“Goodfellas” - Martin Scorsese (1990)

Martin Scorsese’s best films were those that featured performances of Robert De Niro, including his breakthrough with Mean Streets (1973) and his greatest work, Taxi Driver (1976). Their working together seemed to bring out the soul of New York City – it’s 24-hour intensity, angst, and nervous vulnerability.  So when they teamed up again with Goodfellas (1990), it was no surprise that the result was another landmark in Scorsese’s celebrated oeuvre. In fact more than a few people say that Goodfellas is the greatest gangster film ever.  I am not sure if I would go that far, but the film does go a long way towards capturing the unique feeling of what it is like to be a New York gangster.  And in doing so, it featured a narrative scheme that was perhaps Scorsese’s best.

Actually, narrative structure is not one of Scorsese’s strongest points.  He is something of a master in creating a social milieu, often employing improvisational, ensemble acting that captures the spontaneity of a group situation.  But many times the engaging social environment never encompasses any real narrative goals, and the episodic story just seems to tail off at the end of the film, without achieving any closure.  In Goodfellas, though, Scorsese weaves a tale that makes that weakness into a feature of the film.  That is, the story is about people who cannot live their lives in accordance with the usual goals that most people set for themselves.  For such people (the gangsters presented in Goodfellas) ordinary life is too boring; they need to feel the rush that comes from drugs, sex, gambling, and crime.  And if they keep going at it, their lives will progressively spin out of control, as it does for the principal character in Goodfellas.  The great strength of the film is that it gives a viewer a feeling for this psychological sense of progressive desperation.

The story covers the experiences of Henry Hill, who as a teenager joins the Lucchese crime family, one of the five mafia families (the “Five Families”) dominating organized crime in New York.  In this underworld milieu, set mostly in Brooklyn, there are five principal characters:
  • Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), an Irish-born Brooklyn boy who gains entry into the Italian-dominated crime scene.  
  • Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), a Jewish girl that Henry courts and marries.
  • Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), another Irishman in the Italian mob scene and Henry’s hero.  Conway is a high roller who continually pulls off high-payoff crimes and buys off the police at the same time.
  • Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a reckless, hot-tempered young gangster who often works with Conway and Hill.
  • Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a local “capo” (mid-level mafia captain) who runs the show in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
The narrative focalization is almost exclusively on Henry, but sometimes it includes that of his wife, Karen. 

The film’s story is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 nonfiction book Wiseguy, which is evidently based on real people and events in the New York crime scene.  Scorsese and Pileggi  coauthored the screenplay, and what they achieved was something that depicts a life progressively spiraling out of control.  By the end of the film, the viewer is fully immersed in Hill’s self-induced maelstrom.  Along the way, the narrative passes through about eight levels of turmoil, from “out-of control level 1" to 8 (OOC-1 to OOC-8).

1.   Teenage Henry
The first stage is set in 1955, and Henry is a boy of about thirteen who dreams of being a gangster.  He detects that a neighborhood taxistand is a local outlet for the mafia, and worms his way into the confidence of the local operators by doing odd jobs for them.  Soon he is defying his parents’s strict rules and  playing hooky from school. 

2.  Young Mobster
By 1963, Henry is a full-fledged young mobster, and we see how the economic world of the mob works.  They don’t use traceable bank accounts, so money is exchanged in wads of high-denomination bills.  The economic life of the mob is purely extractive.  They don’t produce anything useful, they simply extract and squeeze money out of the existing population.  For example, there is a sequence where the proprietor of a  local nightclub hangout, who has been hassled by local toughs, seeks protection from Paulie.  Paulie agrees to become a partner of the club, but purely in order to liquidate it.  The local gang gradually sells off all the movable goods of the place, collecting cash in exchange for debt.  When the nightclub is finally hopelessly in debt, they have their boys set a fire to burn it down so they can collect the insurance. 

This kind of extractive economy is not unusual – in fact it is generally the way much of the world operates, as outlined in the book Why Nations Fail (2012) [1].  Large-scale organisations around the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries have operated according to such extractive principles, including (a) Kemal Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party in Turkey, (b) the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, (c) the North Korean Communist Party, and (d) the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East.  The main operating principles of these organisations dedicated to extraction is absolute loyalty to the team of insiders and bribery or bullying for outsiders.  They may advertise an ideology for propaganda purposes, but their main goal is prosperity for the elite at the expense of others. To become a member of the gang, you just have to be useful and loyal.  As Henry Hill says, he early on learned two important lessons: “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” 

Henry now regularly works with Tommy DeVito under the command of Jimmy Conway in the course of hijacking trucks.  He also begins dating Karen.  When he learns that she has been groped by a neighborhood boy, he goes over to his house and brutally pistol-whips him.  He is now at OOC-2.  Karen is attracted to the flashy lifestyle, too, and soon she and Henry are married.

3.  The Murder of a "made" Gangster
The next sequences introduce the viewer to just how violent Henry’s associates can be.  Henry’s hotheaded colleague, Tommy DeVito, is obsessed about threat to his ego, and he goes ballistic when he feels slighted by remarks from another gangster, Billy Batts.  So together with Jimmy Conway, they brutally murder Batts in revenge. But even in the violent gangster world, this was a serious mistake, because Batts belonged to a different crime “family”, the Gambino Family. In addition, Batts was a “made” member of that family. Once a person is “made”, he cannot be harmed without bringing on the vengeful wrath of the crime family to which he belongs.  Anyway, Henry loyally stands by Tommy, and together with Conway they bury Batts in a secret location so that the Gambino family will not find out (OOC-3).

4.  Affairs with Janice and Sandy
On the personal relationship plane, Henry’s life also begins to unravel (OOC-4).  He starts an adulterous affair with another woman, Janice, and later has relations with her friend, Sandy.  Meanwhile he witnesses Tommy murder an innocent busboy who insulted him, but Henry stays loyal to his mates. 

5.  Drugs
Eventually Henry’s criminal activities get him sent to prison, and while serving his four-year sentence inside, he begins to make money selling cocaine.  Upon his release in 1978, Henry continues his criminal hijacks with Tommy and Jimmy, but he keeps going with his drug dealing on the side.  The drug racket was something that Paulie and his crew wouldn’t touch, so this is a further step towards chaos for Henry (OOC-5).
6. The Lufthansa Gig
Jimmy Conway now engineers his biggest ever operation, an intricate heist of a Lufthansa shipment that nets six million dollars.  But Conway is paranoid and even more out of control than Henry Hill is.  He begins killing off his criminal partners for fear that their indiscretions will lead to his own arrest.  Also Tommy DeVito is murdered by the Gambino family in revenge for the murder of Billy Batts.  So now there’s noone left that Henry can trust in a pinch (OOC-6).

7.  Penultimate Day 
The downward narrative spiral now settles on a single day in 1980, homing in on the deterioration of Henry’s control of what’s going on around him.  Addicted to, and insomnia ridden from, his own cocaine, Henry is nervously trying to maintain both his family and his illicit affair with Sandy, as well as trying to run his drug dealing operation.  It’s just too much for him; at the end of that very day he gets ambushed and arrested by the narcotics police (OOC-7).

8.  Selling Out
On his release, Henry realizes that he is out of options. Paulie has abandoned him for doing drugs, and Jimmy looks set to have him whacked. So he rats on his friends and joins the Witness Protection Program. At the end of the film, he has disappeared into anonymity and is ruing the demise of his thrill-studded existence. But although his life appears to be finally settled down and back in control, his ultimate act of gang betrayal means that the Lucchese family will forever be out to get him (OOC-8).

Scorsese effectively sets the tone in Goodfellas in a number of ways.  The use of contemporary pop music on the soundtrack establishes the social context, as it similarly did in Meanstreets, but it also conveys the general superficiality of the wiseguy social scene.  This lightweight, “cruising” mood is punctuated by the emphatic brutality of the beatings and killings that sometimes take place – evidence that savage hatred is just below the surface and can erupt at any time.  

The overall nervous tone is supported by the acting performances. Lorraine Bracco adds a memorable feminine component to the generally male-dominated scene (although I’m not sure why her role is given some narrative focalization and voiceover – she mostly disappears from our attention in the latter stages).  Robert De Niro is, as usual, intense; and he adds a crucial edge to the social climate.  But it is Joe Pesci’s performance as the loose cannon Tommy DeVito that puts the real stamp on the film.  His role personifies the reckless and combustible lifestyle of the mafia wiseguys. 

Scorsese’s cinematography is also integral to the storytelling.  There are many sinuous pans and tracking shots that conjure up the delirium in Henry’s agitated psyche, and they all fit into the expressionistic mood. In particular, there are two memorable long tracking shots that follow Henry into the interior of a wiseguy meeting venue and which stand out in my memory.  The second of these is about three minutes in duration and starts at the curbside outside of the Copacabana nightclub and then follows Henry and Karen down the stairs through the service quarters and finally into the main serving room, where a table is prepared for the couple in the company of their wiseguy companions.

All of this contributes to the principal evocation of how temporality operates for the wiseguys in Goodfellas.  For these people, life constantly needs the stimulation that comes from crime and violence, which becomes an addiction, just like heroin. These stimulating events provide the temporal order to their lives. William S. Burroughs long ago pointed out that heroin addiction is not just an addition to a chemical – the real reason why heroin addicts go back to their addictive behaviour, even after supposedly being “cured” of their chemical addiction, is because they want to live on “junk time” [2].  Junk time is how temporality is realigned when you are on junk (heroin). The ups and downs that come from craving for and finally getting a junk dosage is what provides the temporal movement in their lives.  When they are on “non junk time”, everything is flat and pointless – life has no meaning for them. The junkie then feels he has to go back to the junk. So, too, is the case for the thrill-addicted wiseguys, whose short-term cravings are for the thrill of being treated by their peers as “somebody”. 

To overcome this obsession with the staccato-patterned blasting of short-term events, we all need to think in terms of longer narratives and longer-term goals.  When we look over and recall things that happened over the entire course of our own experience, we sometimes realize that seemingly trivial long-ago moments of loving compassion for another person were profoundly eventful and meaningful.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but those quiet moments fit into a larger pattern of significance to our lives. Recognizing this bigger picture, we need to go out and help other people, other potential wiseguys, realize the importance of those longer-term narratives and how they are put together via small but meaningful interactions.

  1. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012), Crown Business.  See also their weblog: http://whynationsfail.com/.
  2. William S. Burroughs, Junkie (1953), Ace Books.

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