Film * Martin Scorsese * Gangsta, Gangsta * 1990
I know that I’m not primarily a movie person, because this is the first time I’ve watched this movie all the way through. Goodfellas is one of those landmark films that always comes up in “best movie ever” conversations, and it’s the rare film that’s equally popular with turbo-nerd critics and your conservative uncle Dave. Watching it for the first time nearly 30 years after its initial release, it’s still easy to see why. First of all, gangster stories are compelling. We’ll dig into why that is in a bit, but it’s generally true. It’s fun to watch people do crimes. Secondly, the narrative structure keeps the story fresh. I know this is a based-on-a-true-story situation, but sometimes real life is cliché. By moving around in time, basically starting in media res, the narrative is able to build around these fucked up characters in a way that enhances our understanding of this life. Finally, the way this film is shot is basically a masterclass in how to be a goddamn director. Scorsese has a vision, and it’s immediately clear even to someone like me who lacks the vocabulary to really engage with film in an analytic way.
This is one of those works that is so well known that it almost feels pointless to provide an actual synopsis (although I am well aware this section usually has less to do with summarizing the story than it is a rambling introduction). Still, people like me exist I guess. This is a biographical film, based on a real life mid-level mobster named Henry Hill (I really want to call him Hank). It follows him from his youth, running errands for the local boss, Paul Cicero, to the ignoble end of his mafia career. Most of the time he’s hanging out with his two buddies, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, doing crimes and spending money. Like any proper biopic, the film is as much about the changing times as it is about any one character. Henry’s early years take place in the fifties and sixties, and the film ends in the coked-out eighties. Goodfellas is presenting how these characters change and grow over time, but it also examines how this lifestyle is forced to change and adapt as the decades roll along. What first seems to be a natural, logical way to live life in the fifties seems almost archaic thirty years later.
Goodfellas is a paradoxical film in that it’s clear that all these characters are horrible people and yet you’re sitting here thinking, damn these guys are cool. This phenomenon isn’t particular to this movie, of course, most crime stories play out the same way. We all have a dark side, and these kind of stories speak directly to it. That’s why I can sit here and watch DeNiro and Joe Pesci be just absolute psychopaths and be like, yeah, all right. Rad. These guys live dangerous lives, and while that danger is lucrative, it’s also part of the appeal. Henry Hill’s whole mindset is wrapped up in the lifestyle. See what you want, take it. He doesn’t even have to get his hands dirty all that often. Hill’s character is often quiet when people are flipping out, is usually the first to try and defuse a situation before it gets violent. Of course he usually fails, because for many people being a wiseguy is a license to indulge in random acts of violence. Still, these are all compelling characters, even as it becomes readily apparent that they’re still largely small time. Right, time to talk story and to get into the weird nostalgia this film deals with.
For a while there, I thought this was going to be one of those gangsters-with-a-heart-of-gold kind of stories. Henry Hill is presented as this wide-eyed, earnest kid just out trying to, well, maybe not do the right thing but at least make his way without hurting anyone. I enjoyed the scene near the beginning where he’s selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck and the cops roll up and he’s honestly bewildered at very concept of being arrested. He just keeps saying “no, it’s okay,” because the kid has no other frame of reference for how things should be. It’s just do what the boss says and everyone has a good time. Oh, and don’t snitch. Pretty easy for a not-so-bright guy like Henry Hill and every single one of his dum-dum buddies to comprehend. Of course they fuck it all up because they are all huge idiots, but really the wiseguy life seems like it should be fairly easy to figure out. Do what the boss says and keep your mouth shut, and you can have pretty much anything your limited imagination could desire. And insofar as all that goes, Henry is a likable enough guy. But he also sucks a lot. Like it’s all fun and games until all the casual misogyny towards his wife. A wiseguy’s loyalty only stretches as far as his fellow goons.
The concept of loyalty is a big deal in Goodfellas, and how the idea of loyalty is expressed amongst wiseguys is constantly examined. Loyalty is the foundation of the entire organization, it’s the trust in the boss and the gangster way of life that enables the entire lifestyle. One guy flips and everyone is fucked, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep their mouths shut. Thing is, once an authoritarian social structure is implemented, that loyalty runs from the bottom up. Which is to say, be it in government, or a corporation, or a mafia family, low level toadies are expected to be loyal to those above them while those leaders do not have the same expectations placed upon them. This one-way flow of loyalty in an organization is so ingrained as to be obvious, but people never learn. Even in a normal workplace we expect our loyalty to be rewarded, and when it’s not we’re appalled and shocked. Nobody wants to think they’re expendable, but most everyone totally is. This expendability is even more pronounced in an organized crime situation because the stakes are higher and the people involved are more ruthless.
Henry learns this the hard way over the course of his career, although he compounds his problems with his own idiocy and hubris. One side effect of being a dummy used to getting everything his tiny mind could ever want is that this mindset starts to expand past the dummy’s capacity. Which is to say Henry starts to fuck over the boss and it goes poorly for him. The expectation is that once caught, Henry should take one for the team and just die in prison, because once again loyalty only goes one way. No, you can’t be made because you’re not Italian, but you sure as shit can go to prison for a few decades! Eventually, in a coke-addled haze, Henry figures out that his life is forfeit. That the boss only cared about him while he was useful, and that his erstwhile friends are just as bad. Tommy, who I was actively rooting against, gets his because he broke social rules (which is to say he randomly murdered too many people until he finally killed the wrong guy). Jimmy is a friend until he gets paranoid, then his first idea is to just kill everyone, including his friend and associate Henry. Once Henry figures out that loyalty only goes one way, he pulls the plug. Fuck that noise, burn it all down. Good for him.
At no point is Henry redeemed as a character. He’s still a shitty husband and father, he’s still not very bright. He’s still guy who beats his wife because she has the audacity to be upset that he’s constantly cheating on her. She’s no peach, either. Not only is she willing to put up with the mistreatment because of the money, but because she’s attracted to the kind of guy who gleefully pistol-whips people on a whim. Cool. Jimmy is a large-scale kleptomaniac who will casually murder you if you get in the way. Tommy is a straight up psychopath and nobody cares until he kills the wrong dude. Christ, he murks that kid after shooting him in the foot and the other guys only seem annoyed by the inconvenience. On the one hand, I understand why people are drawn to these kinds of stories. Goodfellas, despite being a biography, is fairly close to being a morality tale. Don’t be like these assholes, you’ll die! Still, there’s a segment of people out there who pine for this kind of life.
There’s a toxic nostalgia at work when you can look at a story where everyone was awful and ended up dead or in jail but at the same time think, “yeah, but at least it was a simpler time and everyone knew how to live.” That nostalgia is at work within the film itself, although Scorsese seems to recognize it, which is one of the reasons he breaks up the narrative to interrupt the flow of time. Otherwise it would have been a straight shot from the halcyon, carefree days of the fifties to when it all falls apart in the eighties. That aspect is still intact from the point of view of Henry, I think, although hopefully the viewer picks up that this lifestyle has always been fundamentally rotten. For Henry, his entire life is like that famous tracking shot through the Copa early on. Everything is glamorous and great, and the entire rest of the film is him trying to hold on to that vision. That vison was always a lie, though, just like every misty-eyed, plaintive cry for a return to the “good old days.” Henry was just too naïve to pick up on when he was younger, and too unhappy to let go of it when he got older. Honestly, that’s a pretty good metaphor for everyone.