“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.