By John H. Foote
2. GOODFELLAS (1990)
Ten years after his dark masterpiece Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese unleashed the film that has come to be known as his absolute masterpiece, GoodFellas, a journey through the inner workings of organized crime. In the years between the two films, Scorsese focused on the kind of films he wanted to make, but also worked on making himself more bankable in Hollywood, no easy task. He ran hot and cold through the decade, though in hindsight, his films through the eighties were all very good, with some bonafide gems along the way.
After Raging Bull, he directed The King of Comedy, an intimate study of psychosis with Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a messenger who dreams of being a stand-up comic guesting on “The Jerry Langford Show”, obviously modelled on the old Carson show. Jerry Lewis was cast as Langford. Despite his on-screen persona, Lewis was a dour man, lonely due to his celebrity, with very little joy in his life. Often a clown in his films, this was the finest work of Lewis’s career and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The film explores the foibles of celebrity and how it is achieved. In desperation, Pupkin and his friend Masha kidnap Langford. The ransom: let Rupert do his comedy act on the show. This of course makes Rupert famous, but should he be? The performances, particularly De Niro and Lewis are perfection and carry the bizarre film. Though it failed at the time, it is now considered a Scorsese masterpiece.
Subsequent to that, After Hours (1985) was an interesting little independent, while The Color of Money (1986) was a big studio production, a sequel to The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman back as Fast Eddie Felson, now the coach of pool shark Tom Cruise. Electrifying performances dominate the film. Newman finally won his Oscar, and Cruise showed he could go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the business. Beautifully shot and edited, the picture remains exciting, and a lot of fun. It is not as dark as The Hustler, though the arc of Newman’s character is plausible and heartbreaking.
Scorsese finally had the chance to make his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and despite howls of protest from various religious groups including the Catholic church, he created a stunning work of art that demanded things from its audience. Unlike any film ever made about Christ, this Jesus was both man and deity, filled with fear about the voices he hears and more specifically, what they are telling him to do. He knows where his destiny lies, and he is terrified. In a long dream sequence, Christ, hauntingly portrayed by Willem Dafoe, is enticed off the cross and allowed to live his life as just a man. He marries, fathers children, loses his first wife, marries another and grows old before seeing the angel taking him off the cross is in fact Satan, at which point he begs God to go back to the cross. Deeply moving, it was the most profoundly spiritual experience I have ever had watching a film. Recognizing his work, the Academy nominated Scorsese as Best Director, the only nomination the film received.
Bringing us to GoodFellas.
The opening tells us everything we need to know about the tone of the film. Three men are driving in a car when they hear noise from the trunk. They pull over into the woods and draw weapons. Inside the trunk, we see a bloody man, beaten to a pulp, dying but struggling to stay alive. Without hesitation, one of the men begins stabbing him with a huge butcher knife, while another pulls a gun and fires, killing him. The youngest man walks forward and before closing the trunk, freezes in frame and as narrator tells us, “I always wanted to be a gangster.” From here the life of Henry Hill unfolds, from his childhood where he first becomes involved with the mob, through to the end, where he will betray his friends in the mob and enter the Witness Relocation Program.
The beauty of the film is the tone Scorsese gives it, bouncy, jaunty, almost light but the passages of darkness never allow it to become too sunny. These men are killers, and given the order from above, they will kill each other if necessary.
Henry (Ray Liotta) works primarily for the boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino), along with Jimmy (Robert De Niro), a fearsome thief and young Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), a near-psychotic young man. Together, they steal whatever they can. A portion is always kicked up to Paulie (“their tribute”) and this is how Henry makes his living. They take trucks of merchandise, food, fur coats, whatever they want, and either keep it or sell it. They steal cash, including an airport heist, one of the biggest in the history of the United States. It is that heist where things suddenly become very real, as Jimmy would rather keep the money than pay out to those who helped him. Bodies begin piling up, all at Jimmy’s hand.
We see the treachery of the mob throughout but never more punishing than when Tommy is murdered. Having killed a “made man”, an untouchable within the mob, Tommy is told he is going to be made, to become one of the same. Picked up and driven to the ceremony, he walks into the empty room, realizes in a milli-second what is happening and has time to almost say “oh no” before being shot in the head mid-word. Knowing Tommy was too much trouble for the mob, Jimmy is still enraged and grief-stricken when he gets the news Tommy is gone.
While serving time in jail, Henry begins selling drugs and when he gets out, it is his main means of income, despite Paulie’s instructions to stop. Keeping it from the boss could mean his life, but he and Jimmy continue, building themselves back from the bottom to great wealth. The trouble is, drug running, and trafficking puts Henry in the eyes of the police, and for an entire day they follow him. Though Henry thinks they are out for him, he also knows the cocaine he is using is making him paranoid. Sitting in his car at night, about to go retrieve his drug mule’s lucky hat, the cops bust him, and he knows he is dead in so many ways. The police have him, having taped his phone months ago. His wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) is also implicated, as she has known about his life in the mob from the very beginning and chose to look the other way.
Paulie turns his back; Jimmy sets both Henry and Karen up to be killed. Realizing he needs to get away from these people, Henry agrees to testify against them, putting both men away for life. The contempt both Jimmy and Paulie feel for Henry is evident by their faces at the trial. If they could, they would kill him where he sits.
Ray Liotta was a rising star when he convinced Scorsese he was right for the plum role of Henry. After a scalding performance as a criminal in Something Wild (1988) and his beautiful work as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (1989), he was on everyone’s radar. So Scorsese cast him. He has since called it one of the greatest casting decisions of his career. Liotta was perfect as Henry, knowing his place but with enough of a rep within the mob to be able to speak up when he has something to say. The narration is superb because, in Liotta’s voice, we feel the love he has for the mob, the men, the life, the money. They answered to no one, and Henry loved that, that sense that if they wanted something, they just took it. That sad look of regret at the film’s end when we see him in his new suburban existence, just another schlep, is telling. He misses the life.
As Jimmy, Robert De Niro radiates pure danger. This is a very bad guy, responsible for more murders than they would ever be able to attach to him, and he was ruthless about it. Having taken Henry and Tommy under his wing when they were boys, he loves them, but still is ready to kill Henry and Karen. A supporting performance, it is among the highlights of De Niro’s career before his choices and work became…strange.
Joe Pesci is simply terrifying as Tommy, a man with no control and far too free with his gun. With a near volcanic temper that he cannot nor will not control, he will murder a man just for cracking wise about him in a bar. And not just shoot him or stab him, he beats him, stomps, and kicks the man near to death, finishing him off later in the woods with his knife. Tommy is a wild card who becomes a liability. One of the film’s most famous scenes shows the intensity of his anger, and how the others around fear him. In a second it goes from everyone having a good time, laughing and carrying on, to stony silence as Tommy demands an answer.
Thinking he is being made fun of, he asks Henry to explain a comment he has made about Tommy being funny. “Am I here to amuse you?” The edge in his voice becomes nasty, the tension in the air undeniable until Henry realizes it is a joke and breaks the ice. Tommy loves it and plays it along, but what if in the playing along, he got truly angry? We watch him shoot to death a harmless young kid serving drinks at a poker game because of something the young man says to Tommy. Pesci infuses the character with a danger I am not sure I have ever truly seen on screen before.
Equally fine is Lorraine Bracco as Karen, Henry’s all-knowing wife. From the moment Henry beat a neighbor of hers for scaring her, from the second he handed her the bloody gun he used to hurt the man, Karen knew what she was getting into. Though she tries the “lamb in the woods” act with the FBI, they don’t buy it; they know she knows everything.
Though he is seen sparingly, Paul Sorvino’s Paulie carries his weight as the boss of the mob beautifully. He does not move fast because he does not have to move for anybody; they come to him. I was reminded of an Emperor of Rome in one of those sandals and sword films of the 50s. He has no need to do much because it is all done for him. But when he speaks and delivers an order, he expects it done.
The film was created with loving care by Scorsese, his actors and artists. So many scenes are master classes of filmmaking. That famous walk through the side entrance in the Copacabana night club, winding through the hallways, Henry speaking to everyone along the way, slipping each a twenty-dollar bill, to the kitchen, followed by a flurry of activity, as the staff set up a table for him and Karen right in front of the stage. One stunning tracking shot without a break is a metaphorical suggestion of rising in the mob, starting at the bottom and moving right to the top. The nightclub scene with Tommy edging towards violence then smiling broadly, Tommy’s murder is swift and unforgiving, just as the sequence where his mother cooks for the men in the middle of the night is loving and warm. The shocking outbursts of violence from Tommy, very real, ruthless, without remorse. Karen threatening to shoot Henry over his mistress, her rage when she discovers the woman is visiting Henry in jail, and her terror when she realizes Jimmy means her harm. All superbly edited by the greatest editor in film, Thelma Schoonmaker, giving the film its rollicking energy and power.
GoodFellas earned rave reviews from the North American film critics, and at years-end swept all the major critics awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director and other awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Films Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, and The New York Film Critics. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the only award it won was for Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actor, as Dances with Wolves swept the awards. Once again Scorsese had lost the Oscar to an actor directing his first film. Once again, he knew his place in the industry, but no longer cared about the awards. The moment Costner won the Directors Guild of American Award for Best Director, Scorsese knew his Oscar hopes were dim.
GoodFellas has in the years since its release, become recognized as one of the finest films made in America, certainly one of the greatest and most realistic films about life in the mob. And, if I may be so bold, I would say it is one of the greatest films ever made: dark, funny, profane, exciting. It has everything and does all of the things that make art great art. Scorsese’s greatest film, and yes, I include Raging Bull.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.