Henry Hill didn’t know from Robert Warshow. He’s a Brooklyn kid, barely a teenager, when he sees those guys hanging out in the cab stand across the street. He probably wasn’t familiar with the film critic’s work. He almost certainly couldn’t tell you that the gangster’s form of activity is a rational enterprise, that he carries his life in his hands like a placard, that such folks are doomed not because the means they employ are unlawful but because they’re under the obligation to succeed. All he knew was that these gents were somebodies in a neighborhood full of nobodies. They played all-night card games, drove immaculate sedans, wore impeccable suits, and no one ever hassled them. As far back as he could remember, he’s wanted to be one of the guys. Yeah, maybe they gotta blow up a few things and get hauled in by the cops (just don’t say nuthin’ and don’t be a rat, Henry) and if a guy who’s been shot shows up at a local pizzeria that doubles as a front for criminal activities, you shouldn’t waste the towels. But tragic heroes? Eh. You know what’s really tragic? Having to live the rest of your life like a schnook.
They were always called “wiseguys.” But thanks to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie, which turned 30 over the weekend — how time flies when you’re completely revitalizing a genre and reshaping pop culture — you know them better as “goodfellas.” Both a critique of the Mob mentality and an enshrinement of Mafia soldiers as dapper psychopathic swells, this epic chronicle of made men behaving badly is arguably the single most influential gangster film ever made after The Godfather. It’s also inarguably one of the key movies of the 1990s, and helped set the tone for that decade’s signature mix of “funny ha-ha” and “funny…holy shit!” For a generation of filmgoers, it’s the Scorsese movie, as in the first movie that comes to mind when you mention his name — more than Mean Streets, more than Taxi Driver, more than The Last Waltz or Raging Bull or his Oscar-winning The Departed. It hangs so heavily over his legacy that people still refer to him as that guy who “just makes gangster movies,” conveniently forgetting his works on Jesus and the Dalai Lama and oh, about 85 percent of his filmography. Thanks to this masterpiece, one of a handful Scorsese has made, Joe Pesci can’t go anywhere without people asking if they amuse him (like a clown) and you can’t hear “Layla” without picturing a dead body in a meat locker.
As the director recounts in Made Men, writer Glenn Kenny’s invaluable new book about the film, he was working in Chicago on The Color of Money when he read a review of Nicolas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy. (It had also been excerpted in New York Magazine, where Pileggi worked; some folks have said that’s where it first came across Scorsese’s radar.) The story of how Henry Hill went from Brownsville errand boy to a valuable member of caporegime Paul Vario’s crew — the Lufthansa heist? That was his doing — to witness-protected informant, this journalistic account of Mob life from the mid-’50s to early ’80s was a first-rate piece of crime reportage. The problem was, Scorsese didn’t want to do a gangster movie. His 1973 breakthrough film, Mean Streets, was his own personal-ish account of the type of affiliated guys he saw growing up in Little Italy, and there’s enough intertwining of the boxing-glove world and the pinkie-ring world in Raging Bull (1980) to technically slot it in that genre as well. He had other things on his mind.
But Scorsese recognized how Pileggi captured the “truth” of how those men lived and loved and murdered, sometimes for no real reason. It punctured the whole family-and-honor myth of “this thing of ours” put forth by movies like The Godfather. These guys were kings, maybe, but they were also cold-blooded killers. No less than Don Corleone himself, Marlon Brando, had advised Scorsese to stay away from telling those kinds of stories again when the two of them met about a different project around that time. But the director’s hero, British filmmaker Michael Powell, told him that he had to do it. It’s funny. No one has ever shown this world in this way before. This was bigger than just one guy making his way up the syndicate ladder. “Henry Hill was Virgil taking Dante around [hell],” Scorsese told Kenny. “It became a movie more about the lifestyle than any main character.”
And if you can say nothing else about Goodfellas, it’s most certainly a movie about a lifestyle. Films like Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob (1988) played up the fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck chic of the Mafia’s domestic life for laughs, but nobody had sewed it in so seamlessly to a work of pure gangster anthropology. We get to watch Ray Liotta — who Scorsese first saw, coincidentally, in Demme’s Something Wild — become a bigger and bigger bigwig via his level-up in tailored couture and increasingly tasteless decor furnishings. (Long live the stained-glass, fake-rock TV wall/liquor cabinet!) His suits, along with those worn by Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Burke and Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, are elegant uniforms pitched somewhere between the Rat Pack’s evening wear and nature’s design for Great White Sharks. Even as styles change and collars widen, these guys take pride in their appearance because they consider themselves smooth criminals, and because that’s how they think someone with money is supposed to look. Money, and power. When people talk about Goodfellas glamorizing gangsters, this is usually what they mean — that mid-century ring-a-ding look, soundtracked by Dino and Bobby Darin. They’re so sharp that it’s easy to forget these guys are literally dressed to kill.
More importantly, the nonstop hustle of Mob life — go here, collect something from there, talk to this person, bury this guy — is given the royal treatment as well, though this is also where Scorsese starts putting the irony of it all to good use. These guys can command enough respect to forego waiting in line at the Copacabana, but they gotta make sure they hijack a truck or torch a lounge when they’re on the clock. They can take a mistress — it’s expected — but they can’t anger the wife, because hey, appearances have to be kept up. They can make millions of dollars, but they can’t spend it or they risk getting whacked. They can do whatever they want and don’t have to take any shit, but they can’t fuck with the wrong guys, or they risk getting whacked. They can play cards, go on vacations and have holiday dinners with each other’s families, unless the person who always has their back gets paranoid, and they risk getting whacked. You see a pattern emerging. So, eventually, does Henry. There are lots of ways to make good if you keep moving and earning. There are only two ways things can end.
Once we get to Goodfellas‘ justly celebrated, jittery final half hour, in which viewers get to experience the closest thing to a manic coke binge without actually snorting blow, we know that the good times are going to come to a teeth-grinding halt. Scorsese starts upping the tempo, Henry’s thought patterns — got to get those guns stashed got to pick up my brother got to get that sauce started wait what’s that a helicopter? — and the music cues, which go from bumping up against into each other to bleeding all over each other. Now comes the bad trip and the hangover. In their book-length conversation with each other, Scorsese told critic Richard Schickel that he wanted the film “to infuriate people … I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style, and then I just wanted to take them apart with it.” And though Kenny’s book attests to lots of preview-screening walkouts due to the extremity of the violence, it’s this part that uses form and content to rattle the viewer. You feel like you’re having a panic attack as you watch it. There’s too many sounds and images coming at you at once. It’s hard to say that it glamorizes the gangster life in the same way it’s hard to say it glamorizes drugs. Henry’s world just seems fast, cheap and out of control. The next stop is a Feds’ office, a courtroom and eternal schnookdom.
Still, that ride on the way to that cinematic nervous breakdown is indeed thrilling, and technically innovative (the Copa sequence that launched a million long tracking shots) and endlessly quotable — not just Pesci’s iconic “Funny how?” but also “Now go home and get your fucking shinebox!” and “Crawl like you crawled for my drink” and “One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy’s sayin’, ‘Whadda ya want from me?‘” Scorsese may have torn down one myth about the Mafia, but he fully cemented another one in place, and it’s this ideology of a Mob world as a gaudy, gruesomely cracked mirror of our own petty world that sticks in pop culture now.
Take that notion and add an existential crisis to it, as well as a lot of Goodfellas’ cast, and bada bing: You have The Sopranos, and a TV revolution. Take that idea of the gangster as tragic zero to its logical conclusion and boom, you have The Irishman, Scorsese’s elegiac companion piece to this movie. Take the film’s humor-meets-violence tone, and you have a stepping stone for several generations of black comedies and pulp fictions. Three decades hasn’t made Goodfellas any less of a touchstone. It’s as appealing to a legion of would-be cineastes, pop-crime aficionados and movie lovers who like a bit of immorality in their storytelling as those flashy guys at the cab stand were to that kid all those years ago.