Warner Bros. // 1999 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 6th, 2004
"Your murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends. The people who have cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come when you're weakest and most in need of their help." -- Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)
New York, 1970. Three men are driving. They hear rattling from the rear of the car. But there is no mechanical problem, only a professional one. Inside the trunk, a bloody creature squirms. The three men stab and shoot the creature in the trunk, taking care to make sure it is dead. One of the men appears troubled, in way over his head. His name is Henry Hill, and he always wanted to be a gangster.
I often see debates among film fans as to which is the greatest gangster movie of all time. Although a few oddballs might cite something like Brian DePalma's unhinged Scarface if they are really looking to pick a fight, most discussions boil down to the inevitable confrontation. The Godfather or Goodfellas? I often wonder if Martin Scorsese's choice of title for his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's insider look at New York mob life was meant as a deliberate response to Coppola and Puzo's formidable epic. Look at how similar they are.
In truth, the question of which one is "better" misses the whole point. The Godfather and Goodfellas are not in competition at all. They are mirror images of one another. Where Coppola's film is languid, filled with chiaroscuro and lush tones, Scorsese's picture is kinetic, more like the neon and bustle of Vegas (no wonder Scorsese and Pileggi would follow this collaboration up with an actual Vegas picture, the overdrawn Casino). Instead of opera, Scorsese uses pop songs. The women are "thrown together and cheap" (as Henry's wife Karen says). The men are "blue collar guys" rather than Shakespearean men of honor. The violence rattles our teeth, where Coppola leans toward elegy. Both stories borrow from real events, although admittedly Coppola and Puzo layered more fiction atop theirs.
Goodfellas details the rise and fall of real-life gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Growing up in relative poverty, Henry wants "to be a part of something." And in 1955 Brooklyn, that something was the insulated world of "made men." With fellow travelers like the conniving Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the explosive Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), Henry works hard to please the boss, the paternal Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Living up to the standards of mob life apparently entails more than just planning big heists and running rackets, however. Henry has to prove his manhood by juggling a wife (Lorraine Bracco) and a full-time mistress. He must take insults and deliver them -- and be willing to kill if the insult goes too far. Betrayal -- even from Henry's friends -- always lurks in the shadows, as the cutthroat ethic of capitalism becomes increasingly dangerous as younger, tougher, hungrier gangsters rise through the ranks.
The pressure takes its toll on Henry, and the only way he can keep pace is by revving up on cocaine. Frantic and paranoid, Henry soon crashes. His only option: sell out to the Feds before the world he chose to embrace exacts its revenge on his failures. Of course, this is all more or less what happened to the real Henry Hill, as recounted by Nicholas Pileggi in Wiseguy.
In turning Henry Hill's story into film, director Martin Scorsese is conscious of the gangster world his audience grew up hearing about, the world of classy criminal nobility depicted in films from Public Enemy to -- well, there is that Godfather thing again. Where Mario Puzo's script is elegantly constructed, Scorsese and Pileggi's is sprawling. There are loose ends all over the place. Why is Paulie in prison at the same time as Henry, on a seemingly unrelated contempt charge? Why do the bosses wait so many years before punishing the nearly-uncontrollable Tommy for the murder of a made man, or was he whacked for some other reason Henry does not know? Characters and plot threads arbitrarily drop in and out, as if we are hearing only fragments of a much larger story told from a narrow perspective. But this all works wonderfully to Scorsese's advantage. While much of this might be due to adapting the real story of Henry Hill -- and real life has an arbitrary quality that novels often do not -- Pileggi and Scorsese could have easily tightened things up if that was the sort of film they wanted to make. Instead, they leave Henry's story blithely messy, the product of a man who is only barely self-aware. Michael Corleone is introspective and brooding; Henry Hill cruises through life with the blind energy of traffic (like the drive-by opening credits), constantly bolstering his ego with promises that everything will work out soon. And when that does not suffice, he throws himself furiously into sex and drugs.
And we can take the comparison even further. If The Godfather was about men on the inside who wanted out (Vito's retirement, Michael's attempts at a normal life), then Goodfellas is about outsiders who want in. From the beginning, Henry, half-Irish, is alien to the world of the mob, with its insistence on pure Sicilian blood. He can never be a made man; he must always be an observer. Hence his narration throughout the film: He is the voice of the audience looking in at a world we can desire (the hero-criminal), but of which we can never really be a part. Henry is a typical kid in 1955 Brooklyn, dreaming of success. And the mob can give it to him. Even as a gopher and junior bag man, he knows that he "was a part of something. I belonged." Even the famous scene in which the volcanic Tommy stops in the midst of an anecdote to thrash Henry ("I'm funny how? Funny like a clown? I amuse you?") is about belonging. Tommy cannot abide being thought of as an anomaly (that is, "funny" in the sense of weird). He loves the laughter and attention, but the very idea that this attention is predicated on him being different raises his hackles. This conflict is at the heart of Tommy's vicious temper. Tommy pretends it is a joke, but notice how quickly he assaults the manager who embarrasses him by bringing the check moments later.
Of course, the real consequences of being an insider are pressed home when the manager sells out to Paulie in the next scene. In no time, he has been used up and cast away, his place burned to the ground to squeeze the last ounces of profit from the ashes. And Tommy's later brutal assault on poor Spider the bar kid is precipitated by Spider passing a drink over Tommy. Never ignore an insider.
Throughout the film, Henry is an apologist for this "police department for wiseguys." Remember that this is all told from the perspective of a man looking back. By the end, we know all about the brutality, the capriciousness, and the betrayals. And yet, Henry is nostalgic. He values the friendship of Tommy and Jimmy, even if he is afraid of them. Ironically, although Jimmy is Henry's tacit mentor, he is also an outsider in a way. Jimmy enjoys hijacking to the point of simply giving away his stolen goods. It is all about buying friendship, about being on the inside by any means possible. His main advice to Henry: "Never rat on your friends." To be an insider is to protect secrets. The mob is assimilative. It absorbs all: men, money, voices (the code of silence). Paulie's relatives are all named Peter or Paul, and all are married to women named Marie, as if this is an army of clones. But it is a world to which Henry has to constantly tell himself he wants to belong.
Then we remember that we are being told a story. Goodfellas is also about storytelling. This is a story about the gangster lifestyle, and we must always be conscious of the crime stories that preceded and surround it. The brilliant tracking shot, in which Scorsese's camera swings through the restaurant and introduces the gangsters, is not merely a bravura piece of direction. It is Henry's eyes -- the characters speak to us, as if we are inside the story. Scorsese does not keep us inside Henry's perspective exclusively. Once Henry is on the inside, Scorsese varies the narrative perspective by allowing Karen to question Henry's big shot persona. She is even more of an outsider, a feisty Jewish girl who does not bow down to the macho posturing around her. Henry is drawn to her because of his own lingering sense that he does not really belong in this world. And his rebelliousness turns her on as well. No wonder they break with both Henry's real and adoptive families and have a Jewish wedding. After all, isn't the real irony of mob life that it is a bunch of insiders (following the restrictive codes of their society) who have convinced themselves they are rebel outsiders (criminals to mainstream society)? No wonder Henry is confused.
Henry's conflict in some ways mirrors the conflict that plagues nearly every gangster movie: How can this life be so bad when it looks so good? Can the money and power be worth the violence and danger? Growing up in New York City in much the same environment as Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese probably asked himself that question a lot as a kid, and his energy and enthusiasm in translating Henry's class aspirations to screen makes Goodfellas perhaps the finest expression of Scorsese's filmmaking abilities. This is as much Scorsese's story as it is Henry's, a summation of all his stylistic bravado, explorations of working-class male identity, and sheer love of language that came before (and probably since). So it is fitting that Warner Brothers finally decided to treat Goodfellas, previously only available in a bare-bones edition, with a little respect.
The centerpiece of this two-disc edition is a tight anamorphic transfer missing from the original edition, and two commentary tracks. A full-length commentary features Henry Hill and FBI agent Edward McDonald (who sponsored Hill for witness protection) offer a rambling, mumbling discussion of the real events behind some of the film's plot points. But the much-touted "cast and crew" track is curiously edited. This one -- with Scorsese, Pileggi, producers, crew, and cast (Pesci and De Niro, uncredited on the packaging, appear via older interview clips) -- is well organized, usually by theme rather than scene-specific. But it also only runs 125 minutes (20 minutes shorter than the movie) and is presented as part of a truncated version of the movie (it skips over the dead air automatically) without any chapter breaks. If you can make it all the way through in one sitting, listen for Ray Liotta and Henry Hill chatting at the end.
The second disc features the usual collection of self-congratulatory featurettes. "Getting Made" is a glorious celebration of the brilliance of Martin Scorsese, at least judging from the gushing cast and crew. But you do learn that Scorsese approached Goodfellas with a keen interest in the language and character of mob life. This attention to detail is further explored in "The Workaday Gangster," in which the blue-collar struggles of mob hustlers shows that, according to Scorsese, "in organized crime, the idea is not to go around killing people -- it's to make a lot of money for the least amount of effort." We can all sympathize with that.
"The Goodfellas Legacy" is 13 minutes of pure hagiography, with filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Richard Linklater waxing over their favorite gory scenes from the movie. The best moment is when the Hughes Brothers (no strangers to urban crime stories) remark that black audiences at the time of the Goodfellas' release thought of Joe Pesci's homicidal maniac Tommy as the real hero of the movie. A storyboard-to-film comparison and theatrical trailer round out the package.
So which is better, The Godfather or Goodfellas? In the final analysis, each film really requires the presence of the other. To understand the allure of the mob for Henry Hill, you have to see the glory of the Corleone family. To understand the real destructive fury of the Corleones, you must see Jimmy and Tommy chew up the world around them. Even Michael's wife Kay (headstrong but moral) and Karen (headstrong but corruptible) are reversals of one another. If you did not know that Henry's story was true, you might think Pileggi and Scorsese deliberately crafted it as a response to Coppola.
Moreover, Goodfellas stands on its own as a powerful examination of our desire to belong. This is the American dream: success, loving family, money, and popularity. This is what you have to do to get it. And this is how fragile that world is -- and how easily that house of straw gets blown down.
So go pick up Warner Bros.' improved "special edition" of Goodfellas, and see if you still want that gangster lifestyle you dreamed about as a kid. And ask yourself again what you would be willing to do to keep that life.
Martin Scorsese makes his bones by showing honor and respect to Henry Hill's story. The losers at Warner Bros. who released that lousy single-disc edition have been whacked, and we thank their replacements for not embarrassing the family a second time. Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro, who are all in career slumps lately, are instructed to get back to making good films again -- before they need some witness protection.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Cast and Crew
* Audio Commentary by Subject Henry Hill and FBI Agent Edward McDonald
* Featurette: "Getting Made"
* Featurette: "The Workaday Gangster"
* Featurette: "The Goodfellas Legacy"
* Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons
* Theatrical Trailer
* Goodfellas Fan Site
* Henry Hill's Site