1990 - Warner Bros.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi
& Martin Scorsese
Ray Liotta Henry Hill
Robert De Niro James 'Jimmy the Gent' Conway
Joe Pesci Tommy DeVito
Lorraine Braco Karen Hill
Paul Sorvino Paulie Cicero
Frank Vincent Billy Batts
Frank Sivero Frankie Carbone
Tony Darrow Sonny Bunz
Chuck Low Morrie Kessler
Mike Starr Frenchie
Catherine Scorsese Mrs DeVito
Frank DiLeo Tuddy Cicero
Samuel L Jackson Stacks Edwards
Michael Imperioli Spider
Anthony Powers Jimmy TwoTimes
and Christopher Serrone
as (young) Henry Hill
" Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for bad guys in the movies "
- Henry Hill
Why not check out other gangster flicks
“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Henry Hill is only thirteen years old, but according to Jimmy Conway he’s just learned the two greatest things in life. Henry was arrested for selling stolen cigarettes, but he didn’t give up any names when questioned. Leaving the courtroom having been acquitted by a friendly judge, Jimmy puts a fatherly arm around him and tells him “You took your first pinch like a man” and with genuine pride in his young protégé slides a C-note to his jacket pocket. Outside the courtroom all of the local wiseguys have come down to the courthouse to congratulate him. This is Henry Hill’s graduation party; as far back as he could remember he always wanted to be a gangster and now he is a fully paid-up, card-carrying wiseguy; a good-fella.
Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus is a gangster flick that the genre so desperately needed as a counterpoint to the luxuriant The Godfather which paints La Cosa Nostra in highly-stylised, romantic colours. Goodfellas depicts the lower echelon hoods getting their hands dirty surviving on the street in a manner which makes viewing both intoxicating and repulsive at the same time.
Goodfellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s true-crime bestseller 'Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family' an unglamorised account of life in the mob as seen through the eyes of Henry Hill - Henry Hill being one of the biggest rats in the history of the American Mafia. Lore has it that when Scorsese read the book and rang Pileggi to tell him “I've been waiting for this book my entire life” the author’s response was “I've been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” Whether it’s true or not Pileggi and Scorsese combined to write one hell of screenplay.
Henry Hill provided a hitherto unseen insight into the inner workings of the mob. The movie lifts up the skirt of the criminal institution and takes a peek at its frilly undergarments. La Cosa Nostra is a closed shop and despite the high esteem in which Henry is held he is always on the outside looking in. His mother is Sicilian, but his father is Irish. Without the pure blood Sicilian heritage he’ll never be a made-man. But this is one of the primary reasons why Pileggi’s book was so good and Scorsese’s movie so successful – Henry looking through the sweetie shop window saw more than those inside who took the privilege for granted. Every scene in the movie feels as though it’s crammed packed with authentic details which provides a voyeuristic thrill whether we’re watching the gangsters sat around the table breaking balls, planning a heist or doing time.
As an adolescent Henry first dreams of being a wiseguy when he watches the cabstand across the street from his bedroom window. The cabstand is the legit front for Paul ‘Paulie’ Ciccero, boss of the local neighbourhood and a captain in the Lucchese crime family. The cabstand is also the local wiseguy hangout where they play cards all night without being hassled by the police and park in front of fire hydrants without getting a ticket. These brazen acts of unpunished criminality, no matter how small bewitch Henry like a bulb does to a moth.
When he gets a part-time job at the cabstand his enthusiasm remains undiminished. He eagerly runs errands for the gangsters and parks their cars “Here I am, this little kid, I can't even see over the steering wheel and I'm parking Cadillacs.” Pretty soon at the age of 13 he’s earning more money than most adults in his neighbourhood. He feels like the luckiest kid in the world. Working with the wiseguys ensures he gets served first in stores, neighbours don’t block his driveway and kids carry his mother’s groceries home out of respect.
We then see Henry as a young adult still in the early throws of love with gangsterdom. His two closest associates are Tommy DeVito and Jimmy Conway. Tommy is similar in age to Henry, but that’s about where their similarities end. He’s a highly likeable guy, loves holding court, telling stories and has a strong affinity with the f-word; in fact at the time of its release Goodfellas held the record for the most frequent dropping of the f-bomb – there’s 300 of those little fuckers, half of which are attributed to Tommy alone.
However, the characteristics most associated with the fuck-monger are his short fuse coupled and his penchant for violence. Tommy is a cold blooded mean cat whose hair-trigger temper and vile actions are one of the reasons why if you can bear to look, make this gangster flick so enthralling. An apprentice gangster named Spider (similar to young Henry Hill at the start of the movie) is just one of the unfortunate people on the receiving end of Tommy’s temper. Tommy puts three bullets in the kid’s chest - killing him for what can only be described as light-hearted (if not a little ill-advised) ball breaking from the kid. When the rest of his goombah buddies berate him for his actions, Tommy shrugs it off as if it’s nothing “He's dead. I'm a good shot… I'll dig the hole. I don't give a fuck.”
Jimmy is a more level-headed wiseguy, about ten years Henry and Tommy’s senior; he’s regarded as a legend in their circles and is very much their mentor. Nicknamed ‘Jimmy the Gent’ for his charm, charisma and the fact that he gives everybody very generous tips “He'd give a doorman $100 just for opening the door” - everybody loved him but make no mistake he was a stone cold killer. His true love though, as Henry notes in his voice over, was stealing. “He was one of the city's biggest hijackers” and even the truck drivers loved him. They’d tip him off about their loads and he’d always give them a piece of the action. Unquestionably, Robert De Niro is outstanding in this role, the problem only comes as De Niro is so good he makes Jimmy the Gent so interesting that I want to see more of him (perhaps more than I want to see Henry Hill if I’m honest) and his supporting role leaves me a little unsatisfied. I want to see more Jimmy…
If we’ve not yet been fully seduced by the goodfella way of life then Scorsese’s pièce de résistance is Henry’s courtship with Karen, a nice Jewish girl whom he takes out to dinner. Henry Hill at this point is a young man with the world at his feet and in one long 3 minute sweeping shot he beguiles Karen. Dinner and a show at the famed Copacabana should be enough for any first date, but when Henry parks his car out front and instead of getting in line with the hordes going in the front door he takes her through the service entrance. The single-take shot shadows the couple as they snake their way around corridors and through the bustling kitchen as doors are effortlessly opened for them (real and metaphorical) with Henry slipping generous tips for doing so. Everybody greets Henry warmly, hands are shaken and backs are slapped and Karen is rightfully mesmerised, wondering just who this guy is on her arm getting the rockstar treatment. When they surface in the club a table is literally lifted into the air and placed front and centre for them by the stage – the best seat in the house. She looks at Henry and sees a man who is confident, charismatic and in control and she falls in love right there. The scene is also beautifully embraced by the Crystal’s version of Then he Kissed Me that by the time it finishes our jaws on the floor along with Karen’s.
A significant proportion of the movie is devoted to helping us understand Henry Hill’s love affair of the gangster life. He describes goody-good people who work shitty jobs for bum paychecks as having no balls. If he and his hoodlum cronies wanted something, they’d just take it and should anyone have the temerity to complain they’d get hit so hard they won’t complain again. There’s an excellent passage in the film that demonstrates that gangster mentality for what it is. Sonny Bunz, owner of the Bamboo Lounge feels intimated by Tommy and his refusal to pay his considerable tab, Tommy is literally taking over the place one unpaid bill at a time. So Bunz goes to see Paulie and invites him to become a partner in the business; Paulie being a partner will ensure no-one shakes down the joint. But Paulie is a gangster as true as they come and so he busts-out the place – he runs up large bills on credit he’ll never pay and when the deliveries come in the front door he sells it out the back. “Take a $200 case of booze and sell it for $100. It doesn't matter. It's all profit” Henry explains. When the credit dries up Paulie instructs Henry and Tommy to burn the place down for the insurance money. They don’t even think about it – it’s just routine and to live any other way was nuts.
If the first half of this gangster flick celebrates the power and influence of the wiseguy then the latter half reflects the fear and claustrophobia of the lifestyle. When the tide turns it turns fast. High on his own supply, Sunday January 11th 1979 was a very busy day for Henry. First he had to drop some guns off to Jimmy – who it turns out doesn’t want them, because they don’t fit the suppressors he has; he picks up his brother from Hospital and is held-up because the doctor can see how strung out Henry is and prescribes him Valium; he then picks up a supply of cocaine, but before he can ship it to Pittsburgh on an evening flight, he had to get it to Sandy (Goomah no.2) to whack it up with quinine – oh and he’s also trying to make dinner – beef and veal shanks; ziti and gravy with roasted peppers and string beans. However, while he’s driving all over town, ticking things off his gangster task list he’s sure a helicopter is tracking his every move. Paranoid? Perhaps; anxiety, paranoia and restlessness could all be a result of the coke, but when he gets in his Cadillac Coupe DeVille ready to drive his mule (the babysitter) to the airport to make the coke drop, the muzzle of a gun is pressed against his head. Paranoid or not the FBI have been watching Henry and he just been caught red handed.
One of the joys of Goodfellas is that there is no plot as such – sure characters have their arcs, but the flick moves between key events in Henry’s life instead of a following a flowing narrative giving Scorsese licence to fully explore them and have a bit of fun along the way i.e. meeting Karen; going to prison; the murder of Billy Batts; etc. Another such key event is the Lufthansa Heist. The theft of over $5million in cash and jewellery in 1978 was the largest theft on American soil and Jimmy Conway was the mastermind behind the operation. However, the jubilation quickly turned sour as Jimmy’s greed and rampant paranoia of being caught fuelled his systematic elimination of everyone connecting him to the heist. In one of the movie’s stand out passages the dead bodies of Jimmy’s associates keep turning up. What makes this great passage truly epic though is the scoring using the piano coda from Layla by Derek and the Dominos (TIL coda is the part of the track that brings a music piece to an end). The underpinning melancholy and sadness of the music sets the tone perfectly as first the bodies of Fat Louie Cafora and his wife are found in the front seat of their Pepto Bismol pink Cadillac Coupe DeVille followed by Frenchy McMahon and Joe Buddha in the back of garbage truck. Finally Frankie Carbone’s frozen body is found hanging in the back of a meat wagon. The Layla music track was allegedly played on set during filming to time the reveals perfectly with the music – pretty cool.
Billy Batt’s body has to disappear; he’s a made-guy which is supposed to make him untouchable, especially to a couple of punks like Henry, Tommy and Jimmy. However, Tommy is eventually made to pay. Years later on the day that he thinks he’s getting his button (he’s the only one of the three with pure blood Sicilian heritage) dressed in his nattiest suit and cufflinks what he recieives instead is pay back via a bullet to the head.
Henry ends up doing a little jail time and life on the inside for Henry is not too bad. He along with some other wiseguys doing a stretch share what can only be described as a dormitory, rather than a prison cell referred to as Mafia Row. They have lobster and steak to eat and wine to drink and are left to their own devices - life is tougher for Karen on the outside. She has no help or support and still has to rely on Henry making connections inside to support the family. He develops a lucrative Pittsburgh connection for moving drugs, which he carries on when he’s released from prison – it does so well he even gets Tommy and Jimmy to help. Paulie turns a blind eye to how Henry made money while locked up – you do what you gotta do - but on the outside it’s a different matter. Getting pinched dealing drugs carries too high a prison sentence and for this reason the government finds it much easier to get wiseguys to turn state’s evidence; hence the reasons why the mob outwardly forbid drug dealing – even though most of them are at it. Henry swears to Paulie he is not involved anymore, but it simply makes too much money and so he goes behind Paulie’s back, knowing Paulie would likely whack him out if he finds out. The drugs racket coupled with the disappearance of Billy Batts proves to be the beginning of the downward spiral for Henry and everyone associated with him.
Life for Karen though is better than life for Billy ‘Batts’ Bentvena. Batts is a made-man in the Gambino family (close associate of John Gotti) and is enjoying a few welcome home drinks having just been released for a 6 years prison stretch for drugs possession. We know already how things end for Batts. The opening scene of the movie shows him in the trunk of Henry’s car. Just before we cut to the opening credits, and Tony Bennett singing Rags to Riches we see Henry, Tommy and Jimmy standing over the open trunk and staring at Batt’s badly beaten body. Tommy pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs the body repeatedly - and just in case Batts is not dead enough Jimmy whips out his Smith & Wesson and puts four bullets in him. Later in the movie we see the events that led to his messy demise. Billy Batts is busting Tommy’s balls about his shoe-shine days when he was kid. If we’ve learned one thing about Tommy by now it’s that he doesn’t like having his balls busted and when Batts utters the now immortal words” Now go home and get your fucking shine box” Tommy loses it. Ushered out the bar, Tommy returns after closing when everyone’s left except Batts. Tommy and Jimmy then go to work on him before sticking him in the truck of Henry’s car.
Married life for a mob-wife is not all it’s cracked up to be. Goodfellas gives us a fascinating look at this side of the marriage, not often seen before Carmella Soprano. In the first part of the film Karen’s primary role is to shine a light on the mob from a different angle. Her life is all consumed by Henry’s associates; they hung out together, went on vacations together and there were never any outsiders. This all helped to normalise Henry’s illegal activities. She states that Henry’s actions were just “enterprising” and that she’s “proud” that her husband risked his neck for the family instead of being like “other guys sat on their asses waiting for hand-outs.”
However, although she has no choice but to live Henry’s lifestyle she is removed for the details of his work and exists in a claustrophobic marriage. She lives with the constant fear that Henry is going to be arrested and go to prison – although Henry very amusingly reassures her with “Do you know why Jeannie's husband went to the can? Because he wanted to get away from her. Nobody goes to jail unless they want to.” But it gets worse. As Henry explains in his voice over “Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was for the girlfriends”. A staple of the wiseguy life is a goomah, which is closer to a second wife than a girlfriend, but when Karen kinds out about Janice she does not take it well. She first threatens the goomah by screaming through her apartment intercom and when Janice doesn’t answer she shames hers by ringing every other intercom in the building announcing “I want you to know you have a whore living in 2R!” She then wakes Henry up with a gun pointed at him. Alas, she finds that not only can she not shoot him, but she can’t even bring herself to leave him. Life for Karen is not easy.
Early in their relationship Henry receives a frantic call from Karen, she tells Henry she’s been attacked by her neighbour Bruce. The unwanted sexual advances from Bruce must be considered the most ill-advised in movie history. Bruce represents Karen’s past. He’s white collar, middle class and a member of Karen’s Beach club, but when Henry pulls out his snub nose Smith & Wesson Model 36 and pistol whips him over and over, turning his nose to mush, Henry firmly announces himself as Karen’s future. He then gives her the gun to hide and she admits in her voice over narration that she should be revolted by Henry’s actions, but instead “It turned me on”. Scorsese cuts from this scene direct to their marriage ceremony – as if this exhilarating glimpse into Henry’s world seals the deal for Karen.
In 1972 The Godfather set the benchmark for Gangster flicks nearly two decades earlier and nothing in the interim period came close to being as good until Goodfellas came along. You can compare Goodfellas and The Godfather as much as you want, but in truth it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Both may represent the gangster movie genre’s highest points by filmmakers at the peak of their powers, but they are still too different to be able to mark one out as better than the other. The Godfather is an operatic saga about Roman Caesars ruling their empire and Goodfellas is about street rats scratching around making a living, doing whatever they have to do to get by. Both very different, both very brilliant.
Another largely unscripted scene, which is also surprisingly touching as well as full of dark humour, is around Tommy’s mother’s dinner table. Billy Batt’s badly beaten half dead body is in the trunk of Henry’s car and Henry, Tommy and Jimmy stop at her house to pick up a shovel. But they accidently wake her and she insists on making them something to eat, so they sit down at the table making small talk while she fusses over them in a manner only a mother can – all the while the body is still in the trunk. It’s great scene to watch and it comes at a time in the middle of the movie when we can use a little time-out from the frantically paced film and be reminded how wonderful a little home cooking can be.
Goodfellas is such a blast to watch. Despite owning the DVD since it was available I will still always watch it when it’s on TV; even if I’ve missed the start or know I won’t see the end. A lot of the movie particularly in the richness of the details provided in the narration plays out almost like a documentary, but never do you feel like you’re watching anything but pure cinema. Scorsese by 1990 had become a master craftsman in filmmaking and his full range of skills are on display. We’re treated to freezeframes designed to draw attention to key moments, voice over narration from both Henry’s and Karen’s perspectives making the whole experience very personal and we’re given characters with so much depth and personality that despite their appalling behaviour we find ourselves caring what happens to them – even, or should I say especially Tommy DeVito. Scorsese is also a very confident director and far from autocratic, thankfully given very skilled actors like Robert De Niro room to breathe. One of the truly great moments in Goodfellas, is the scene in which Henry calls Tommy “a funny guy” at the end of his story about being beaten up by a cop after a bank job in Secaucus. The story itself is not that funny but Tommy’s delivery has the table in hysterics, but you can hear a pin drop when he appears to be insulted by Henry’s remark. He is of cause just busting his balls and the maniacal laughter continues again. But the tension created by this psychopath over a perceived insult is a credit to Joe Pesci. The scene cracks me up every time and it’s hard to imagine that the original script did not even contain it. Pesci suggested adding this passage and was given a free hand to set up the scene and improvise the dialogue – which he based on a real life experience with some wiseguys in Chicago.
Henry is left with no choice, and decides to collaborate with the FBI, making Paulie’s earlier concerns somewhat prophetic. We should not underestimate the magnitude of this decision. Henry doesn’t decide to turn on his associates out of a sense of doing the right thing, of suddenly understanding right from wrong. He’s been backed into a corner and it’s primarily guilt that he feels for betraying all he’s ever stood for and all the people he’s ever known. All Henry has ever wanted to be is a gangster (as far back as he could remember). Pre-teen he dropped out of school to work full-time at the cabstand and he’s been a wiseguy ever since. He was addicted to the lifestyle; didn’t know any other way to live and never contemplated living any other way. He became somebody in a neighbourhood full of nobodies – but that’s all over now. Jimmy Conway once told him “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” That sounds like sage wiseguy advice in theory, but when it’s your ass that’s on the line, it does you no good whatsoever – particularly when the very person doing the pontificating is the same wiseguy who is fixing to kill you. So Henry, along with his wife and kids are relocated in the witness protection program and Henry becomes just another nobody, somebody who has to wait in line at the store and has to live the rest of his life “like a schnook“ oh and let’s not forget he has to testify in open court ratting out his former associates including Jimmy Conway and Paulie Cicero.
From this point on life will never be the same again. Henry knows how to keep his mouth shut, but would a long prison sentence change that? How about when his family members are implicated? Doesn’t matter anyway. Henry’s associates can’t take that chance and he knows it. He’s witnessed first-hand how paranoid Jimmy Conway can get when his freedom is threatened and when he meets with him every instinct he has is yelling at him that Jimmy is setting him up to be killed.
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
Take your pick: Tommy's 'Funny how'; Henry pistol-whipping Bruce; The demise of Billy Batts; The killing of everyone associated with the Lufthansa heist; or Tommy shooting Spider. IF you can pick just one you're a better man than me my friend.
Body Count: Ten
1. Badly beaten and dumped in the trunk of Henry’s car, Billy Batts was finished off by Tommy repeatedly stabbing him and Jimmy shooting him.
2. Tommy shot Spider over some mischievous, if ill-advised ball busting
3. Tommy put a bullet in the back of ‘Stacks’ Edwards' head
4. Tommy stabbed Morrie in the back of the neck with an ice-pick
5-6. Fat Louie Cafora and his wife are found dead in his Cadillac Coupe DeVille
7-8. The bodies of Frenchy McMahon and Joe Buddha were seen in the back of a garbage truck
9. Frankie Carbone’s frozen corpse was found hanging in the back of a meat truck
10. Tommy was shot in the back of the head
The Smith & Wesson Model 36 Snub is a popular weapon in Goodfellas. Jimmy Conway used to to shoot Billy Batts; Henry pistol whipped Karen’s neighbour with one; and Tommy DeVito used it to shoot Spider in the foot
Karen Hill woke Henry up pointing a Smith & Wesson Model 64 Snub in his face
Tommy killed both 'Stacks' Edwards and Spider using a Browning M1911A1. Tommy was also killed with a Browning M1911A1 - shot in the back of the head
When the Hill residence was raided Karen stashed an Iver Johnson .380 in her underwear
Tommy took a kitchen knife from his mother’s house and stabbed Billy Batts repeatedly with it, while he was lying in the trunk of Henry’s car.
Morrie was killed by Tommy sticking an ice-pick in the back of his neck
300 - a record for a major motion picture in 1990
"Now go home and get your fucking shine box" - Billy Batts
Tommy drove a 1961 Chevrolet Impala Convertible - Karen was seen getting out of it to yell at Henry when he stood her up
In the early part of the movie Henry drove a 1966 Chrysler Newport Convertible – he picked up Karen in it after she had been assaulted by Bruce
Karen's neighbour, Bruce - was working on his 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray when Henry came over and pistol-whipped him
The bodies of Fat Louie Cafora and his wife were found in the front seat of his Pepto Bismol pink 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
When Henry thought he was being followed by a police helicopter he was driving his 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille Phaeton Special Edition around town
Written by Bada Bing