Get set for a crime wave at the movies. Between now and the year-end release of The Godfather Part III, Hollywood will be married to the Mob. The criminal element dominates in GoodFellas, Miller’s Crossing, Narrow Margin, State of Grace, King of New York, Desperate Hours, Men of Respect, The Krays and The Grifters. And next year we’ll see Dustin Hoffman as mobster Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate and Warren Beatty as racketeer Bugsy Siegel in Bugsy.
It remains to be seen whether crime will pay at the box office, but in the case of GoodFellas, it certainly pays artistically. The engulfing epic of Mafia life that director Martin Scorsese has fashioned from Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 bestseller Wiseguy is an American crime classic. Spanning thirty years and running two and a half hours, the film bristles with the violent passion, howitzer wit and virtuoso style that made Scorsese’s reputation with the gangster drama Mean Streets in 1973.
It’s understandable why Scorsese phoned Pileggi after reading Wiseguy and said he had to direct the movie version. Scorsese grew up among these mobsters — known as wiseguys or goodfellas — in New York’s Little Italy. Pileggi was also raised in New York City, where he made his mark as a journalist reporting on the Mob. But Pileggi and Scorsese, who collaborated on the GoodFellas script, have radically different modes of expression: Pileggi is a social anthropologist, detached and objective; Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is a visceral director, eager to dive into the fray. Despite a few rough spots, their styles fuse into a film of supercharged images that nonetheless stays rooted in reality.
GoodFellas tells the true story of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in a star-making performance. Pileggi based his book on interviews with Hill, the Brooklyn-born son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother who went to work for the Mob as a kid in 1955 and stayed gainfully employed by stealing, conning and breaking heads until and breach of trust involving drugs made him a Mob target. In 1980, in return for testifying, Hill was allowed to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program. Hill, who was involved in the infamous Lufthansa German Airlines heist, knew from the inside how the business of hijackings and hits worked.
Scorsese, a great director in top form, makes this return to the mean streets of his youth a harrowing tour of hell. The early scenes showing the young Henry (Christopher Serrone) being indoctrinated into the Mob leap from humor to horror. Henry rejects the working-stiff ethic of his parents — his heroes are the neighborhood crooks. Paul Cicero, a bulky don played with menacing stillness by Paul Sorvino, hires Henry to run errands at his cabstand and restaurant — actually fronts for Cicero’s gambling operations. There Henry gets to know Jimmy Conway, a smooth killer acted with riveting restraint by Robert De Niro, and Tommy Devito, a nutso played by Joe Pesci in a howlingly comic and scary performance. Looking like a debauched choirboy in his oversized collars and teetering on the thin edge of his own nerves, Tommy is fueled by barely motivated rage.
These dirtballs don’t scare Henry; they thrill him. Henry’s pals dress, party and spend like his father never could. And they’re handy in a pinch. When a letter from the truant officer gets Henry in trouble at home, the goodfellas beat the mailman senseless for delivering it. In Liotta’s running narration, Henry says, “My ambition was to be a gangster …. To me being a wiseguy was better than being president … To be a wiseguy was to own the world.”
With the help of Michael Ballhaus’s dynamic photography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing, Scorsese makes us feel Henry’s intoxication in belonging to this crime family. As the adult Henry, Liotta still flashes the bright eyes of a twelve-year-old who is making more money than his old man. When Henry courts Karen, a Jewish girl from outside the neighborhood — played with spirit, steel and high-octane sexuality by Lorraine Bracco — he tries to impress her with a night out at the Copa. Ducking past the lines waiting to get in, Henry steers Karen to a side door and guides her down a staircase into labyrinthine passageways filled with shadowy figures until they finally emerge, after a shortcut through the kitchen, into the nightclub, where the headwaiter acknowledges Henry, orders a new table placed ringside and seats the couple — now basking in the admiring stares of the crowd — just as Henny Youngman comes on for his first joke. Done in one long, exhilarating take, the scene is more than a technical marvel. That descent from darkness into light is the dream Henry has sold his soul for. With a few strokes, Scorsese makes the motives of an unsympathetic character comprehensible and human.
Still, it’s the darkness that prevails. Membership in a Mob family comes with strangulating restrictions. There is no life outside of it. As Henry’s wife, Karen is shocked at first by the sudden bursts of violence that are part of her husband’s profession. But guns, drugs and deals soon become part of her life, too; Karen even finds them easier to accept than Henry’s infidelities. Scorsese is peerless at detailing random brutality, the kind good-fellas have developed as a natural reflex. 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 a car trunk.
In its refusal to deny the malignant allure of Mob life, Scorsese’s indictment gains in intensity. After turning Judas to save his neck, Hill, who went into hiding with his wife and their two daughters, told Pileggi, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” By capturing the pain as well as the ignorance in that statement, Scorsese’s GoodFellas makes poetic drama of warped ambitions. It’s a prodigious achievement.