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No. 40: “GoodFellas” (1990)

“Fuck you, pay me.” ~~Henry Hill

People who rail about the evils of power are people who don’t have any. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) learned that honest from his father, a working-class schnook made furious by his own powerlessness. The fix for that problem appeared right outside the window of Henry’s Brooklyn bedroom: the Lucchese crime family. These gangsters, with their overstuffed wallets, fine-threaded suits and cowering errand boys, want for nothing because they take everything. That’s as close to omnipotence as a man can get and it’s right in front of Henry. He can’t resist a taste. Who could?

The frightening thing about Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” the definitive portrait of Mafia life, is how easily Henry slips into this society of free-flowing cash, limitless influence and tricky, uncrossable lines. There’s no pomp or circumstance — just a job opening that Henry pounces on. He doesn’t look like a hardened criminal because he isn’t one; he’s a kid who wants respect and pocket money. Although epic in terms of scope and talent, “GoodFellas” also feels intensely personal and matter-of-fact, thanks in part to Liotta’s narration and Scorsese’s direction. The director takes pains to demystify mafia life; he peels away the layers until we see what’s really there: a business, one with rules and consequences. For all the talk of respect and family, it’s the money and the power that matter most.

Each of the men Henry works for has a different approach to keeping business booming. Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino, capable of leveling anyone with a stare) acts as a father figure to Henry, but he didn’t earn his status through kindheartedness. Paulie is a man who moves slowly because he “doesn’t have to move for anybody,” and this capo is straightforward in his dealings. Also in Paulie’s inner circle are his associates, the calculating Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), who steals for the thrill of it, and armed robber Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, comical and terrifying), whose explosive temper causes messes that don’t sit well with other wiseguys. Tommy’s anger makes him dangerous, but it’s Jimmy, so calm and mannered, who may be more treacherous. Drawn into this life through her marriage with Henry, Karen (a ferocious Lorraine Bracco) understands the dangers and looks past them. More than that, she gets a charge from them, particularly in the scene — a masterpiece of filmmaking — where Henry leads her into a restaurant through a series of maze-like back entrances and hallways, where the manager produces a primo table as if from thin air. That thrill of having everything at your fingertips is intoxicating.

Scenes like these indicate a director at the height of his creative powers (though he’s an artist who’s his own toughest competitor) and his eye for atypical shots. There’s an eerie close-up of Liotta, his face bathed in the red glow of brakelights, and an even more and artistic) shot of DeVito and De Niro digging up a body shrouded in the same ethereal, otherworldly light. Scorsese also doesn’t shy away from the violence; rather, he lets it blindside us, a precursor of even more shocking scenes to come in “The Departed.” In a particularly unnerving, now-infamous moment, Pesci renders a pen more lethal than a switchblade; in another, he empties his gun into a server who gives him lip. Despite his astonishing ability to underscore feelings with song (“GoodFellas” is aces in that respect), the brutality is usually stark and always unexpected.

Also responsible for netting the film six Oscar nominations is the acting, since the cast of “GoodFellas” remains one of the finest ensembles ever put together. Scorsese continues to bring out the best in De Niro, so quietly lethal as Jimmy, while Pesci rips into Tommy DeVito like a man possessed by the devil himself. Sorvino’s presence is towering enough that he needs little screen time. At the hub of it all is Liotta, who dials down the rage to make Henry the plainspoken storyteller “GoodFellas” needs. It’s his voice that stays with us at the end, when the truth finally blindsides him (and us): The trouble with power is it makes you want more power, and when you get it you’ll do anything to keep it. Consequences be damned.

17 Responses

  1. Just a great and powerful film, while not losing the audience at all. Loved almost every second of it!

  2. I was actually just watching the “Funny how?” scene on YouTube! Eerie, indeed.

    My dad was a friend of Paul Vario, the real name of Paul Sorvino’s character, Paul Cicero. The day I was born was the day that he died, and my father got a call like that on the day of the birth of his first son. Fun fact.

  3. Scorsese should have won Best Director for this film.

  4. I love your post, but I consider the finest acting ensemble to be “Glengarry Glen Ross”

  5. Awesome, awesome movie. Though will I go to hell for liking Casino just as much?

    • @ Dan the Man — This is one of the few flawless films. I can’t think of a single thing that could make this better.

      @ James — If I ever disagreed with one of your reviews … please don’t send anybody to my house “to take care of me.”

      @ Fitz — Yes he should have. But at least he won it for “The Departed,” which isn’t as technically good as “GoodFellas.” The man made a classic in the ’70s, the ’80s and the ’90s!

      @ Frank — Would you believe I haven’t seen that? I’m on it.

      @ Darren — I don’t know that you’ll go to Hell, though I think there’s a limbo reserved for those who prefer “Casino” or think it’s just as good. Maybe I need to watch it again; it just didn’t grab me as much as “GoodFellas.”

  6. Excellent review of a classic movie. This makes me want to watch it again tonight. What I always take form the movie (and Casino) for that matter is how terrifying Joe Pesci is – he’s a great actor (what’s he up to these day!) – just compare him in Goodfellas with his smart but lippy, happy-go lucky role in My Cousin Vinny or the bumbling, dim-witted burglar in Home Alone.


  7. When I watch this movie now, I’m convinced that Scorsese was trying to make a dark comedy but by no means does my laughter mean I think the movie is bad. The fact this didn’t sweep the Oscars is tragic. In fact, Pesci is so over the top & brilliant that he completely overshadows the genius of De Niro.

    Simply put…it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Kickass review!

    • Well pointed out CC. I still think this is Pesci’s best performance, though I harbor love for My Cousin Vinny and Casino. Tommy DeVito is one of the greatest characters of all time.

  8. Best movie of the 90’s. I will fight anyone that argues with me.

  9. It’s no secret that this is my favorite gangster film and my favorite Scorsese film ever. I know I argued my love for it in the last Groovers and Mobsters Present, but I’ll just say again what an utter masterpiece in film making this movie actually is. It’s no surprise to me that it made your top 100 M.

  10. I haven’t seen all of Scorsese’s film, but this my favorite of the ones that I have seen. LOVES IT!

  11. Very few modern films are bona fide classics, but this is one. I say modern…it was 20 years ago! Oh darn it, I feel old now.

    • @ Ruben – I will fight proudly alongside you.

      @ Branden – This might be in my Top 5 Scorsese films.

      @ CC – I know “GoodFellas” is the best thing I’ve seen Joe Pesci do.

  12. @ M. — i think you’re forgetting about _Gone Fishin’_. Little Joey is brilliant.

  13. I started watching this last night for the 100th time. It’s still a fantastic movie, doesn’t matter how many times you’ve watched it. I say – I started watching it – fell asleep with about 30mins left. Forgive me – it was late. 🙂

    On the issue of other great Pesci films – I love My Cousin Vinny!

  14. […] “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, […]

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