Thursday, October 8, 2009


“Raging Bull” director Martin Scorsese received his third Oscar nomination as Best Director for “Goodfellas,” starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci, an engrossing epic about life in the mafia based on Nicholas Pileggi’s bestselling biography about real-life gangster Henry Hill. This blue collar crime saga differs from mafia melodramas like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” because Scorsese refrains from either eavesdropping on the upper echelons of organized crime management or depicting the actual logistics involved in its major heist. In other words, scenes concerning the hierarchy of mob bosses convening to resolve rivalries among their families or scenes about the actual heist are never shown. Nevertheless, “Goodfellas” is violent, profane, and unrelenting in its R-rated portrayal of crime and punishment. Pesci won the Best Supporting Actor’s Oscar, while “Goodfellas” received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay based on material adapted from another medium. Incidentally, Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” trumped “Goodfellas” for the Oscar.

Essentially, Scorsese’s film traces the rise and fall of Brooklyn-born, Irish/Sicilian American Henry Hill from working as a teenager at a mafia cab stand to his adult exploits as a full-fledged mafia soldier. Scorsese glamorizes Hill’s life during the first hour as a crook, and the young Hill wins our sympathy as an underdog. Everything turns to sour in the second hour, however, as the mutt mutates into a murderer. After several years of getting away with his crimes, our protagonist winds up in prison, gets paroled, resorts to selling cocaine, finds himself at odds with his own mafia types before he decides to participate in the Justice Department’s Witness Protection Program. Incidentally, the title “Goodfellas” refers to the mafia concept that when an individual works for the mob then he becomes one of mob. In other words, the family that slays and steals together stays together. The most familiar term used to describe a person in the mafia is ‘wise guy,’ but Scorsese had to change the title of Pileggi’s book “Wise Guy” to “Goodfellas” so nobody would confuse the film with the CBS-TV series with Ken Wahl about an undercover mafia informant. Primarily, Scorsese relies on flashbacks to relate the story, but he breaks the fourth wall eventually so the protagonist can address the audience directly. Like all well-done crime sagas, “Goodfellas” epitomizes the capitalistic American work ethic. This Horatio Alger crime saga sees our innocent hero pulling himself up by the shoestrings and making a success of himself. Nevertheless, like all moral crime films from the 1930s, the hero is doomed to lose it all.

The first scene in “Goodfellas” sets the tone for this grim film. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro of “Raging Bull”), Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci of “Lethal Weapon 2”) and Henry (Ray Liotta of “Article 99”) are cruising down the highway at night when Henry gets curious about a noise that sounds suspiciously like their sedan has had a flat tire. After Henry pulls the car over, Jimmy and Tommy inspect the trunk where they have stashed the bloody body of a man swathed with sheets. Tommy stabs the man repeatedly and Jimmy blasts at the man with his revolver. The camera pushes in on Henry watching Jimmy and Tommy kill the man sprawled helplessly in the trunk and then we hear Henry utter in a voice-over, “As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster." Intermittently, the Liotta character addresses the audience, furnishing important information about the mafia milieu, until the last few minutes when the protagonist breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience.

“Goodfellas” qualifies as a slam-bang crime thriller. This is not a film about set-pieces like you see in Coppola’s “Godfather” movies or Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in America.” Scorsese infiltrates the audience into the mafia and shares many of the mob’s secrets that have become familiar with film-going audiences in a way that seems fresh and off-the-cuff. Initially, we sympathize with young Henry (newcomer Christopher Serrone) who takes a job at Tuddy Cicero’s cab stand running errands for the gangsters in the neighborhood. Before long Henry is earning more money than his hot-tempered father, and he loves the respect that the mobsters lavish on him. Tuddy (Frank DeLio of “Kiss of Death”) lets him park Cadillacs, sell contraband items, smash car windows and play fire-bug. Unlike his working class Irish father who takes a belt to him when he discovers that his son has quit attending school, the mobsters are more of a family to Henry than his own kin. At one point, the police arrest Henry for selling cigarettes. After the charges are dismissed, Henry fears that the mob will punish him for his arrest, but they act as if the arrest and trial were a bar mitzvah. The head of the crime family, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino of “Slow Dancing in the Big City”) comments that Henry has had his cherry broken. Paulie, as his henchmen affectionately refer to him, is an old school Mafioso. He shares Don Vito Corleone’s revulsion toward narcotics and wants nothing to do with the lucrative drug racket. As the equivalent of hot-headed Sonny Corleone, Jimmy congratulates Henry for never informing on his friends and keeping his mouth shut.

As an adult, Henry becomes fast friends with Jimmy, who Henry assures us is “one of the most feared guy in the city” and pint-sized Tommy who isn’t afraid of anybody. This insider’s look at the mafia follows these three mafiateers as they steal, rob, lie, cheat, and kill their way to the a fortune. When Tommy cannot convince a girl to go out on a date with unless he finds a suitable fellow for her friend, Tommy twists Henry’s reluctant arm. Henry meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco, later of HBO’s “The Sopranos”) who becomes his wife. There is one scene when Henry escorts Karen to a popular nightclub that dazzles her because everybody showers them with respect and praise. Although she doesn’t know exactly how Henry makes his living, Henry tells her that he works for the union in the construction business. No sooner does Henry marry Karen and have kids than he starts cheating on her with whores that he sets up in nearby houses and Karen initially believes him when he cannot come home for business reasons. One morning Henry awakens to Karen straddling him in bed with a snub-nosed revolver aimed between his eyes. This is a chilling scene.

Henry and Jimmy wind up cooling their heels in prison briefly when they rough-up a guy in Florida and his wife blows the whistle on them. During his prison stint, Henry discovers cocaine. When he gets out on parole, he continues to wholesale narcotics despite Paulie’s stern warnings that he doesn’t tolerate trafficking in narcotics. Henry has to put up with random idiocy occasionally with regard to his drug runners. For example, one apparently reliable woman that he pays to carry his drugs with her during her airline flights believes that she must always wear her lucky hat if she is not going to be busted. A wig merchant sets up our heroes when he lets them in on the biggest heist in history. Jimmy and Henry orchestrate the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport in 1978 where they stole an estimated $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewels. The Lufthansa heist still ranks as the largest cash robbery in the United States. Meanwhile, Henry violates one of the rules of the drug trade. You don’t get high on your own supply. He snorts as well as sells cocaine and the authorities catch up with him. At the same time, Jimmy and Tommy have been knocking off their Lufthansa accomplices. Consequently, when Henry is arrested, Jimmy fears that he may, to use the mob term, ‘rat him out.’

Tommy—the only full bloodied Sicilian—wins the honor of becoming a ‘made man’ in the mafia, but Tommy has murdered a ‘made man’ earlier and the mafia uses the ceremony as a ruse to rub him out. Scorsese doesn’t heap on buckets of gore, but Tommy’s death is pretty gory. The mob puts bullet through the back of his head that exits through an eye socket like a geyser of blood. Paranoid that Jimmy will ice him, Henry accepts an offer from the Justice Department to turn stool pigeon and testify against his former friends to keep from being sent to prison. Ultimately, Jimmy and Paul go to the big house, while Henry winds up going straight and becoming in his own words a “schnook.” Everything goes in a circle in “Goodfellas” in the sense that what goes around comes around and Henry is back when he began, except he is ensconced in the suburbs.

It is a testament to Scorsese’s skill as co-writer and director that the repugnant world of crime looks so compelling. Jimmy and Tommy are brutal, unrepentant thugs. A life of crime turns Henry into a cold, calculating operator who enjoys all the advantages of mob living. Like a movie made during the Production Code era (1934-1968) that dictated that crime should not pay, our protagonist gets his comeuppance. Nevertheless, Scorsese shows his sense of humor in one scene when Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry awaken Tommy’s mother at his house and she insists on cooking a meal for them. Scorsese never lets the momentum of “Goodfellas” slacken and this crime drama boasts enough surprises to keep audiences on their toes. Altogether, “Goodfellas” rates as one of the top ten mob movies and its soundtrack of nostalgic tunes doesn’t hurt it. According to the Internet Movie Database, the F-work is said 296 times, roughly two times every minute.