Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is not great because of its portrayal of the Mafia, although it is probably the most realistic – and best – portrayal of that world on film. Rather, it is elevated by its energy. GoodFellas is one of the busiest movies imaginable, particularly when it comes to music. It's a jukebox movie that's seducing you the viewer just as Henry Hill is seduced by the world of wise guys as a child, and just as his wife-to-be, Karen, is seduced by him. It's through the triangulation of emotion, music, and movement that Scorsese achieves a kind of euphoric descent into hell which is basically a pleasure-ride for two hours with a few regulatory moments (you have to settle down and keep up appearances with the wife; you have to go to jail for a little bit; you have to dig up Billy Batts because there's a new housing development coming in soon, etc.) – and then, like any addict, the film and its musical momentum crashes. The world has changed and Henry Hill finds himself trapped in Hell.
A recurring theme in Scorsese is tribalism, and how tribes have situated themselves as immigrants in the New World of the United States. There is no homogenous melting pot, and the characters are bound up with the Old World, even if they don't really know it. The Old World still has its claws sunk into the New. In Raging Bull we notice the pictures of old Naples behind Jake and Vicki, or the opera music drifting in between the tenement windows in that film, or the festas and religious icons in Mean Streets, peripheral and yet undeniable in their influence.
In the neighborhoods that Martin Scorsese and writer Nicholas Pileggi grew up, the most powerful influence throughout the 20th century on the residents was, quite simply, the Mafia. It was a power that extended back thousands of miles and thousands of years, a silent law that held a feudal system in balance. The Mafia had to find its way into the New York ghettos, because the Southern Italians were a group of people that no one wanted to deal with. They needed protection. The derogatory term "wop" derives from how many of these immigrants were sent on their way, kicked out of Italy "With-Out Passports." The Catholic Church in New York was predominantly Irish by the time the Italians arrived. The Italians were looked on with suspicion by the Irish Catholics, seen as pagans more than fellow Christians, being that they treated their saints, according to Pileggi, as "hold over pagan" icons. At the Old St. Patrick's on Mulberry Street (an important setting for Scorsese's Gangs of New York in 2002), the Italians were forced to have Mass in the basement.
Organized crime was also the bard system of culture for Italians. Whereas the Irish had a tradition of literature, Italians became familiar with their history through the tale-telling of wise guys, who were often just as good at being oral performers as they were at being criminals. This was Scorsese and Pileggi's idea for the voiceover of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in GoodFellas, where the whole story is relayed as if Henry Hill was unspooling his own memorable, if sometimes self-deprecating, story with you at a bar. A more hilarious realization is in how we see the sociopathic gangster Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) tell his stories, which are often unintelligible in their vulgarity, but nevertheless laughably entertaining for his wise guy audience.
Though true life gangsters are in love with the more Romantic portraits of The Godfather, or the old Hollywood classics featuring James Cagney and Paul Muni, Pileggi claims that the favorite film of New York wise guys was Scorsese's Mean Streets, because it was a kind of actual home movie that completely understood the terrain of the tribal cultures, or even the brutal and succinct significance of a single handed gesture. Henry Hill and his fellow goodfellas went so far as to force their neighborhood boss, Paul Vario (Paul Cicero in GoodFellas, played by Paul Sorvino), to go to the movies and watch it with them, after they had already enjoyed it countless times. This world of wise guys was real, but it was also ancient, a secret society and brotherhood. Eventually, its hold and influence eased up in Scorsese's neighborhood just as he was beginning to make movies in the 1960s. The culture was changing. This is the irony of GoodFellas: these are horrible people who do horrible things, and yet in the absence of that ugly tradition, so too goes the culture, something weirdly represented by food in the film. The final montage of Gangs of New York, as Old New York in 1863 morphs over the course of 120 years, shares this irony. The city was founded on blood, but there were ties of mutual respect. The final image of New York City is a monument to success, an impersonal metropolis with the Twin Towers overlooking the skyline, the graves of the sparring warriors having faded from memory and geographical significance.
Scorsese first read about Nicholas Pileggi's book Wise Guy in 1985 while filming The Color of Money. Raging Bull had failed to bury him after all, and he continued to make movies in America, though still any kind of commercial success evaded him and he had to fight, sometimes pyrrhically, to get his dream projects realized (the best example being The Last Temptation of Christ). Wise Guy was the project he had been waiting for. It was a nonfiction bestseller accounting Henry Hill's adventures as a mob soldier, a "workaday gangster" far removed from the “made men” at the top, though often in touch with both the dazzling and deadly aspects of that world. Hill had testified in court against his criminal accomplices like Paul Vario, and the Irish gangster Jimmy Burke (renamed Jimmy Conway in the film, played by Robert De Niro). He begrudgingly went into the Witness Protection Program, as a final resort to stay alive. On the street or in jail, Henry Hill was marked for death.
Scorsese reteamed with De Niro, Pesci, and producer Irwin Winkler, and worked with Pileggi into fashioning the non-fiction material into a film narrative. Ray Liotta, fresh off Field of Dreams, would be the audience's tour guide through Hell as Henry; De Niro would play Jimmy "the Gent" Conway/Burke; Pesci was Tommy DeVito, whose true life last name was DeSimone; Sorvino as Paul Cicero/Vario; and Lorraine Bracco would be Henry's wife, Karen Hill. The structure of the film would be as reckless as the characters it portrayed, moving to its own rapid pace, unrestricted in terms of where and when it could begin or end.
GoodFellas begins casually, the sounds of late night freeway traffic coasting by with the opening titles. We see Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy in a car. The year is 1970. As Henry keeps his eyes steady on the road while driving, a dozing Jimmy and Tommy are alerted by a bumping sound. "What the fuck is that?" everyone asks. "Did I get a flat?" Henry wonders. "Unless?" "No…" "What the fuck, you better pull over and see." We're in a calm place here, our own sense of not knowing "what the fuck is that" similar to the characters'. But our instant familiarity changes when Scorsese cuts to the car pulled over, obscured by trees and grass. The three men stand expectantly, Jimmy signaling to Henry to open the trunk. Tommy then pulls out a large kitchen cutlery knife. Henry unlocks the trunk, the camera cutting to over his shoulder.
We see what they see. A man wrapped in white, covered in blood. He's shaking his head as he pleads, "No, no Tommy, no…" Tommy angrily charges with the knife, frustrated. "You're still alive you fucking piece of shit!" He brutally stabs the man with the knife, yelling "Die! Die!" The sound of the steel entering the flesh is revolting. Jimmy then comes forward with a .22 and shoots the man multiple times. We see the body in the trunk. He's dead now. Cut to Henry. He approaches the car without looking at what's inside. He closes the trunk and his narration begins, "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster." The camera moves in on him as the horns for Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches" blow on the soundtrack, Henry's image now frozen. The title “GoodFellas” flashes on the black screen. We've just been initiated into Henry Hill's world. The first scene beautifully plays up the contrast: these are "good fellas," buddies cruising together on a road at night. But they're also brutal sociopaths. The music is glorious, triumphantly relating lyrically a pursuit for wealth – which paradoxically leads to incidents such as this.
Scorsese goes back to the beginning of Henry's story, 1955 in the old neighborhood. Appropriately for Scorsese, the first image we see of young Henry Hill is a close-up of his eye looking outside a bedroom window at the wise guys outside, pulling up in their fancy cars and clothes. "To be a gangster meant to be somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies," he reminiscences. It's Scorsese's handling of the details which becomes enthralling – a close-up on the car's wheel as the wise guys exit the vehicle, or on their ringed fingers as they close the doors. The lyrics of the Bennett song reflect what we’ll see, equating the pursuit of financial wealth to achieving the love of a desired woman ("I know I'd go from rags to riches if you would only say you cared"), and how young Henry Hill seems to be an erotically driven Hitchcockian voyeur looking down at the wise guys carousing outside, coveting their lifestyle of no rules. They can double park and stay out all night making noise, and no one complains. Hill, on the other hand, has a tough-love Irish father very disapproving of the wise guys, and a Sicilian mother who micromanages.
The opening of GoodFellas is a pleasurable appeal to our ears as well as our eyes. The delight of "Rags to Riches" is followed by the Cleftones' good-time doo-wop of "Can't We Be Sweethearts" which plays as Henry begins working at the Cicero cabstand. The euphoria is broken by Henry's father beating him angrily because the boy's been depriving his studies. But as Henry says, "Everybody takes a beating sometime." The interruption to the doo-wop bliss is halted as Tuddi Cicero makes sure no more letters from school go to the Hill residence, and "Hearts of Stone" by Otis Williams and the Charms fires into our ears as the mailman goes headfirst into a pizza oven. "Sincerely" by the Moonglows then begins over some smoked sausages during a neighborhood picnic, and soon after, with the camera roving through the cabstand during a gambling party, with Henry delivering sandwiches and drinks to the wise guys, the Cadillacs' "Speedo" moves perfectly with the image, landing on Jimmy Conway's entrance. "It was when I first met the world, it was when I first met Jimmy Conway," Henry narrates. He's "Jimmy the Gent" because he's a generous tipper and a hell of a charmer, though Henry reminds us, as Jimmy's face is in freeze-frame, "Jimmy was one of the most feared guys in the city" (and upon background study, the real Jimmy Burke is much more fearful than Robert De Niro's characterization in GoodFellas). Henry also reminds us, an audience watching and having to identify with gangsters, that Jimmy was the type of guy who rooted for the bad guys in movies. Even during a truck hijacking, Jimmy puts a large bill into the trucker's wallet after threatening him; he hands several bills to the cops hired to stop him. As they accept a few cartons of cigarettes, one of the cops says, "Jimmy, I'd complain but who'd listen?"
While selling hijacked cigarettes for Jimmy, Henry gets arrested for the first time in his life. It's one of two times Henry Hill will be in a courtroom in this film, and both times he will approach the camera, though from different positions and with different results. Here, he's congratulated by his wise guy friends. Pauly embraces him, saying, "You broke your cherry!" (relating again to the association of Henry's infatuation with the mob life to a kind of sexual energy), and Jimmy takes him close and whispers the two most important lessons in life: "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut." Of course, both Pauly and Jimmy will be given up during Hill's next appearance in a courtroom, the celebration of becoming a criminal juxtaposed with becoming a rat in the arms of the law and, as Hill calls it in this early section, "pledge allegiance to the flag and good government bullshit."
The film cuts to 1963, where we're taken to one of the wise guy hangouts, the Bamboo Lounge. As Henry narrates, we're introduced to all of the wise guys (most of whom we won't see for the remainder of the picture, indicating how fickle life may be for these guys), with names like Nickey Eyes, Freddie No Nose, Jimmy Two Times, Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Pete the Killer, etc. We're assuming that the wise guys are talking to Henry as they say things like, "What's up, guy" and "I want to talk to that guy you talked about." But at the end of this ambitious tracking shot, we see Henry come in from the side of the screen with a rack of fur coats. The wise guys were talking to us, Henry's accomplices in this journey. The intensity, delight, and desperation of the movie, Scorsese is telling us, is something that we're going to share in, voyeuristically. When the violence happens, or the "bad time” as Henry calls it, it will be assaultive in its representation. The instability of the world is depicted masterfully in one of the film's most famous scenes, soon after this introduction. Tommy is telling a humorous story about how he was arrested by a cop named "Bing," whom Tommy tells to "go fuck your mother." Everyone is entertained by the yarn, which has an almost musical cadence to its vulgarity. A giggling Henry says to Tommy, "You're funny, you're really funny." "What do you mean I'm funny?"
And so the uneasy banter begins, with Pesci's increasingly uncorked Tommy interrogating Henry's meaning of the word "funny": "Like a clown? I make you laugh? I'm here to fucking amuse you? How the fuck am I funny What the fuck is so funny about me?" The laughter fades into silence as Henry doesn't know if Tommy, a diminutive figure physically but with an incomparably volatile personality, will kill him or is just joking. The deadly awkwardness is broken as Henry leans back and says, "Get the fuck out of here…Tommy…" "I almost had him!" Tommy laughs, and so does everybody else. The tension is released, and the audience too is laughing, but the danger is still there. Almost immediately afterward, Tommy assaults the bar owner, who asks about a $7,000 tab. The line between violence and hilarity is blurred here, an apt description of the wise guy existence. The same people sharing the sacred moments captured in personal photographs are the same people who will whack you later. They're friends, “good fellas,” but the dictates of the culture means that there are no absolute mortal allegiances.
Whatever allegiances there are, though, are certainly amusing. Notice Tommy demanding Henry do him a "fucking favor" and go on a double date with a "Jew broad" who's prejudiced against Italians and won't go on a date with an Italian alone – a funny jab about the innate tribalism at play. Henry does it with a lot of hesitation, going on the miserable double date where Tommy's seduction of the "Jew broad" is mirrored by Henry and Karen's apparent lack of interest in each other. Henry stands Karen up for a follow-up, but she doesn't give up, forcefully making Tommy drive her to see Henry so she can yell at him. Her assertiveness strangely arouses him, well matched with the song "I Will Follow Him." These early scenes of double dating on the part of Henry and Tommy are indicative of a kind of more open – if still nevertheless tribal and subtly racist – attitude in Henry's generation, when compared to Pauly Cicero's or the older gangsters. Henry has no problem dating a Jew, just as Karen has no problem dating a Christian. But she still needs to cover up his cross for fear that her mother will see it. "My daughter says that you're half Jewish," the mother smiles nervously. "Yes, just the good half," Henry responds.
The next scene is a classic tracking shot through the Copacabana, following Henry and Karen across the street, through the side entrance and hallways, in the maze of the busy kitchen, then the main dining area in front of the stage, and finally landing on the spot-lit area where Henny Youngman delivers his one-liners. As I've said, the whole film of GoodFellas is something of a jukebox, but the doo-wop momentum we've heard up to this point only anticipates the magnificent sweep of the Copa tracking shot. It is Henry's seduction of Karen, as she's hopelessly enthralled by this mysterious young man and whatever it is he does. He not only bypasses the waiting line of the club, but everyone inside greets him as a likable regular, and the owner gives him a special seat up front, and on top of that another guest presents him a complimentary bottle of expensive wine. The music is The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," which is perfectly synched in rhythm and mood to Karen's entrancement with this world and its possibilities. But more than Karen, we’re seduced. To think that Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus are simply showing off here is wrong. Had we seen this seductive moment in a series of conventional cuts, the anticipation for each cut (which are like breaths or sentence breaks in the language of film) would break our increasing fascination. It's perfect both conceptually and in execution. It's as if the film had been working to this crescendo, and after this moment, though we are completely in Henry's – and Scorsese’s – hands as spectators, we can't possibly believe that the film can soar this high again in the film; we are wrong.
Karen and Henry are married, but we notice the sudden contradictions to Henry's life. Even though he detests the kind of "working stiff" existence normal Americans work, that's exactly what he is – a working stiff. He's out all night with other wise guys, and doesn't even have time to move out of Karen's parents' house (much to the chagrin of the mother, who now realizes that her daughter has married outside of her race). Karen also notices how the other wives in Henry's world are, in a way, freakish, wearing garish but cheap and tacky clothes, having too much make-up, and looking beat up. The other odd element of this life is the presence of law officials who normally visit Karen while Henry's out of town. She narrates that typically “they're just looking for a hand-out to keep things quiet,” reinforcing the perspective we saw in the film's prologue, that law enforcement is inherently corrupt to begin with. While she makes this observation, we notice Al Jolson on her television set singing "Tootsie," an interesting allusion on Scorsese's part not only because of Jolson's relationship to the history of cinema (having been the star of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer in 1927), but because Jolson's fame was associated in many ways with gangsters like Benjamin Siegel and Meyer Lansky, with whom the entertainer knew and grew up. Organized crime in America and cinema are two things that advanced together, as the film's second-to-final image, of Tommy firing at the screen, demonstrates. This is a recognizable allusion to 1903's The Great Train Robbery, one of the first narrative films, and Scorsese is suggesting the uneasy relationship between our thirst for entertainment and violence.
Married life advances with Henry's prosperity, as we see both Hills have their own closets densely packed with suits and dresses. Their relationship is held in check with money. "I need money to go shopping." "How much do you need?" "That much." "How much?" "That much." He gives her a large wad of bills, and she repays the favor by fellating him. "Ohhhh, all right," Henry says. This terrifically ties in with the next song we will hear, because again, this is a film about a man's love affair with a lifestyle, not another person. The film cuts to a wide shot of the Suite Lounge, and another Crystals' tune, "He's Sure the Boy I Love," beginning: "I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along / And he'd be tall and handsome, rich and strong / Now that boy I love has come to me / But he sure ain't the way I thought he'd be." The title gives a setting: May 11, 1970 – the same year as the picture’s beginning sequence. The song is agreeing that Henry has achieved his childhood dream of wise guy status, but the commencing sequence, probably the most famous in the entire film, indicates that what Henry has chosen for his lifestyle may be more than he bargained for. This is the Billy Batts scene.
Inside the Suite Lounge, Scorsese begins on the jukebox (perfect for this film), then pans away towards the conversation in the bar. A "made-guy," Billy Batts (Frank Vincent again), has just gotten out of prison and is celebrating with other wise guys. Henry and Jimmy, the "two Irish hoodlums" as Batts calls them (an important detail being that Henry and Jimmy's Irish blood keeps them from being "made men"), sit together, somewhat apart from Batts' entourage. Tommy enters with his date. Billy greets him, but Tommy is bemused. "I forgot he was going to be here," he mutters to Jimmy and Henry. Tommy doesn't take well to Batts' patronizing remarks, "All dressed up and doing the town." "Don't break my balls," Tommy says. Unlike Henry and Jimmy, Tommy is 100% Italian, and wants to assert himself as being beholden to no one else, particularly Batts, who, because he's "made," is "untouchable." "Tommy,” Batts says, “if I was going to break your balls, I'd tell you to go get your shine box." The other mafiosos laugh, and Batts continues to talk about Tommy. "Oh he'd make your shoes look like fucking mirrors. They used to call him spit-shine Tommy." "Don't shine shoes anymore, Billy." "What?" "I said I don't shine shoes anymore. Maybe you haven't heard that, you've been gone a long time. But I don't shine shoes anymore."
Billy senses he's offended Tommy, and tries to straighten things out. "I'm only kidding with you, and suddenly you're getting fucking fresh." "Sometimes you don't sound like you're kidding. I mean, there's a lot of people around." This is the second time in the picture where Tommy feels he has to assert himself because he's been embarrassed in front of his friends. The problem is that Billy Batts, as a made guy, is entitled to "break balls." Being “made” (ceremoniously indoctrinated into the mafia) is a marker of respect meaning that no one can fuck with him, though he can fuck with whomever he wants as long as he’s not fucking around with another made guy. "Now go home and get your fucking shine box!" Batts yells after having his drink. Tommy throws his glass on the ground and has to be restrained. He leaves the bar, telling Jimmy, "Keep him here!" and also insinuates that Batts "bought his button," or his made status.
The forcefulness of what happens next is a testament to Scorsese's gift in handling music and camera in order to get a reaction from his audience. The bar has emptied out, and we hear the spoken introduction of Donovan's "Atlantis." Batts is talking to Jimmy about doing time. Scorsese opens the sequence on the exit door as the last of Batts' friends exit. Tommy, unseen by Batts, steps in. As he seems to halt, the camera pans right, past Batts and Jimmy, and onto Henry smoking at the other end of the bar. Henry sees Tommy and moves to the other side of the bar. The camera follows him, panning left while tracking slightly to the right, centering on Batts and Jimmy when Tommy viciously attacks Batts, the first punch thrown as “Atlantis” breaks into its transcendent chorus, Scorsese slightly upping it on the volume. He immediately cuts to an angle looking straight down on Batts falling to the ground. Tommy and Jimmy move in. Scorsese then cuts to Tommy pistol whipping Batts and Jimmy stomping on him. The camera dollies with Henry to the door as he locks it, the movement carrying the same rush as the music. The pummeling of Billy Batts continues, until Tommy almost shoots him in the face, the gun and bullets swatted out of his hand by Jimmy. The crew proceeds to wrap him up in tablecloths. Henry's eyes look on, shocked at both Jimmy and Tommy – whose expressions during the violent assault are completely alien from anything human. Tommy shakes his head and speaks candidly to Henry, "I didn't mean to get blood on your floor." The violent animal energy, synched with the music and our simple human anchor (Henry) results in a scene that is instantly classic. The world has also changed, getting a little too dangerous: you cannot kill a made guy, and no one can know about this. Tommy's impulses have put all three principal characters in mortal danger. This incident is the result of a kind of gradual disorder that's been happening over the past decade. "Killing and shooting guys just kind of got to be accepted," Henry admits. The touchy thing is that the most violent character, Tommy, has been spoiled too much. We cut back to the film's opening as Jimmy and Tommy finish the job on Billy Batts (after Tommy stops at his mother's to pick up a shovel, the mother – played by Catherine Scorsese – insisting that she cook for them before they leave), ending with the same dolly towards Henry, this time his image saturated in red and joined by the sound of sausages sizzling in a frying pan.
Speaking of sausages, one of the key elements of GoodFellas is food. As revolting as the violence in the film can be, few films make me as hungry. From the sandwiches and pizzas that open the film, the great Italian dishes we see at the get-togethers, the sausages and peppers in Paul's frying pan, Mrs. DeVito's early breakfast for Tommy and company, the thinly sliced garlic "that liquefies in the pan" and triple-meat tomato sauce the wise guys make in prison (Scorsese's father plays the sauce maker, who's “a little heavy on the onions”), and to finally the "ziti and meat gravy" and "cutlets that are cut just right" etc. that Henry is preparing during the climactic "Last Day as a Wise Guy” sequence, GoodFellas is the most relentlessly delicious violent movie ever made. Daniel Day-Lewis, preparing his work on The Age of Innocence two years later, even remarked to Scorsese how the film made him uncontrollably hungry.
But there's a meaning to the food. It's as much a part of the culture of these wise guys as the Mafia is, and the food is inextricably linked with the lifestyle – which is why it's significant that Tommy does away Billy Batts with his mother's cutlery knife, or later on when Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy have to dig up Billy Batts because of a housing development moving in, and Tommy jests, "C'mon, Henry. My mother has some fried peppers and sausage waiting for us!" "Hey, here's a leg!" Jimmy exclaims. "Look, here's a wing!" Tommy responds. "Hey what do you want, Henry? The leg or the wing?" At the conclusion, as Henry’s in the suburban hell of Witness Protection, Henry complains about ordering spaghetti but receiving "egg noodles and ketchup." The generic, normal "safe" world may ensure one will be alive – at least for a while longer – but what's lost is the witness' relationship and bond to his culture. Henry has, in a sense, ratted himself into cultural alienation.
GoodFellas enters a new stage after Henry gets out of prison (incarcerated for assault) and embarks on a career as a drug dealer, something forbidden to him by Pauly, who is opposed to drugs because bosses can go to prison for the rest of their lives simply by being associated with dealing soldiers. But there's too much money in drugs to say no to it; the drug lifestyle is also something that eases the relationship between Henry and Karen. When drugs come into the picture, Karen's voiceover contribution (an interesting innovation on Scorsese and Pileggi’s part) stops completely, as if any agency or independence she carries has surrendered to the lifestyle. She becomes another mob wife, enthralled by the décor of her living room and the luxury narcotics afford her husband. Tommy and Jimmy also disregard their loyalty to Cicero, taking a piece in Henry's new ventures.
The other important event during this part of the film is Jimmy's execution of the Lufthansa Heist, the biggest robbery in the history of the United States. This triumphant moment for the principal characters is accompanied by the news that Tommy has been chosen to be "made" by Cicero, which pleases Jimmy because to him it's as if "we were all getting made." But the heights are followed by valleys. Jimmy's sensitivity and growing paranoia lead him to kill off almost everyone associated with Lufthansa, including some of his closest friends. Derek and the Domino's "Layla" epilogue plays as the corpses of familiar faces are discovered in parking lots, trash heaps, and freezer trucks. The justification, beyond cutting all ties to being discovered, is simple. Why should Jimmy have to pay some other guy their cut when he can just keep it? Interesting is the musical framing of Jimmy's paranoia. When he is visibly contemplating the murder of his accomplices, Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is on the jukebox. Derek and the Dominos, who are playing as the soundtrack as the bodies are being discovered, was a short-lived group that Eric Clapton constructed after Cream's break-up, "Layla" a song Clapton wrote inspired by an illicit love for George Harrison's wife; meanwhile, Harrison's song "What is Life?" will figure into the film's climax and Henry's downfall.
Tommy goes to a house to be made. Accompanied by Tuddi Cicero (Frank DeSilva) and Vinnie (Charles Scorsese), Tommy is led into the room where he's expecting to be greeted and initiated. The door opens and we see what he sees: an empty card room. Instantly, he knows what's happening. Tuddi fires a shot into the back of his head and from the same ceiling angle that we saw Billy Batts fall on the floor at the Suite Lounge, so too we see Tommy DeVito fall face-first, a pool of blood spilling from his head. "And that's that," Vinnie says, approaching the body. "It was revenge for Billy Batts," Henry narrates. "And a lot of other things." In the context of the story nothing is really concretely addressed about killing. Tommy's not told he's going to be killed – he just sees the empty room and knows. Incidents vaguely become things, and very concrete things are communicated by gestures or expressions (Pauly simply looking at a person a certain way induces silence and prudence). Language is tricky in GoodFellas – remember the "funny" scene and the plethora of things "funny" could be taken as – and Tommy's death is demonstrative of this. We cut to Jimmy calling Vinnie to see how Tommy’s ritual went. Vinnie answers, but Scorsese gave his father a very interesting kind of direction here: in answering De Niro, communicate what happened by not telling him what happened. "We had a bit of a problem," Vinnie tells Jimmy. "A problem? What do you mean?" "Oh, a problem, and he's gone. And we couldn't do nothing about it," he adds matter-of-factly. The communication here is perverse, almost Strangelove like, but the message is received loud and clear by Jimmy, who knocks over the phone booth in frustration. Remember, these guys are "workaday gangsters," blue collar hoods who are doing whatever they can do for the little extras, and like any blue collar worker living day-to-day and killing themselves for their work, the ability to move up and into the implacable structures in place becomes increasingly difficult. Tommy was the chance for these characters to be "promoted" to the highest class of gangsterism, and it's shattered instantly.
GoodFellas peaks with the famous 10-minute sequence dubbed "Last Day of a Wise Guy," ending with Henry's capture by suspecting narcs which leads to his incarceration and doom. This is a marvelous demonstration of a director sustaining momentum, orchestrating a tapestry of visual, incidental, and sonic layers ending with a strung-out coke-addict's surrender to the law. It's a masterpiece of editing and design and on its own stands as the biggest protest to the integrity of Academy Awards ceremonies, not only seeing how Scorsese and his film was beaten by Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves, but how somehow Costner's film also beat Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, which is even more unforgivable than GoodFellas’ Best Picture loss.
The title on a black screen opens the sequence: Sunday, May 11th, 1980, 6:55 a.m. The beats of a kick-drum and the bassline of Harry Nillson's "Jump into the Fire" begin, joined by a guitar and more drums. There’s a close-up of Henry snorting cocaine on a table, a gun slightly out of focus in the foreground. The gun comes into focus and he grabs it, placing it in a bag. The opening bars break into the main riff of the song and Henry leaves his house in pace with the music. The other guitar staccato sound of the song melds perfectly with a helicopter seen in the distance. Henry takes notice and gets in his car. He drives as he narrates his plan: drop off guns at Jimmy's, pick up his disabled brother, pick up his drug-runner, pick up his drugs, and prepare dinner. Nillson's wailing vocal mirrors Henry's car as he abruptly turns, trying to steer clear from the helicopter that hovers above.
Jimmy irately rejects the guns, and Henry leaves without a word. Nillson cuts out and we have the bluesy sound of the Rolling Stones' "Memo from Turner." Henry, perspiring and looking strung out, smokes a cigarette while looking out from the helicopter, which we don't see but can slightly hear. The guitar riffs blend in seamlessly with The Who's live performance of "The Magic Bus" from Leeds, the refrain "I want it I want it I want it" repeating. The song explodes just as Henry sees a road block ahead. He stomps on the break, having ultimately to use the emergency parking break in order to prevent an accident.
Arriving at a doctor's office to pick up his brother, the doctor asks him what's wrong. Henry is sweating profusely, panicked, and on edge. The music has finally stopped as the doctor offers to help him out, an offer to which Henry finally relents. We're back to Nillson's "Jump into the Fire" while Henry has his blood pressure checked and downs some pills. He heads home with his brother and gets to rolling meat for his dinner.
Think about how relentless the film is with its music. The whole movie has been a jukebox, and now the songs are coming at a rapid fire rate to match the palpitating heart of a man who is approaching an overdose. There's too much sensation (a kind of excess that Scorsese will attempt to execute throughout the entirety of Casino five years later), and too much going on, just as Henry has too many tasks to accomplish, whether it's picking up drugs, dropping off guns, or damn it, preparing the food – and now he has a helicopter to worry about. Scorsese does a pair of jump cuts as Henry looks out his window while patting the meatballs and preparing his "perfect cutlets."
Karen and Henry head outside to pick up the drugs, but pull over to her parents' house to drop off the guns and hide out, waiting for the helicopter to disappear. Scorsese switches the music to the Stones' "Monkey Man" with its unruly vocal and guitars matching Henry’s screeching tires. The music slowly dies as the two get out of the car and go inside the house.
Cut to a hand-held perspective from the garage of Henry looking at the sky. Muddy Waters' vocal from "Mannish Boy" enters: "Everything, everything gonna be all right this morning." Scorsese immediately moves to the playful melody and beat of George Harrison's "What is Life?" as Henry and Karen think the coast is clear. They spend 90 minutes in a grocery store, then go back to Karen's parents' to pick up the guns, and then finally meet Henry's drug connection. Karen snorts, and Henry packs up his drug package that he'll send with his difficult drug runner, a former babysitter named Lois. But first - !!?? – Henry needs to stop at his girlfriend Sandy's (Debi Mazar) apartment and mix in another ingredient with the cocaine, something that will be difficult because Sandy will probably be needy. And of course, there's still dinner.
At Sandy’s, “Mannish Boy” returns and Scorsese zooms in on Henry’s face after a deep inhalation of cocaine. Henry doesn't know where he is. Continuing the motif of song lyrics mirroring Henry's erotic relationship to his criminal occupation, we notice how the arrogance of Muddy Waters is exactly the kind of dismissive confidence Henry displays in his relationship with Sandy. He warms her over with promises, grabs the coke, and then laughs at her as he sneaks out, a snide performance of mischievous machismo.
Finally, at 10:45 p.m., the family is eating. The drugs are ready. Everything is taken care of. The music ends and Henry is preparing to take Lois to the airport. But she interrupts him. "I got to go home." "What do you mean you got to go home?" "My hat. My lucky hat. I never fly without it." And she means it.
Frustrated as he is, Henry relents without much of a fight. Drums begin pounding, and as Henry backs up into the street with Lois, he notices flashing red lights. "What the fuck is that?" He's interrupted as the glimmering metal of a pistol is pointed at his head. "Police, freeze! Don't you move you motherfucker, or I'll blow your brains out!"
The sequence is over, and Henry is, honestly, relieved. Because the intent of an action is spoken verbally, he knows that whoever is pointing the gun at him is not a wise guy. "Only cops talk that way," he narrates. Like Tommy, or Maury the poor wig salesman who gets ice-picked in the front seat, Henry would just be dead. His travails are over, more or less (though it's interesting to compare this with Colin Sullivan's demise at the end of The Departed, another workaholic living in bad faith who is also relieved to see a gun pointed at him in the end, even though he knows that the gun means death, not justice and criminal apprehension).
Formally, this moment is of great interest because not only does the music for the sequence end, but music for the whole film is finished until the end credits, even though there's still 20 minutes left. The dream is over, and with that, Henry has to face the music – of which there is none. He's betrayed Pauly, so he's dead; he'll probably talk to reduce his sentence, so Jimmy will probably kill him. He has no more moves to make. The scene where Henry's fate becomes transparent to him is during a breakfast he has with Jimmy. As we saw earlier in Raging Bull, Scorsese employs the in-camera effect of dollying back while zooming in, so as to completely change the relationship of the foreground objects (Jimmy and Henry in a booth) to the outside world. The idea is that the whole world between these two characters is changing, but the words being spoken by Jimmy have nothing to do with that detrimental reality. As Jimmy says that Henry should go with another wise guy to Florida to handle "a thing" involving a rat, the image freezes – "That's when I knew I never would come back from Florida alive," Henry narrates.
Henry is once more in a courtroom, on the witness stand and pointing his finger at both Pauly and Jimmy. He walks outside of the comfort of fictional representation and talks to the camera, walking into the courtroom audience as he approaches the film audience, wrapping up his story of how he once had it all, "and now it's all over." The camera tracks along an undisclosed suburban location in development. Henry laments about how his spaghetti has become "egg noodles and ketchup" and how he's an average nobody, walking outside to collect his daily paper. He looks at us, and an image of Tommy appears, shooting at the camera in an allusion to The Great Train Robbery. The guitar from Sid Vicious' version of "My Way" begins, and Henry walks back into the house, the door slamming like a jail cell. In a rational universe, it would be Frank Sinatra's "My Way" playing at the end, a perfect bookend to Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches." Instead it's the version of Vicious, the notorious Sex Pistols' bass player who allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen and then died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial in 1979. The musical finale perfectly relates to the story of a man whose successful lifestyle spiraled out of control and landed him in into Hell.
Raging Bull ends on a note of grace and inexplicable redemption, while GoodFellas reflects the darker side of Christendom, with Dante's fascinating vision of the hellish inferno. Though spared death, Henry Hill is a damned character estranged from his culture and history (the riches of the Mafia, the relished food dishes), living the rest of his life "like a schnook." The outcomes of both true-life Scorsese films seem to reflect reality; Jake La Motta is still alive, and apparently has lived out his years fairly happily. Hill, on the other hand, seems too addicted to the drug lifestyle to quit and has continued to get into trouble with the law since going into Witness Protection. If it's a miracle that LaMotta's still alive – given his age and weight problems – it's more of a miracle that Hill is still around.
The legacy of both films is intact and strangely has been a little unfortunate for Scorsese's subsequent work. Just before GoodFellas was released in 1990, Raging Bull – a film that received a mixed-to-good reaction upon release – was unanimously considered the best film of the 1980s. GoodFellas would sweep all of the critics' awards in 1990, and be regarded as the first great film of its own decade, perhaps its failure to top the lists of 2000 for the decade because of the new kind of post-modern crime film ready for a more cynical audience – Pulp Fiction. Scorsese meanwhile would ceaselessly be accused of not being able to match the achievements of either work with his subsequent, and more prestigious, releases over the next 20 years, even though many of those films, such as The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, and The Departed, were unanimously considered among the best achievements of their respective years, The Departed even being an interesting inversion of GoodFellas. Whereas GoodFellas is about ancient bloodlines and tribal culture, The Departed is set in a beige and aquarium world that has no culture, and everyone is consequently a rat.
Another film pertinent to Scorsese's gritty and violent body of work is Casino, released in 1995, and as of now is the last collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro. Heavily anticipated upon release, the reaction was collectively a shrug. The audience wanted Goodfellas 2. When they were disappointed, they ironically dismissed it as such. But one may argue that The Color of Money is closer to GoodFellas than Casino, which is not to say that there isn't a relationship. This picture was, according to Nicholas Pileggi, the third tier of Scorsese's analysis of mob structures. Mean Streets dealt with the street kids, while GoodFellas was about the workaday soldiers; Casino is set within gangsterism's aristocracy, its royalty. It's a baroque epic tragedy, as indicated by Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, which opens the film as the soul of Sam "Ace" Rothstein (De Niro) plummets through the fires of Hell and electricity of Las Vegas. The colors, lights, and screen aspect ratio are completely different from the look of GoodFellas; though the music is just as enlivened and constant, it's not doo-wop euphoria, but Louis Prima jazz, melancholy rock and roll, and the glam of Devo and Roxy Music. Whereas GoodFellas was tempered throughout, the characters human and very relatable, Casino is filled with men far removed from common people, and the protagonist, Ace, is himself kind of a machine (identified as a "cash register" by one character), whose relationship to sheer logic is his tragic flaw.
David Spade had a comic quip that he liked Casino better the first time, when it was just GoodFellas, a kind of cynical and superficial sentiment echoed by a number of critics. But beyond the aesthetic presentation of the picture, also notice how different the characters are. Joe Pesci's Nicky Santoro (based on Anthony Spilontro) is not a live-wire like Tommy DeVito; he's a killer, and he's capable of being vicious, but he can reason and is even empathetic to his victims. He tells one of them, a man from whom he's struggling to get information, "I got your head in a fucking vice. Please don't make me squash it. Don't make me a bad guy. Give me the name. I'm begging you." He also is a devoted father, and understands when he may have gone too far. More interesting is Robert De Niro's Ace (based on Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal), a brilliant gambler who takes no joy in gambling. This is one of De Niro's most understated performances, and being such, one of his most overlooked. It's never addressed that Rothstein is one of the most non-aggressive characters De Niro has ever played in a movie, at times even being somewhat effete.
In GoodFellas, the wise guys are criminals – they thrive and live or die by their world of crime and sin. Casino is different because Ace Rothstein's not a criminal (beyond gambling). He's simply a remarkable technician. The most violent act he does is drag his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) across the floor, though in their relationship the line between victim and victimizer is hopelessly blurred. All three of these films – Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and Casino – are remarkable for being "masculine" movies with strong female characters unafraid of standing up to the men around them. But Ginger is probably the most sociopathic character in Casino, which is what makes Sharon Stone's performance so notable; it's not just a serious part involving a lot of screaming, drug use, and intensity. Stone does something to the audience which she also does to Ace and Nicky. She convinces us, for a time, that she's a victim, and believes it herself while inhabiting her roles, a level of dual manipulation and delusion that is hard for any actor to pull off so fully. She's a torrent of performed emotions, but like a female Jake LaMotta, she has nothing beyond the wants of her ego. Her destination is Hell, as witnessed during her death by overdose. While Eric Burden howls "The House of the Rising Sun," she collapses onto a cheap motel floor that has the semblance of fire.
One of Casino's most notable ironies, and the incident that holds together this neat trilogy of violence in Scorsese, is the final physical confrontation between Joe Pesci's Nicky and his friend, Frankie, played, once again, by Frank Vincent. This is an in-joke for Scorsese, Pesci, and Vincent, being that in Raging Bull, Joey beats the hell out of Salvy, going so far as to smash a car door repeatedly on him. In GoodFellas, Pesci again beats the hell out of Vincent in the famous Billy Batts scene. Here, it's Pesci onto whom Vincent unloads from behind unexpectedly with a baseball bat. The scene of Nicky's death does have an element of humor then, but it is probably the most intensely violent and unwatchable scene Scorsese has ever directed, even heart-wrenching as we have to empathize with Nicky. Scorsese does an interesting thing here. After Frankie has smacked Nicky, who's restrained by a couple of thugs, the other gangsters begin to beat Nicky's brother, Dominic, to death as Nicky is forced to watch. The beating goes on for about thirty horrible seconds, while Nicky's own beating will follow, and be only a few seconds before the film cuts to his body being thrown into a hole. The painful implication here is how it's much more horrible to watch someone watching a loved one being killed in such a terrible way than it is to just see that person. This scene in Casino is one of the most powerful, and the most unsettling, Scorsese has ever directed – and yet strangely it's still the compassion between characters that makes it what it is. This is not throwaway violence for violence's sake.
The legacy of Casino has grown throughout the years, and it's now also considered by many as one of the landmark pictures of the 1990s. It is actually a much more dense and rich film than either Raging Bull or GoodFellas (which is not to say better), and deserves a study of its own. It is not graceful like the elder film, nor nihilistic like the latter. It is melancholy, about an intelligent man who winds up where he began, everything that he ever loved having passed on and died. Ending in 1982, it also reflects Scorsese's own ideas about the filmmaking industry, as the old and turbulent Las Vegas of the 1970s is much like the New Hollywood with which Scorsese emerged. The gamblers were given control of the casinos, just as the directors were given control of the studios. Their excesses destroyed them, and the large corporations and "junk bonds" took over, sanitizing everything and widening the gap between artistic merit and commercial backing. The main musical motif in Casino is appropriately Georges Delerue's beautiful "Theme de Camille" from Godard's Les Mepris, a film about films, in addition to a hopeless marriage and an inability to hold onto images of desire.
If Casino completes a kind of De Niro/Scorsese/Pesci/Schoonmaker trilogy, its key resonance beyond tribal/gangster dynamics has to do with how those previous two films were dying organisms of a fading time in American movies. Raging Bull appeared when American cinema relented to a new corporate mindset, with happier endings and more coherent, plot-driven (spood-fed) stories. GoodFellas seems like a welcome oasis for its time, Henry Hill's prison sentence in the suburbs not unlike the trailblazing directors of the 1970s who likewise had to face the music in the new decade. In Casino, Scorsese was now a part of Hollywood’s aristocracy, though still dreaming of his stardust memories. He is successful, like Ace Rothstein at the film’s conclusion, but his industry has become increasingly impersonal, and he sits as the last of a dying species.