"Henry, ya might fold under questioning," Tommy De Vito (played by Joe Pesci) says to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in an iconic scene from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, which opened in the September of 1990. The centrepiece of the scene -- with Pesci egging Liotta to explain exactly why he thought he was "funny" -- has been engraved in the minds of cinephiles for the way it changes tone during its course: first it is plain conversational, then it makes you feel slightly edgy, suddenly it turns scary, before settling down into becoming awkwardly jocular again.
Like the scene I've referred to, Goodfellas is a vaudevillian story of changing fortunes and emotional jump-cuts, chronicled by a master in his absolute prime.
In the DVD extra about its making, Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese's long-time editor) explains why the director chose medium-distance camera shots for the entire duration of the scene; he wanted to capture not just Liotta and Pesci's shifting body language, but also that that of those who surround them.
"Pesci goes from being a Marzipan Pig to someone who seems like he's swapped souls with a Black Mamba."
Twenty-five years later, if you still find the tension in that scene palpable, it's because the ambience itself turns darker as Pesci goes from being a Marzipan Pig to someone who seems like he's swapped souls with a Black Mamba. When the 5ft-something actor quietly explodes, it calls to mind a behavioural pattern, a complete way of life. "The guy's funny, but on some levels he's also extremely sensitive," you say to yourself. When Liotta stops laughing, so do we.
For all the one-minute menace that Pesci projects in that scene however, it's the final knockout punch -- "Ya might fold under questioning" -- that actually forms the axis around which the whole movie spins. As a young boy, Liotta's Henry Hill had established himself as a part of the mob family by an act of boldness, atypical for a kid of his age - he'd refused to identify the "people" he worked for. By the end of the movie, as a 37-year-old, he turns the tables on these very people by becoming a testifier. Pesci's casual line thus becomes weirdly perceptive, when viewed in the context of the entire movie.
There is an oft-asked question: Is Goodfellas the greatest gangster film of all time? The answer to that question isn't simple. For, while I firmly believe that The Godfather movies (1 and 2) are the greatest gangster pictures of all time, Goodfellas is perhaps the finest. The Godfather achieves greatness, while Goodfellas glides into it.
Scorsese's tale -- of burger-chomping kingpins, loose-cannon foot-soldiers and button-men whose inappropriate behaviour can only climax in the ultimate punishment -- may not be as internalised as The Godfather, but therein lies its appeal. If The Godfatheris a great American tragedy, Goodfellas is the story of a jazz era, dancing away to its own extinction.
To draw a corollary, Peter Clemenza in The Godfather is only partially worried about getting his meatballs cooked correctly. For the characters in Goodfellas however, the process of cooking could well mean a case of life and death. Killing is what the Wiseguys (that was what they called each other; also the working title of the movie) did between bar fights and dinner-table conversations with their mothers.
"In a movie filled with sudden outbursts of violence, Schoonmaker and Scorsese find a way to suggest looming violence even in a scene that's supposed to be congenial."
While it would be hubris to say that Goodfellas is technically more accomplished than The Godfather, Scorsese's masterpiece does flaunt its technical bravura more openly. In the now seminal sequence -- a three-minute-long uncut, tracking shot - Ray Liotta takes Lorraine Bracco on a first date at the Copacabana. With The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" playing in the background, the couple enter through the back door -- through the busy kitchen, moving past chefs, busboys, waiters, people ruminating, cooking, flirting, a generous tip paid here, paid there --- and get inside the club where a table is specially arranged for them and a few powerful people send Liotta their greetings. The brilliance of this sequence is in the way it shows Liotta's Henry Hill at the peak of his power and social status. And yet, it plays out completely from Bracco's point of view. As a viewer, we share her amazement, her gaze and by the end of it, we are as seduced as she is.
In another interview Schoonmaker reveals how for all its technical polish, Goodfellas is at times consciously jagged or imperfect. The editor cites the wedding scene, where in accordance to Jewish custom, the groom is supposed to break a glass under his foot. At that very point, Scorsese and Schoonmaker go for a very sharp or amateur cut; the kind you usually see in home movies. The point was to accentuate the brutality that the breaking of the glass denoted. In a movie filled with sudden outbursts of violence, Schoonmaker and Scorsese find a way to suggest looming violence even in a scene that's supposed to be congenial.
Another interesting aspect of Goodfellas is that while it is entirely and single-mindedly Henry Hill's story, it is also a story that doesn't give Hill a single character he can call his ally. Always the outsider by virtue of his ethnicity, Hill is surrounded by people he looks up to, the ones his eyes carefully study, there are business associates, there are people he calculatedly jokes with and formally parties with, but his eventful journey is at the end of the day, a very lonely one. There isn't a character whose rise and fall coincides with or affects Hill; he is a Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza.
I have a feeling that by disassociating Hill this way and by insulating him from any kind of true human contact, Scorsese emphasises the cold-blooded nature of his character. It's the same cold-bloodedness that helps him clinically flatten a bunch of boys who try to trouble his wife, and also the kind that allows him to remain unfazed when his boss, played by Robert De Niro, says no to a gun deal he makes.
"The characters... are based on real people; a speed-reading of their biographies would tell you that they were more dangerous than their cinematic versions and their actions more terrifying. "
On the topic of De Niro, this might be one of his least-dissected full-length performances. The actor doesn't lord over Goodfellas like you've seen him do before. This, you realise, isn't a Robert De Niro film like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver; it's just a film that has Robert De Niro playing a character. But what a character!
De Niro's Jimmy Conway is for my money the most fearsome and despicable person in the movie. He is a mean, calculated killing machine. Just before a scene where he teams up with Pesci to maul "Billy Bats", you see him talking to his victim in an almost courtly manner. When Pesci pumps bullets into a bandaged foot-soldier named Spider, Conway's main concern is the body. "Now, you are going to dig the hole," he commands.
As "Sunshine of Your Love" blares, you see Conway coolly puffing away. In his head he's masterminding the Lufthansa heist executions -- a series of gruesome murders, in which more than 10 people were systematically bumped off. For those shocking set of sequences -- in which corpses fill our visual field --Scorsese chooses "Layla" as the companion musical piece with Liotta's voiceover explaining to us: when they found Carbone in the meat truck, he was frozen so stiff it took them three days to thaw him out for the autopsy.
Goodfellas is based on true events -- the real Henry Hill's experiences with the Lucchese Crime Family are detailed in Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family (with additional revelations in the upcoming The Lufthansa Heist). The characters of Conway, De Vito, Paulie, Billy Bats, Carbone, and others are based on real people; a speed-reading of their biographies would tell you that they were more dangerous than their cinematic versions and their actions more terrifying. The character of Pesci is based on Thomas DeSimone who could drink a gallon of whole milk in one go, would collect pocket-knives as a hobby and use real people as dart-boards during dart-games. And these were just things DeSimone did for pleasure; when seeking vengeance he was an absolute animal.
"Scorsese epic-sizes the movie for most of its running time, and then compresses it into a one-day story that sees Henry Hill's world come crashing down."
The book and the incidents in it are what give Goodfellas its core pulpiness. However, it is Martin Scorsese's vision that gives the picture scale and breadth. Scorsese epic-sizes the movie for most of its running time, and then compresses it into a one-day story that sees Henry Hill's world come crashing down. The effect of lingering lazily and then abbreviating the plot suddenly is Scorsese -- The Gangster Priest -- telling you how charm gained over many years, can be floundered so very easily.
In the closing scene, when he's serving his time, Henry Hill muses, "Today, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody, who gets to live the rest of my life like a schnook."
Once the main draw at Copacabana, Hill clearly misses his old life. Do we empathise with his sense of loss? That's the difficult question Goodfellas has been asking us for over a quarter of a century now.