Friday Film Focus: Goodfellas

Most films — even great ones — evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world. They leave memories behind, but their reality fades rather quickly. This isn’t the case with Goodfellas. The film shows America’s finest filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, at the peak of his form. No finer film has been made about such organized crime. This includes The Godfather — although one should not compare the two works of art. Some guys grow up wanting to design computer games, fly to space, or play for an incredible team. Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. He soon realized this grand ambition.

Hill, raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, began his career very early. When he was just 11, Hill was running errands for the Euclid Avenue Taxicab and Limo Service. It ultimately was something more than just a cab stand. It functioned as the unofficial clubhouse for members of the local underworld and their hangers-on. This included politicians, bookmakers, off-duty cops, union officers, and other figures. It was also one of the many business fronts of Paul Vario, a mobster on the rise within the Luchese crime family. Vario took a liking to Henry. Over the next 20 years, Vario treated him like a son. The young man became one of Vario’s most trusted “mechanics.” He was a companion, a driver, messenger, confidant, strong-arm man, and a natural wheeler-dealer.

Hill had just one flaw, however; His mother was Sicilian, but his father was Irish. Hill could never be a “made man” within the Sicilian organization. He was privy to just about every one of the mob’s schemes, assassinations and thefts. With that said, Hill was denied the status that pure blood would have allowed him. Goodfellas is a memoir of the life in the Mafia, narrated in the first person by Henry (played by the fantastic Ray Liotta). Goodfellas is a long movie, with space and leisure to expand and explore its themes. It isn’t about any particular plot; it’s about what it felt like to actually be in the Mafia — both the good times and bad times.

At first, they were mostly good times. There is an astonishing camera movement in which the point of view follows Henry and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on one of their first dates to the Copacabana nightclub. There are people waiting in line at the door, but Henry takes her through the service entrance, past the guards, down the corridor, through the kitchen and out into the front of the club. A table is literally lifted into the air and placed in front of all the other patrons. This is sheer power. Done in one long, exhilarating take, the scene is more than a technical marvel. Karen doesn’t yet know exactly what Henry does. She soon finds out. There is also some narration by Karen, who eventually married him. She eventually discovers that his entire social life was suddenly inside the Mafia.

The method of the film is a slow expansion through levels of the mob, with characters introduced casually here and there. We meet the don Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and Jim Conway (Robert De Niro) — a man who steals for the love of stealing. There’s also Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a likable guy except for the fact that his fearsome temper can explode in a second (with fatal consequences). Looking like a debauched choirboy in his oversized collars and teetering on the thin edge of his own nerves, Tommy is fueled by rage. We follow this pack through 30 years. We see them at first through years of unrelenting power, then through years of much decline, and then into betrayal and decay. But these dirtballs don’t scare Henry. In fact, they thrill him. In Liotta’s running narration, Henry says, “My ambition was to be a gangster. To me, being a wiseguy was better than being a president. To be a wiseguy was to own the world.”

With the help of Michael Ballhaus’ dynamic photography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing, Scorsese makes us feel Henry’s intoxication in belonging to this crime family. Still, it’s the darkness that prevails. Membership into the mob family comes with strangling restrictions. There is no life outside of it. In a chilling shot, a shaken Henry watches as Jimmy and Tommy — who have just come from dinner at Tommy’s mother’s house — shoot and stab a helpless enemy they’ve trapped in the car trunk. At this point, the whole wonderful romance of the Mafia goes sour for Henry. After they finish killing the man, they bury him — only to have to dig him up again later. The worst part is their victim was a “made” guy — a Mafioso who is supposed to be immune. So they are in deep, deep trouble, and this is not how Henry Hill thought it was going to be when he started out on his life’s journey.

Scorsese has never done a more compelling job of getting into someone’s head as he does in one of the concluding passages of Goodfellas. He shadows a day in the life of Henry. This includes his attempt to do a cocaine deal, cook dinner for his family, placate his mistress, and also deal with the suspicion that he’s being followed by the FBI. It’s not a straightforward narrative passage, and it has little to do with plot. However, it is about the feelings of walls closing in, and the guilty feeling that the walls are well deserved. Many of Scorsese’s best films have been poems about guilt. Goodfellas is no exception. In its refusal to deny the malignant allure of the mob life, Scorsese’s indictment gains in intensity. The real Henry Hill disappeared into the anonymity of the federal government’s witness protection program. Over four years, Hill told everything he knew about the mob to the reporter Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi’s book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family became a best seller. After turning Judas to save his neck, Hill told Pileggi, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

Goodfellas doesn’t end. It crashes, with Henry, into the sobriety of the straight world. But the real guilt — the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately — is not that people did sinful things. Rather, it’s that they want to do them again.

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