RogerBW's Blog

Goodfellas 26 February 2022

1990 Mafia drama, dir. Martin Scorsese, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci: IMDb / allmovie. Henry Hill learns that being a wiseguy is great fun, until it isn't.

And because I have never seen The Godfather (though I've read the books), my immediate filmic comparison was with Raging Bull: the immigrant experience, Brooklyn, de Niro and Pesci. But while that earlier film left me either bored or annoyed, this one did a better job: sure, Scorsese loves these guys and is just endlessly fascinated with the style, but for all their flash you wouldn't want to be them and you certainly wouldn't want to be anywhere near them.

Like Raging Bull this is based on a book told by the subject to a journalist, but one gets the feeling that Nicholas Pileggi was a bit less starstruck, a bit less ready to accept things at face value, than were Joseph Carter and Peter Savage who wrote LaMotta's "autobiography". There's frequent narration by this version of Hill, but while he's talking about how great it was to be a rising young hoodlum, the film keeps showing us how not-great it is to be anyone who isn't on the inside. There's a lot of nostalgia for the good old days, but for a change we can see that the good old days weren't actually all that good, and the nostalgia is exposed. I was particularly struck by Sonny the nightclub owner, who starts an interview with the Big Man asking him to keep his boys a bit more under control, and ends up volunteering to have his business stripped and burned to feed the criminal machine. And Henry never sees the light: he makes a deal with the Feds because otherwise he's going to be killed, but he can very clearly see nothing wrong with what he did and he'd probably do it all again. (In 1987, the year after the book came out, he was convicted of cocaine trafficking and thrown out of the witness protection programme; that's not mentioned here.)

So this is another very well made film about an unpleasant person with no real awareness of himself or of anyone else. But it is a very well made film; the freeze-frames as Henry has Important Realisations are perhaps just slightly too many, but the choices about what to show and how to show it are great. Hill's biggest robbery, the Lufthansa heist of 1978, could be the subject of a film in itself – in fact it has been, twice, since this came out – but here we jump straight from the planning to the morning after. The thieving, Scorsese seems to be saying, is not what's important here; that's just a thing Henry does. It's not who he is.

I was also quite impressed by the treatment of Karen, Henry's wife at the time (she divorced him in 1990, and that's mentioned in a closing caption). While Pileggi hadn't spotted it himself, Lorraine Bracco read the script and realised that for all the flash Karen was basically another abused wife, with lots of money floating around but the same old story. The combination of script and Bracco's acting gives at least an impression of why someone might fall in love with, and stay with, such a horrible person.

I must particularly mention Joe Pesci (who did this between two comic roles, in Lethal Weapon 2 and Home Alone) as "Tommy DeVito". As the hair-trigger violent guy, Tommy causes much of the trouble that Henry gets into… and yet one can see why they might keep him around, because he's still "one of us" more than an outsider. (And, perhaps, because his ethnicity gives their crew its only chance of having a made man as a member.)

It's not a film I suppose I'll ever love, but it's a film I enjoyed,

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
Raging Bull

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