As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster!


Film: Goodfellas (1990) Director: Martin Scorsese Genre: Crime/Drama


Ray Liotta as Henry Hill

Robert De Niro as James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito

Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill

The Plot

In 1955, Henry Hill, a high school student, becomes enamoured of the criminal life in his neighbourhood, and begins working for Paul “Paulie” Cicero and his associates: James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway, a truck hijacker; and Tommy DeVito, a fellow juvenile delinquent. Henry begins his “career” as a fence for Jimmy, gradually working his way up to more serious crimes. Enjoying the perks of their criminal life, the three associates spend most of their nights at the Copacabana nightclub, carousing with women. Henry starts dating Karen Friedman, a Jewish woman from the Five Towns area of Long Island. Karen is initially troubled by Henry’s criminal activities but is eventually seduced by his glamorous lifestyle. They marry, despite her parents’ disapproval.

In 1970, Gambino family member Billy Batts repeatedly insults Tommy at a nightclub owned by Henry. Enraged, Tommy and Jimmy attack and kill him. The murder of a made man would warrant retribution from the Gambinos; another made man, possibly even Paulie, would be forced to kill the perpetrators. Knowing this, Jimmy, Henry, and Tommy cover up the murder. They transport the body in the trunk of Henry’s car and bury it in upstate New York. Six months later, Jimmy learns that the burial site is to be used for development, forcing them to exhume and relocate the decomposing corpse.

A jealous Karen harasses Henry’s mistress Janice and holds Henry at gunpoint. Henry moves in with Janice, however, Paulie insists he return to Karen after collecting a debt from a gambler in Tampa with Jimmy. Upon returning, Jimmy and Henry are arrested after being turned in by the gambler’s sister, an FBI typist, and receive ten-year prison sentences. So that he can support his family on the outside, Henry has drugs smuggled in by Karen and sells them to fellow inmates from Pittsburgh. In 1978, Henry is paroled and expands his cocaine business against Paulie’s orders, soon involving Jimmy and Tommy.

Jimmy organises a crew to raid the Lufthansa vault at John F. Kennedy International Airport and take $6 million. After some members buy expensive items against Jimmy’s orders and the getaway truck is found by police, he has most of the crew murdered. In his voiceover narration, as dead bodies are being discovered all over the city, Henry implicitly theorises that Jimmy would have killed him, rather than share the profits of the heist. Tommy and Henry are spared by Jimmy. Tommy, however, is tricked into believing he is to become a made man and is ultimately shot dead in retribution for Batts’ murder.

By 1980, Henry has become to get high from his own supply and is a chronic insomniac. He sets up a drug deal with his Pittsburgh associates, but is arrested by narcotics agents and jailed. After bailing him out, Karen explains that she flushed $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet to prevent FBI agents from finding it during their raid, leaving the family virtually penniless. Feeling betrayed by Henry’s drug dealing, Paulie gives him $3,200 and ends their association. Following a routine visit, Karen barely escapes a probable murder attempt by Jimmy. Henry meets Jimmy in a diner and is asked to travel on a hit assignment; the novelty of such a request makes Henry suspicious. Facing federal charges and realising Jimmy plans to have him and Karen killed, Henry decides to enrol in the Witness Protection Program, even though it means that Karen will not be able to see her parents. He gives enough of a testimony to have Paulie and Jimmy arrested and convicted. Forced out of his gangster life, Henry now must face living in the real world. He narrates “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

The end title cards reveal that Henry is still a protected witness and was arrested in 1987 in Seattle for narcotics conspiracy, receiving five years’ probation. He has been clean since then. After 25 years of marriage, Henry and Karen separated in 1989. Paulie died in 1988 in Fort Worth Federal Prison at the age of 73 from respiratory illness. Jimmy is serving a twenty-years-to-life sentence in a New York prison for murder and will not be eligible for parole until 2004, when he will be 78 years old.

The final shot of Tommy shooting point-blank directly at the camera is a homage to the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.

What Do I Think About It?

I don’t recall when, but I saw this film much later than its release date.
It is one of those films that stays with you though. I’m sure that we all have our reasons.

The Pop culture aspect, it is a much-quoted film thanks to Joe Pesci’s Ad-libs. The none apologetic, yet beautifully orchestrated violence with a soundtrack so divine, you almost forget yourself (Yes Layla, I’m talking about you!).

What I did take away from this beautiful film is this;
Who is the one being seduced by this lifestyle? Henry Hill? Karen? Or the viewer?

Both characters that voice-over in this film are seduced by the gangster way of life. However, this is not a Neo-Noir of which you would expect voice-overs. The woman in this film is by no all means a femme-fatale, but, another victim in this masculine society of mafia.

Lorraine Bracco who played Karen Hill, herself said that she found the shoot emotionally difficult because of the domineering male cast. She even likened her character to an abused wife, even though we do not witness incidents of abuse in the film.

Karen is initially shown as feisty and daring, when she insists on looking for her flake date, Henry, when she had been stood up.

There is almost a class difference, with Karen being from Long Island and Henry from Brooklyn. Scorsese then demonstrates the difference the two would-be sweethearts at the Country Club, when Karen has to school Henry in the etiquette of the institution that he is alien to.Then the power shift changes when Karen is assaulted by her neighbour (remember him from the Country Club?), she calls Henry, who in kind deals with the situation in which that he only knows how, violently.

In one scene, Karen is reduced to the stereotypical woman who needs a man to protect her integrity and then loses it almost straight away by taking the bloody gun.  They say that it is a sign of strength to ask for help, but Karen’s strength diminishes as she descends into purgatory, following Henry on the journey into hell.

The director gave the female character her own perspective rather than guiding the viewer into what he wants us to see. Karen is the voice of our perception as we see what she sees (for now). When she is being courted by Henry at the Copacabana, the long take through the club accompanied by The Crystals “Then he Kissed Me” , the experience is not only dizzying to her, but also the viewer thanks to the unbroken take.

We, the voyeur, are in fact just as helpless as Karen, and this is where the storytelling excels. By showing us, on an individual level, how Karen grows blind to the gap between images and understanding, Scorsese also reveals how, on a societal level, something as violent as the mafia lifestyle can be idealized by an entire culture.

Regarding helplessness, Henry is also a conduit to the viewer’s voyeurism. We see the gangster’s world through his eyes. It is only as he rises through the ranks that we see more of his world.

All is well when he is the young buck, and the elders are looking out for him, for example, the postman scene.

We see Henry being scolded for wasting clean aprons on a gun-shot victim. It is then we realise that Henry has not really seen much.

When he is introduced to Jimmy and elevates his tasks to stealing and then selling the contraband, that we see him involved with the law for the first time and his alliances.

It is only during and after the heartless murder of Billy Batts does Henry realise what world he has allowed himself to become involved in. It is seen in the scene later at Tommy’s mother’s house where he can’t eat his food, contribute to conversation, or even comprehend how his (supposed closest) friends can grimacingly laugh at the demise of another human being thinly veiled in a conversation about Tommy’s mother’s painting.

The relationship between Henry, Jimmy and Tommy is endearing as bromance in the mafia goes. What goes further is the affection Jimmy has for Tommy. It wasn’t just for elevated status when he was full of pride for Tommy to be made, it was the love for his friend who was able to attain what would never be in his reach. His heartbreak could be felt when he heard the news about Tommy.

I didn’t feel any empathy for these characters, they all knew what they were doing, even Karen. That does not mean that it wasn’t a thoroughly enjoyable film, because it was!

It was a visit to the gangland world from the 1950s onto the 1980s. A snapshot into a sub-culture that many people are not allowed to participate in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s