GOODFELLAS directed by Martin Scorsese (USA, 1990)
To Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) you’re either a shmuck or a somebody. There is no middle way. The former are those who have “shitty jobs with bum pay checks”, the latter are gangsters, wiseguys and “movie stars with muscle”.
Being part of the exclusive club of these ‘goodfellas’ is to be part of a family, albeit a very violent one. They adhere to a code of ethics which includes being nice to their moms and never ratting on your friends, but the work also requires hands on experience of intimidation and murder.
The perks of the job are that you dress well, drive swanky cars, get laid a lot and,provided you give tips to the right people, you are practically above the law.
The violent scenes in the movie are fairly graphic with the hot-headed Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito winning the prize for being the most pathologically crazed member of the setup. By comparison, Robert De Niro, who plays Jimmy Conway, demonstrates how he earned the nickname “the gent” although he isn’t averse to putting the boot in too when push comes to shove.
Scorsese is often accused of glamorizing violence but the on-screen beatings and killings are never stylised or prettified. The strong nature of these scenes is necessary to show the ruthless way Brooklyn’s Lucchese criminal family operates to maintain its power.The viewer is left in no doubt that to enjoy the substantial perks of this particular life of crime you need to get your hands dirty (i.e. bloody).
It goes without saying that this is a very macho culture but Scorsese deserves credit for showing the female perspective too, mostly via Harry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco). She is a ‘nice’ Jewish girl from a ‘good’ family but ,despite her respectable background, handling Harry’s gun turns her on and she is impressed by his status, influence and the ruthless way he defends her honor by beating a pushy neighbour’s head to a pulp. She is not so thrilled when he takes a mistress and starts taking her for granted.
The movie is based on the book ‘Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family’, written by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi . This tells the true story of a mobster-turned-rat/schmuck. Hill’s deal was struck with the police when Paulie (‘il capo’) learns of his extra-curricular drug trafficking activities and put him on the hit list. Between certain death and an anonymous life of a nobody under a witness protection scheme , he reluctantly chose the latter.
This was a repeat viewing of the film and I enjoyed it more than the first time around. The performances are universally excellent although I still found the start to finish voiceover from the characters of Henry and Karen Hill irritating. An introduction and a conclusion would have sufficed. Nonetheless, it deserves its status as one of the best and most uncompromising crime movies ever made.