During the Prohibition era, my grandfather was a young assistant DA for the city of Easton, PA, a sin city that specialized in prostitution, but was connected to all kinds of organized crime. He was part of a successful effort to clean up the city, and while it wasn’t exactly the exploits of Eliot Ness, he fought the mob and won. I learned that story when I was young, and because of it, I never quite understood our culture’s fascination with organized crime. I get there is a seductive nature to it, but ultimately nothing really commends a life of thievery, violence and victimization. I enjoy crime movies, sure, but the ones I enjoy most resist the urge to fall in love with their subjects. And that’s why among my favorite crime movies, Goodfellas is very near the top of the list.
The story is a biographical treatment of the life of Henry Hill, a career criminal from Brooklyn who at an early age is dazzled by the money, freedom and respect commanded by the neighborhood capo, Paul “Paulie” Cicero and his lieutenants, James “Jimmie the Gent” Conway and Tommy DeVito. Of mixed ancestry, Hill cannot become a made man with this crew, but he’s respected enough to become the next best thing, a guy known, respected and trusted by the crime syndicate…a goodfella. Along with Conway and DeVito, Hill carries out innumerable criminal jobs, culminating in the historic $6 million Lufthansa Heist from JFK airport. But for a guy like Hill, who marries and settles down with a nice family and house in the suburbs, a crook’s life always catches up, no matter how gilded it may be. Hill’s philandering causes friction with his wife Karen and during a long stretch in prison, Hill both begins using and dealing in drugs, something which will ultimately lead to his expulsion from Cicero’s crime ring, and puts him under the crosshairs of his former associates. Reeling in drug-fueled paranoia, Hill is busted for drug trafficking, and fearing for his life, enters the witness protection program and provides enough testimony and evidence for his crime buddies to spend the rest of their lives in jail. And as for him? He gets to live out his days as a regular citizen, but under the watchful eye of the law. He is, in his own estimation, a nobody. He is right.
The glory of this movie isn’t its plot but watching it unfold through the rich characters of its cast. Hill, Conway and Devito are played by Ray Liotta, Robert DeNero and Joe Pesci, respectively, in a trio of performances that would become things of legend. Directed by Martin Scorcese, the movie’s beating heart is its organic dialogue, developed from extensive ad-libbing during rehearsal, and curated by Scorcese, who has a gift for capturing the highs and lows of streetwise hustlers, thieves, crooks and killers. This is a masterfully told story of one guy’s rise and fall through a life of crime, noting just how easy it really can be for a starstruck kid to give up a straight life in favor of one that promises easy power and fortune. But we also see that this is a life of sudden and inexplicable violence, where vows of loyalty and fidelity are only as good as the mood one is in at the time, and where there is no real future to bank on because tomorrow might bring a visit from the cops or a bullet to the head.
The movie starts in media res, with Hill, Comway and DeVito heading upstate to dispose of a made guy from the Gambino crime family killed by the trio in a barroom round of smack-talking gone too far. And while we rewind to see the rest of Hill’s life leading up to and beyond that moment, we’re given a true introduction to the kind of life Hill has accepted: one in which you might spend six nights of the week laughing it up in fine suits with your friends at the Copacabana, but that seventh, you’re driving two hundred miles each way to bury some mope in the boonies. And even then, you’re heading back to re-bury the body six months later when you learn the land you dumped the corpse in is slated for commercial redevelopment. These guys all know that for killing a made guy, they could themselves be killed at any moment, so one might think they’d always be looking over their shoulders. But they don’t, and the reason isn’t because they’re invincible or brave, but because they do so much for which they could be killed or imprisoned, after a while, they just get numb to it.
There is a great sequence after the Luthansa heist when Conway gets paranoid and starts killing off just about everybody who had anything to do with the job, with Hill being a rare exception. The montage in which we see henchman after henchman slain simply for wanting more money (or for daring to spend it) proves that for all their talk of honor and loyalty, these goodfellas are the living embodiment of there being no honor among thieves. And this all sets up a moment of truth near the film’s conclusion, when the final reckoning for that barroom incident comes down in a most sudden, unseen and graphic manner. What makes the moment so great is how it compares to the Lufthansa murders. These same guys who rubbed out their entire crew of accomplices over a pile of loot are at first outraged at the manner in which the world of organized crime deals its justice. But eventually, they come to accept it because they know they’ve been on the giving end of the same kind of treatment for most of their adult lives. Walking into a room expecting one thing and getting shot in the brain isn’t some great tragedy. It’s an occupational hazard. Some occupation. Some life.