Seduction of the Innocent: Goodfellas

06/16/2015 7:18 AM |

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s

GoodFellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
June 19-25 at Film Forum

When Martin Scorsese’s now-classic GoodFellas, screening in a 25th anniversary 4K restoration, was first released, many critics received it as a gritty reality check on the two extant Godfather movies. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese did not portray Italian-American arch-criminals simply as avid pursuers of the American Dream with their own set of rules. To him, like others, they were vicious thugs with a code of conduct that did not comport with accepted moral principles. This feature was certainly an important critical element of the film, but for popular audiences it was muted. The movie’s more salient and extraordinary aspect was the implicit suggestion that despite its characters’ habitual and immoral resort to theft, extortion, and extreme violence, they were undeniably seductive and compelling to any little boy in the neighborhood who saw them in action.

Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), who narrates most of the movie and becomes a durable and productive associate of the Lucchese crime family, is one such boy. Gone from the directorial point of view is the sensitive ambivalence of the younger Scorsese’s Mean Streets. “As far back as I can remember,” rasps Liotta’s unforgettable voiceover as the movie begins, “I always wanted to be a gangster.” As Hill moves from aspiration to achievement, it only gets better. When neighborhood kids carried his mother’s groceries home, “it was outta respect.” In their heyday, “it was a wonderful time” and he and his crew “had it all.” Anyone who lived any other way had “no balls.” Wiseguys were like “movie stars with muscle,” and are presented as such in Hill’s wistful dramatis personae (Johnny Roast Beef, Pete the Killer, Nicky Eyes, Jimmy Two-Times, etc.). And when he had to give it all up and turn snitch, his misery had little to do with being forced to betray his friends. It was because now, ensconced in tract housing under Witness Protection, he had to live the rest of his life “like a schnook.”

GoodFellas, at its core, is about the overriding appeal of violence as a source of personal power. It demonstrated that appeal more convincingly and viscerally than any film had done before or has done since. The film’s persuasive potency was a product of its relentless jauntiness and black humor: the unalloyed verve with which Scorsese, through his brilliant cast, told even the ugliest of stories. Every major component of the film contributes to its abrasively immersive quality. The tone and phrasing of Hill’s voiceovers are unstintingly value-neutral, offering no regrets, which lends scary credibility to his sometimes demonic behavior—for example, his brutal pistol-whipping of his girlfriend (soon wife) Karen’s other suitor. His narration’s occasional unreliability—Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway, for instance, does have Joe Pesci’s Tommy whack Morrie the wig seller when Henry cheerfully conveys Jimmy’s duplicitous reassurance that it won’t happen—reveals that for all his protestations of friendship with other good fellas, they will deceive him in a heartbeat if it serves their selfish interests to do so.

Then there is that sublimely perverse soundtrack. Among over forty sardonically deployed popular tunes, Scorsese duly uses his favorite anthem of dread, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” as he has in several other movies. But it’s the brilliant “Layla” sequence that gets to the heart of the matter. With Jim Gordon’s melancholy piano coda of the Derek and the Dominos song playing, accented by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s weeping guitars, Henry describes with solemn fascination the series of killings that Jimmy orchestrates, apparently more impressed with how long it took the coroner to thaw Frankie Carbone’s corpse to perform the autopsy than anything else. The melody’s elegiac tone extends not to the death of Henry’s friends but to the impending demise of his lifestyle.

It is often noted, as well as rather obvious, that GoodFellas was the template for The Sopranos, which in turn triggered the breakout in cable programming that amounted to a qualitative revolution in television drama. Arguably the movie’s legacy is even farther flung. It’s hard to imagine that without GoodFellas’s proven formula of casual violence leavened by dark humor that Quentin Tarantino would have gained as much traction as he did with Reservoir Dogs in 1992, let alone won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Pulp Fiction in 1995. Yet perhaps the most significant and salutary consequence of Scorsese’s masterpiece is not the reinforcement of the romance of mob life but rather the repudiation of that myth.

Since GoodFellas came out, American films like Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco as well as Scorsese’s own Casino and The Departed have more decisively deglamorized organized crime. Among very recent pictures, in Killing Me Softly and The Drop the character played by James Gandolfini—Tony Soprano himself—was a despondent and doomed wiseguy, while J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year championed resisting the temptation to get mobbed up. Gomorrah, Salvo, and Black Souls—Italian movies, no less, deservedly lauded—have driven home the moral squalor, existential loneliness, and likely violent end of a life in organized crime even more directly. The offhand mayhem in crime cinema remains, but it’s not so sexy anymore. The new message seems to be that if little boys are drawn to the life of the mobster, they should not be. Scorsese no doubt knew that proposition was valid in 1990. But he probably also suspected that, with The Godfather I and II the ranking mob movies, not everyone was ready to see an almost exalted La Cosa Nostra straightforwardly sullied. So he submerged the ultimate folly of the gangster life in its ostensible luster. Now GoodFellas is the standard-bearer, and its deeper truth has surfaced.