wife, Mickey (Julie Garfield) where gossip runs rampant; lurid stories told by big-haired, badly dressed and pock-skin princesses wearing far too much makeup: about delinquent children, extramarital affairs and husbands going to prison. It scares Karen, a virgin to the ways of the Mafia only. Henry assures his newlywed bride nothing like that will ever happen to them – famous last words, indeed. Henry is solid with Paulie. Moreover, he carefully plans his heists. Only those who are sloppy with their lifestyle are doomed to fall on hard times; an ominous prelude of things yet to come.
June 11, 1970: a seminal date in the movie’s timeline in that it marks the beginning of a downward spiral destined to undo the organization. The moment begins innocuously when a returning Mafioso, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) playfully chides Tommy about his past as a shoeshine. Such reminiscences mildly embarrass Tommy in front of his friends. He asks politely for Billy to lay off his reputation. Alas, Billy doesn’t get the hint. And Tommy, whose fuse is short already, decides to make an example of Billy, returning to the club after hours and beating him to a pulp with an assist from Jimmy. We regress to the scene that opened Scorsese’s gangland tour de force, only now with a complete understanding of the severity of the situation; disposing of Billy’s remains with the aid of a carving knife. Afterward, the trio stops off at Tommy’s mother’s (Catherine Scorsese) house to establish an alibi. Months pass. But the heat Paulie incurs over Billy’s disappearance remains unbearable. In the meantime, Henry, who is seemingly happy in his home life, nevertheless takes a mistress, Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo) whom he sets up in a cushy apartment not far from the home he shares with Karen. It doesn’t take long for Karen to figure out something is remiss in their relationship.
At a poker game, Tommy shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli), the kid who has the same job Henry once did as a fetch n’ carry for the wise guys when he was a teenager. Spider’s foot wound is superficial. Not long afterward, Tommy, Jimmy, Henry and Anthony Stabile (Frank Adonis) get together for another round of cards; Spider limping over to their table, wearing an oversized cast on his foot. Tommy makes a few jokes about how stupid and crippled Spider is and Spider, believing he is in the right, tells Tommy to go ‘f_ck himself.’ In reply, Tommy opens fire and murders Spider in cold blood; his overreaction to a benign situation disgusts Jimmy, who tells Tommy he will be digging the hole to bury Spider without any help. Henry, however, has begun to harbor sincere misgivings about the laissez faire attitude the wise guys have toward killing for pleasure. There was a time when murder was committed to prove a point; because someone double-crossed somebody else or to settle an old debt or score. But now, murder is just a means to an end; a mode of self-expression, grotesquely perpetrated on those who neither deserve such vengeance nor are in any position to defend themselves. Bottom line: the unwritten code of honor between these wise guys is no more.
Meanwhile, Karen takes it upon herself to track down and confront Janice at her apartment. She then aims Henry’s gun at his head while he sleeps, the threat narrowly averted when Henry weakens her resolve; the two winding up in an angry heap on the floor. Sometime later, Paulie and Jimmy decide to corner Henry at Janice’s apartment. Things have gone from bad to worse, they both tell him. Karen’s hysterics have created ripples throughout the entire extended family. Paulie comes up with a solution. He decides to send Henry off to Tampa with Jimmy to rough up a bookie (Peter Onorati), agreeing to act as an intermediary in their marriage and smooth things over on Henry’s behalf with Karen on the understanding Henry’s affair with Janice is unequivocally over. Alas, the bookie’s sister works for the FBI. By the time the plane lands at J.F.K., Jimmy and Henry are picked up on assault charges, indicted and convicted by a federal grand jury and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Paulie goes to the big house too, on a year’s conviction for contempt. Upon their release, with time served and probation, the boy’s embark on a lucrative drug trafficking enterprise without Paulie’s knowledge. This quick dirty/sexy money affords Henry and Karen a lavish lifestyle. Alas, before long Henry becomes his own best customer, snorting cocaine with Sandy (Debi Mazar), who is already a chronic junkie.
The boys pull off a daring Lufthansa heist at J.F.K worth $6 million. Too bad nobody heeds Jimmy’s advice to lay low. Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson), the getaway driver leaves prints on an easily traceable van, necessitating Tommy arriving early one morning at his apartment to put a bullet in the back of his head. Jimmy is ecstatic when Paulie is given the go-ahead to make Tommy a ‘made man’ – the highest rank in the mafia. But Morris proves the proverbial fly in the ointment, refusing to remain silent about his cut from the heist and demanding immediate restitution be paid. Jimmy has other plans. One by one, the men responsible for the heist begin to turn up, in dumpsters, frozen solid in the back of a meat packer’s truck or bludgeoned to death, along with their wives, as they sit in their automobiles. The proverbial wrench is thrown into Jimmy’s best laid plan when the mob decides to whack Tommy.
From this moment on, the situation becomes dire. Henry’s drug abuse gets the better of him and he starts getting sloppy. He fears Paulie will find out about his lucrative sideline enterprise, as does Jimmy, who knows it would not take much for Paulie to have them both toe-tagged rather than put the entire organization in jeopardy. Before anything can happen, Henry and his drug smuggling operation are busted by the NARC’s. Paulie ostracizes Henry from the mob. It’s tantamount to a death warrant and Henry knows it; weighing the option of turning state’s evidence to topple the mob. He lays everything on the line for Karen. It’s over. They are the pariah now. If they stay, Paulie will surely have them killed. Karen doesn’t believe it at first. She appeals to Jimmy behind Henry’s back. But when Jimmy sends her to a supposed empty store front to collect a package, Karen begins to suspect she is being set up to be murdered. She hurries home to Henry instead, the couple immediately cooperating with the feds to put away Paulie and Jimmy. In the film’s epilogue, we learn Henry and Karen were placed in the witness protection program, virtually disappearing into thin air overnight. Both men were convicted. Alas, Paulie died only a year into his sentence of a respiratory infection while Jimmy remains in prison serving 20 years for murder. In 1987, Henry was convicted in Seattle, Washington on drug charges, but granted probation once more. In 1989, he and Karen ended their 25 year marriage.
Goodfellas endures as a watershed American movie; Scorsese maturing the audiences’ expectations beyond the traditional mob movie. In some ways, Goodfellas is exactly that; Scorsese relying on the ancient premise of a young man’s rise and inevitable fall from grace. Reportedly, Scorsese read Pileggi's book while wrapping up production on The Color of Money (1986). Here is a world Scorsese intuitively understands, Pileggi having penned an unsentimental, yet riveting history for this motley crew of intriguing antagonists. Scorsese’s fervent desire to tell such a story about flawed humanity, simply and plainly, pivots on his own ability to make us love these characters at a first casual glance. Despite the fact our initial glimpse of Henry, Jimmy and Tommy is as a trio of reluctantly nervous thugs, ruthlessly finishing off the desperate victim trapped in the trunk of Henry’s car, we cannot help but align our support with these wise guys from the moment Scorsese moves in on a close-up of Ray Liotta in freeze-frame and his voiceover unapologetically admits, “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.”
Scorsese spends a little more than the first third of his movie illustrating all the compelling reasons why every man should want to aggressively pursue a life of crime; the immediate fame and, more importantly, respect garnered during the impressionable age of youth; the sense of community and belonging so absent from Henry’s own ‘legitimate’ home life; and finally, the seemingly unquantifiable riches to be had for the price of being gutsy and devious. One could do worse than emulate and admire these innocuous-looking tough guys and ‘made men’, or so it would seem. Ah, but then Scorsese strips away the playful badinage with a moment of sheer brutality; a startling rape of our collective admiration for Henry and his pals as Tommy unceremoniously assassinates Spider without so much as giving it a second thought. Until this moment, Tommy has been the foul-mouthed figure of fun, so exuberantly portrayed by Joe Pesci. Despite a few minor infractions, meant to attest to his hot-headed temper, Tommy at least seemed like a fairly congenial fellow; bossy, arrogant and demanding, but otherwise just a ‘good fella’ infrequently suffering from the proverbial short-man’s complex. Spider’s death does more than simply alter our impressions of Tommy. It serves as the moment where the pendulum in Scorsese’s fairly breezy tale has decidedly begun to swing in the other direction.
Scorsese illustrates his directorial mastery herein, providing us with a steadily advancing avalanche of misfortune, metaphorically, at least, the snowball turning into a ball of cocaine. The machinery behind the organization of criminal activity, the backbone of Pileggi’s novel, is chiefly what fascinates Scorsese; the mechanics of ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘what’, asked and answered simplistically, yet with an absorbing camaraderie to neatly tie all the action together. Goodfellas is not an action movie, or perhaps even a drama, but an intimate backstage pass to the most dysfunctional family unit in human history. Henry’s adopted family – the mob – has its favorite sons and uncles, its nags and nattering aunts, wives and lovers. Only, in this family album of beloved reprobates, the body count rises exponentially. And yet, it is Scorsese’s ability to present the mob as just common and flawed ‘every day’ folk that appeal to us.
Pileggi’s book essentially followed a linear narrative, functioning as a prolonged, ongoing ‘interview’ with his informant, Henry Hill. Scorsese wisely chooses to shake things up a little by beginning in the middle – the murder of Billy Batts kicking off our story with a decidedly gruesome thrust into this blood-soaked and decidedly very seedy underbelly of mafia life. Like the spokes of a wheel, all narrative threads extend from this central hub; our regression into Henry’s past and his future destiny with the mob. There’s no half way in the criminal underworld. Nor would Henry have it any other way. And Scorsese punctuates his movie with close-ups of hands always doing something; unlocking doors, inserting a key between a few sheets of folded paper, frantically pressing on the call buttons inside an apartment lobby, or, reaching out for the grip of a pistol. Symbolically, these shots represent the restlessness of the ‘made men’s world; never quite able to settle down or relax; the smoke screen of fashionable parties and flashily illicit monetary gains feathering some very tacky nests; all of it proving little more than diversions from the fact the proverbial clock is ticking down to the hour when it will all come to not and unravel in a hasty proliferation of corpses and incarcerations. There are only two ways to successfully leave the mafia: death or by going to jail.
Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay; each agonizing over its lengthy gestation and no less than twelve drafts. From the outset, Scorsese was set on Ray Liotta as his protagonist. Although DeNiro’s name above the title secured the necessary funds and a commitment from Warner Bros. to release the picture, Liotta’s involvement took some convincing; producer, Irwin Winkler delaying the inevitable because he felt Liotta entirely the wrong type for the part. Arguably, Liotta’s appeal for Scorsese is what equally soured Winkler on his participation; his autonomy. To date, the actor had appeared in only four movies – all of them inconsequential and unable to break his name into the big time. In the end, Liotta won over Winkler’s approval with an impassioned plea, although as Winkler would later suggest, he would have likely granted Scorsese pretty much any demand. Still, Liotta would later recall how his initial meeting with Scorsese seemed to come to nothing; the actor left dangling after his audition for a solid nine months before being told he had the part.
As some of the mafia bosses depicted in the film were still very much living, Scorsese agreed to slightly alter their names in the film. Hence, Tommy ‘Two Gun’ DeSimone became Tommy DeVito; Paul Vario/Paulie Cicero, and Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke, Jimmy Conway. Director and screenwriter agreed to rename their movie, ‘Goodfellas’ as there had already been a 1986 comedy called Wise Guy, directed by Brian De Palma; also, a highly successful TV series starring Ken Wahl that ran from 1987-1990. In preparing for their respective roles, both Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro approached their characters differently. At Scorsese’s request, Liotta staved off the urge to meet the real Henry Hill, instead listening to hours of tape-recorded interviews Pileggi had conducted, to capture the essential cadence and prototype of Hill’s speech patterns. Meanwhile, DeNiro relentlessly grilled Pileggi about the particulars of Jimmy’s mannerisms; taking into consideration even the slightest nuance (how to hold a ketchup bottle or flick the cinders from a freshly lit cigarette, as example) and adopting these bits of business with chameleon-like precision.
Budgeted at $25 million, Goodfellas was Martin Scorsese’s most expensive picture to date. At a sneak preview, Scorsese counted forty walk outs, leaving Warner executives slightly unhinged about the picture’s potential to soar at the box office. Scorsese absolutely refused to take out ‘Spider’s murder’, but he did agree to tightening the film’s third act; he and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker adopting the freneticism of the ‘French New Wave’ to create a sense of unease and heighten Henry’s chronic paranoia and anxiety, brought about by his cocaine addiction. In the final analysis, Warner Bros. had absolutely nothing to fear. Despite mixed critical reviews, Goodfellas was an immediate sensation with audiences. If anything, the picture plays better today than it did in 1990; Scorsese’s then groundbreaking re-introduction of the traditional mafia hood since having adopted more than a kernel of verisimilitude.
Warner Home Video has gone back to the well for this 25th Anniversary Blu-ray reissue of Goodfellas. It’s a brand new 4K scan, presenting us with a decidedly different visual presentation than the previous home video incarnations. Under Scorsese's supervision, Goodfellas looks more vibrant than ever. Overall image clarity, sharpness and color density is astounding. Black levels and contrast are equally as excellent. A word about the color: well, it is decidedly leaning more toward a ‘blue palette’ than its predecessor. Is this a reimagining on Scorsese’s part? Hmmm. I saw Goodfellas theatrically back in 1990 and have owned the previously issued Blu-ray for a good many years. Which gives me a more ‘film like’ viewing experience? Marginally, I have to say I do prefer the original Blu-ray’s color palette to this new 25th anniversary. But the old Blu-ray’s contrast is bumped and by direct comparison. Not loving that! Mercifully, the alterations in color on this new edition do not egregiously lean to those awful and artificially enhanced ‘teal’ hues we’ve seen on a good many ‘remastered’ Fox catalog titles. There’s little to doubt this new 25th anniversary has a much cooler palette than its predecessor. But overall, I was pleased with what I saw herein. Age-related artifacts, including a painful scratch running right down center frame in a close-up of Jimmy, have been eradicated in this new minting. The image is smooth, while lovingly preserving a very organic grain structure that is pleasing to the eye. Miraculously, Warner has taken the high road herein, isolating the movie with its audio commentaries, on one BD-50, consolidating all of the formidable extra features on another Blu-ray disc. Thank you.
Goodfellas audio has also been given the necessary upgrade. The picture was released theatrically in Dolby Surround, later remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 for the DVD: that mix merely carried over for the 2007 Blu-ray (which justifiably angered a lot of audiophiles). This 25th Anniversary gets a spruced up DTS 5.1, the acoustic differences immediately noticeable to anyone channeling this disc through a higher end sound system. Dialogue is crisp and refined, perfectly integrated with the SFX and pop-tune background music. Bass impact during key moments of violence penetrates the ear with startling clarity. Apart from the ‘all new’ hour long retrospective on the movie and its cultural impact, virtually all the extras have been imported from the old DVD and Blu-ray. The new documentary has the participation of good many of the film’s alumni, although minus Joe Pesci and including a bizarre anomaly – Leonardo Di Caprio.
I don’t really see the point to Di Caprio’s participation herein. He doesn’t really add much to the discussion and frankly, is Scorsese’s wan muse compared to DeNiro who, despite having entered his emeritus years, is nevertheless ten times the actor and commentator Di Caprio could ever hope to be. The older extras are far richer in their backstory on the making of this movie; Getting Made, Made Men, The Workaday Gangster, Paper is Cheaper Than Film; alas, all are presented in less than perfect 720p. Warner Home Video has also chucked in a few ‘gangster related’ vintage short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. Warner enjoys its booklets and so we get another one herein, slapped together with a lot of superficially glossy photos but decided very light research and written content. It’s a puff piece at best and one you’ll likely never revisit after a first casual glance. Bottom line: it’s Goodfellas, new and improved, and very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)