"Go Get Your Fuckin' Shinebox", "wiseguys", Anti-Hero, biography, Catherine Scorsese, Corruption, Crime, Film, film review, Gangsters, Goodfellas, Hastings, Henry Hill, history, Individual Will, Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, lufthansa heist, Martin Scorsese, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, morality, Pulp Fiction, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, violence, Working Class Men
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self. –Ernest Hemingway
As far back as I can remember, personally, I always wanted to be Chewbacca from STAR WARS. The reason for that was largely simple, nobody ever really fucked with Chewie. Han Solo was the guy all the boys on the playground wanted to be, and I was often regulated to playing Chewie. I didn’t mind this so much because Chewbacca was tall like I was, covered in hair which became more and more true with each passing year, and nobody in the movies ever beat Chewie in a one on one fight. He pretty much just walked around doing whatever he wanted to because who’s going to tell a Wookie what he can and can’t do?
I suppose in this way Ray Liotta and I have something in common, because his character Henry Hill (based upon an actual person) from Martin Scorsese’s opus Goodfellas, expresses more-or-less the same sentiment about being a gangster. The film opens with these lines after Joe Pesci has stabbed a mobster a dozen times with a butcher knife in Henry’s trunk and Robert de Niro has shot the man four times (I counted):
Henry Hill: [narrating] For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me that was better than being president of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world.
There was a time in my life when I could watch the movie Goodfellas over and over again and never seem to get bored or bothered by it. Part of this was the fact that I was a teenage boy and a high school loser to boot. When you’re the weird kid, and your perceive yourself as the weird kid, and that perception only further influences your dress, behavior, and attitude, and people around you perceive it, and puberty is happening to you like a sledgehammer to the scrotum, darkness tends to be something you gravitate towards you. Then again, I’ve always found morbid topics interesting. Being a kid I would look at horror movie covers and memorize the names of killers because there was something cool about being close to that darkness. I think this is the best explanation of why Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction before it, appealed so much to me.
On one side note I find it bothersome that Pulp Fiction is one of the films that changed my life and I still haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet.
Goodfellas didn’t stumble into my life, it was handed to me by my tenth-grade English teacher. She and I would usually talk before class because she was funny, she had great insight, and I guess she saw something in me. She originally introduced me to Stephen King, giving me her water-damaged copy of The Green Mile, which lead me to other works by King and secured my desire to become a writer. But at some other point she told me to find a copy of a movie called Pulp Fiction. I rented a copy of the movie from Hastings (#restinpeace) and watching Tarantino movies I started also trying to find interviews with the man and a name kept popping up: Martin Scorsese.
Goodfellas wasn’t the first Scorsese film I saw, I believe the first one I watched was either Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. But Goodfellas kept popping up, usually alongside Raging Bull as Marin Scorsese’s supreme cinematic achievement. Not long thereafter my parents gave me a copy of Goodfellas and Braveheart for Easter and I watched it and disappeared.
I have yet to watch a Scorsese film that is not good. Even his first major film Mean Streets, which is obviously rough since it’s his first full movie, is extraordinarily good. Scorsese as a director was brought up under a documentarian tradition and so whenever he makes his films he tries to simply capture the human being’s honest behavior. Rather than tell a narrative emotionally or personally, he allows the characters and people to perform their own arcs, and Goodfellas is probably his best demonstration of this outside Raging Bull. The story is about a man named Henry Hill, the child of an Irish/Italian marriage and that lineage is important. He grows up in a poor neighborhood watching the cab-stand across the street where the “wiseguys” or gangsters hang out wanting to join their world. He eventually makes his way into the organization and the rest of the film follows him living the life of a gangster until he eventually has to leave the life for the sake of his survival.
The movie, while it follows multiple characters, centers on Henry and he narrates his life and thoughts first person as if analyzing his behavior for the audience. Part of the miracle of the film is that this structure could feel obvious or overdone, but it never does. The film sucks you in and holds you close to the material while Henry observes the realities of Gangster life. He notes early in the film about the benefits of such a system:
Henry Hill: [narrating] For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
In an earlier scene he mentions something similar:
Henry Hill: [narrating] One day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.
Henry eventually is caught for drug trafficking and has to sell out his friends Paulie and Jimmy Conway, and the final scene offers Henry’s summation of everything he learned from the experience, and the final conclusion is as revealing as it is disturbing:
Henry Hill: [narrating] Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies.
[Henry leaves the witness stand and speaks directly to the camera]
Henry Hill: Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.
Henry Hill: And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
Henry’s final speech reveals a bit of Scorsese’s ultimate aesthetic goal which is to get the viewer to observe how the Goodfella lifestyle has infected Henry and how, even after everything he’s seen and done, he still longs for a life of crime because the benefits of such a life seem far better than the average day-to-day lifestyle of real people. Now this isn’t a novel observation, dozens of critics have noted that part of the success of the movie is this very realization about Henry, and many have noted that the appeal of the film is the way the characters suck you into the reality and world almost making you want to stay inside that world yourself. Almost every person would love to live a life where they don’t have to work, they can take anything they want, and just generally live and behave without worrying about reprisal.
With this being the case there doesn’t appear to be much room for me to come in and offer up any new material, my reader would note, but as always I have to disagree.
The reason I must contest my reader is because there was a time when Goodfellas was a movie I loved to watch, but over the last few years I’ve stopped watching it as much. It’s not that I no longer love the film, I still consider it one my favorite movies of all time, and, to be honest, I’d watch it before just about most of the films currently being released. But since I’ve started maturing emotionally, and puberty no longer holds my gonads like a vice, the appeal of that world and reality has dimmed.
I lead a very privileged life, but the desire to work and contribute something to my world and community is what drives me more than anything, and watching Goodfellas again recently I was struck by how narcissistic each of the characters was. Whether it was Mauri always bitching about nobody paying him, or Henry as a kid noting that he didn’t want to go to school because the Gangster life was far more lucrative. Even Karen observes how this selfishness comes to become, in her own words, normal:
Karen: [narrating] After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while all the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.
[Cuts to Henry and Tommy hijacking a truck]
Goodfellas is a wonderful film about the real gangster lifestyle, and throughout the movie there are plenty of opportunities for Martin Scorsese to bring in his brilliance for making iconic shots and scenes, and also remind the viewer that he owns virtually every Rolling Stone record. On a side note, Scorsese is the only director I know who can ever effectively use the song Gimme Shelter in a film and make it sound even more amazing than it already does. But I think if you push deeper into the film the entire movie becomes one long documentary and meditation on the impulse of selfishness.
Every character wants to enjoy the riches and agency that being a mobster, or being related to a mobster, brings them. While the characters like Jimmy, Tommy, Henry, Paulie, Karen, and Maurie are driven by their selfishness, Scorsese demonstrates that they live in a system which perpetuates that selfishness and thus reinforces it into a sick kind of normality. It becomes okay to steal, murder, and beat-up innocent people because you have a license to do it.
As Tommy is being led to the house to become a Made man Henry notes this subtly:
Henry Hill: [narrating] You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.” You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys. But Jimmy and I could never be made because we had Irish blood. It didn’t even matter that my mother was Sicilian. To become a member of a crew you’ve got to be one hundred per cent Italian so they can trace all your relatives back to the old country. See, it’s the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and crew. It means that nobody can fuck around with you. It also means you could fuck around with anybody just as long as they aren’t also a member. It’s like a license to steal. It’s a license to do anything. As far as Jimmy was concerned with Tommy being made, it was like we were all being made. We would now have one of our own as a member.
People crave to be part of a system or tribe by nature, and if one exists that can benefit them dramatically then they’ll react violently. If I can offer one last quote as justification, Henry observes in the film, shortly after Tommy kills the Made-man Billy Batts (with his infamous “Shine-box” line), that this is the case:
Henry Hill: [narrating] If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.
The easiest attack made against Goodfellas as a work of art is the fact that there is so much violence in the movie, but that violence has tended to obscure the real art that is behind it. The same goes for the first-hand narrative structure of the movie which has been reproduced ad nauseum in far too many movies that are trying to be clever or else just bad rip-offs of Scorsese’s work. Goodfellas, as it exists, tries to show how the gangster lifestyle can infect people and lead them down a path of self destruction. Henry, from the time he’s thirteen, sees the gangsters and their “freedom” as more of an opportunity than participation in society. Instead of trying to find a job, work hard, and make something of himself, he chooses crime, and while he succeeds for a while, it’s ultimately his undoing and he almost winds up whacked because of it.
Scorsese’s genius is showing these people, these characters, and getting the viewer to ask themselves are we really seduced by this freedom, or after watching this film do we stop and realize that there’s nothing truly glamourous about it. It’s a violent, narcissistic society that feigns community for the sake of personal gain. And apart from the great music, it almost always ends in disaster.
I still love Goodfellas, and I still love watching Goodfellas. What’s changed is that I no longer see these characters as any kind of anti-heroes. They’re just selfish-bastards dressed up in nice suits. Though this last point does make me reconsider being a gangster only because it’s hard as fuck to find a decent tailor.
I didn’t get a chance to mention it in the essay, but part of the appeal of Goodfellas for me is seeing Martin Scorsese’s mother play Tommy’s mother. It’s impressive to watch the woman not only handle her own alongside actors like Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta and not even bat an eye, but also, if you watch the scene carefully, steal the entire scene.
And if you don’t believe me here’s the actual scene:
And Scorsese himself talking about it: