Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Cinema Bestius: Goodfellas
#29 - Goodfellas
The Plot in Brief: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) recounts his decades-long association with the mob, specifically a criminal “crew” comprised of Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Conway masterminds a five million dollar cash Lufthansa Airlines heist at JFK airport (a true-life event that, at the time, was the largest single robbery in American history. Although many of the incidents and names have been changed, Goodfellas is based on the real Henry Hill’s crime career.) As time goes on and the crew’s crimes become more brazen, Henry’s life begins to unravel.
Wood suggests that none of us attend movies for a moral lesson, so the primary appeal of crime films is their depiction of fantasy lawlessness. Looking at the fate of every major character in Goodfellas, it would be hard to build a case for Scorsese’s protagonists as role models. They make choices and measure their successes according to the rules of their society, just as we do, but their “rules” explode the boundaries that constrain the average moviegoer—and (spoilers for Goodfellas) so do the consequences.
Interestingly enough, the actual Lufthansa heist at the center of the film is never shown, just the intricate preparation and long, bloody aftermath. This is a canny choice for Scorsese and partially answers his critics who contend that the director delights in his characters’ lawlessness. Here Scorsese focuses on the grim, stomach-churning machinations of Jimmy Conway trying to keep his accomplices from claiming their share, keep himself out of prison, and keep as much of the money as possible.
As an Italian-American, I love how Scorsese’s gangster films often focus on food. We are treated to the sight of Sunday dinner at the home of mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), which resembles every Sunday afternoon of my childhood. (Henry recounts that the mob lifestyle was insular, and members never associated with anyone else; showing them at Sunday dinner makes it clear they consider each other family.) Scorsese’s mobsters love to congregate in fancy restaurants and diners. When some of Henry’s associates are imprisoned, they use their influence to arrange for a cell with a kitchen so that they can cook; Cicero is shown slicing garlic with a razor blade so that it “liquefies as soon as it hits the hot oil” (like Clemenza’s impromptu recipe for spaghetti sauce in The Godfather, this is a cooking tip that really works.) When Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy stop at Tommy’s house for a knife, they wake Tommy’s mother (Catherine Scorsese, Martin Scorsese’s mother) who promptly lays out a full meal for the boys. In fact, one of Henry’s biggest complaints about the witness protection program is that when he orders spaghetti in his new town, he gets “egg noodles with ketchup.”
BTW: If you hunt down a copy of the PBS American Masters episode about Scorsese, it includes footage taken on the set of Goodfellas, showing him directing the scene where young Henry Hill is yelled at by his superiors for offering to help the neighborhood man who has just been stabbed. Priceless.
Goodfellas’ Three Miracles: Career-best performances from Liotta, Pesci, Bracco, and Sorvino; Scorsese’s hippity-hoppity pacing, which sees the film start fast and then only accelerate; and Robert De Niro’s less-flashy, far scarier performance as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, the smartest member of this den of thieves.