Goodfellas: A Review

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Cast:  Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Braco, Paul Sorvino

Director: Martin Scorsese
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

With this background narration from Henry Hill (while he is closing the trunk lid to conceal a bloodied dying Billy Batts ) opens Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic Goodfellas, which is based on the true story of Henry Hill’s and his associates’  rise and fall in the Luchesse crime family in the period 1955-80.

Growing up in a Bronx neighbourhood in the 1950s, the young Henry Hill always admired gangsters (“for me, being a gangster was bigger than being the president of the Unites States of America”), who according to him lived the ideal life as it can be. He soon quits school to join the Luchesse crime family under the guardianship of Paul Cicero aka Paulie (Paul Sorvino), where he rises quickly doing things like distributing the “cuts” (from policemen to union leaders) and collecting protection money. He then meets Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), a very influential part of the gang, whose main work is hijacking cargo trucks, and both quickly take a liking to each other. Henry learns the biggest rule of the crime world from Jimmy when he is paroled after being arrested – “Never rat out your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Henry earns the respect of all the gang members as he doesn’t give them away and his road to big riches is opened.

In the 60s, a now adult Henry (Ray Liotta) along with Tommy Vito (Joe Pesci), an increasingly psychopathic gangster, and Jimmy make a formidable trio to spread the gang’s influence. However both Jimmy and Henry know that they don’t have any chance of rising up the ranks of the crime family as they aren’t Italians. Henry, Tommy and others hang around with numerous women in nightclubs in an intimidating manner (“if we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”) In a tragicomic twist, the owner of a nightclub who is sick of Tommy’s arm-twisting ranging from non payments of dues to physical assault, begs Paulie to become a partner, hoping that this would save him. Paulie instead takes an unreasonable share in everything and bleeds the place dry leaving the owner with no other option but to burn the whole place down (ironically with Henry and Tommy doing the honours) in order to collect the insurance money.

In 1967, Henry successfully carries out the Air France Robbery with Tommy, thereby making his entry into big-time crime. Henry later marries a neighbourhood Jewish girl Karen (Lorraine Bracco) who is bowled over by his glamorous lifestyle. She accepts her husband’s crime filled life, which includes socializing solely with his gangster colleagues, his long absences and occasional police searches at their residence, mostly because it gives her an opulent living.

In 1970, Tommy’s overtly violent behaviour causes mayhem when he brutally beats Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) for insulting his poor origins, Jimmy too taking part in the assault. They are clearly in trouble as Batts is a “made man” in the Gambino crime family and the three could be killed for laying their hands on him. They decide to get rid of him, stopping midway to finish off the half alive Batts (the first scene of the film) and then burying the corpse in the outskirts of the city, even stopping to have a meal in Tommy’s house en route. A few months later, they are forced to exhume and rebury the decomposed corpse elsewhere as they come to know that excavation will be carried out in the land due to a new construction project.

Like others in the gang, Henry too is two-timing his wife (Friday was for the girlfriends, Saturday for the wives) and soon takes a mistress. In a memorable scene when Karen pulls a gun on him, he overpowers her and tells her that he has bigger worries than her, like getting killed on the street. Paulie meets him and orders him to go back to Karen, and sends him with Jimmy to recover money from a defaulting borrower.

Unfortunately, the defaulter’s sister happens to be a typist in the FBI, and she turns over the entire gang (her brother included) to the police. In prison, the gangsters have a luxurious life, thanks to their police connections, but still it is Henry, who gets the longest sentence. In order to make his and his family’s ends meet, he resorts to drug running from jail.

Upon release from prison in 1978, he continues his cocaine trading which he had started in jail, much to the disapproval of Paulie who sternly warns him to stop it immediately. He not only ignores this warning, but ropes in Jimmy and Tommy and various other people, including Karen, his daughter’s babysitter, and a new drug addict girlfriend.

The same year, Henry along with Tommy, Jimmy and several crew, carries out the Lufthansa heist at JFK airport, which is the biggest hijacking of goods in US history. However, some gang members start spending the proceeds from the heist immediately; buying expensive things that put them in the spotlight.

Jimmy, in chilling cold bloodedness, has them murdered along with their family and later on, has all the other participants of the heist murdered as well; their corpses turning up in different parts of the city for months. He also has the businessman, who had given them the information to plan the heist, killed in order to avoid paying what he owes him. Henry understands that it’s Jimmy who has all the cash from the heist, and is merely eliminating the partners to have it all to himself; but there’s nothing he can do about it.

Then one day, Tommy is lured by promises to make him a “made man” and killed, by his own gang members as a revenge for the murder of Billy Batts eight years ago, in order to make peace with the Gambinos.

By 1980, Henry is a cocaine addicted wreck, sustaining himself solely by drug running, due to which he has alienated Paulie and the others. He is on the constant surveillance of the FBI, who finally tails him an entire and arrest him when he is in Pittsburgh to make a new drug deal. During his absence, his house is also raided, and Karen in order to evade arrest and conviction, flushes down the entire cocaine stash, thereby rendering them virtually penniless.

Jimmy goes to Paulie for help, who being angry with him due to his drug operations, pays him $3200 and ends all association with him (“3200 bucks. Thats all I got, for a lifetime. Not enough even to buy myself a coffin”). He gets a final shock when he realizes that Jimmy intends to have him killed, by setting him up in a hit, in order to erase the last link between him and the Lufthansa heist.

With no other way to save himself and his family, Henry agrees to become an FBI informant under the witness protection plan. As a result of his collaboration and his testimony, Paulie, Jimmy and all the major members of the gang are arrested and sentenced to long terms in prison without parole. Henry himself gets a sentence which is further reduced due to his collaboration.

The last shot of the film shows a very vulnerable looking Henry Hill, now divorced, who in a final voice over says that the good times are over and that he is penniless just like the average working people that he used to ridicule (“I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck”). The closing credits show his fate and that of all the others in the gang, being put away for life.

The film is based on the novel Wiseguys, based on Henry Hill’s account and Scorsese maintains the film as close to reality, keeping a good pace, with a background narration done by Henry and in some places, Karen. The surnames of the major characters except Hill were changed and artistic liberty was taken for a few events. In no scene does it glorify the organized crime that is being portrayed onscreen, and it shows gangsters for what they really are, vermin beneath the shining suits and opulent lifestyle. It perfectly shows, with the example of Henry, that crime never pays and nothing lasts which is earned from it. It gives this message very subtly, without any preaching or moral dialogues, instead leaving the viewers to figure this out themselves.

Ray Liotta portrays Henry efficiently, right from the background narration to his transition from a brash gangster to a sorry shadow of his former self. He gets the maximum screen time and justifies it to the hilt. This sadly remains his best performance which he could not better in his subsequent films. Ditto for Lorraine Bracco. The real Henry Hill met Liotta and told him that he loved the film. Robert DeNiro very beautifully portrays the cunning and vicious Jimmy Conway who is a friend one instant and a killer the next, his screen time is shorter than usual but just as effective. But the performance that stands out is Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy Vito who is crazy and vicious at the same time. He’s played Tommy to perfection (for which he won the Oscar for the best supporting actor) as the one who jokingly intimidates Henry, or the one who calmly shoots a waiter just because he is late in bringing him his drink.

Oscars again snubbed this great work and Martin Scorsese and its only Joe Pesci who got his due here. However, it rightly was a big commercial and critical success and will always remain a favourite for any avid film viewer. A must watch, for great story, acting and film making.

Ankur Jayawant

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