Memories fade. Just like films do. But of course there are films, just like certain memories, that still matter to us no matter how much time goes by. Sometimes they mean even more. They remind us of where we came from and why we want to be who we are in the first place. And they remind us of who we never became, making us think of what we did with our lives, if we really belonged somewhere and all the ways we screwed up while flying too close to the sun. And there’s no way to get back without feeling that pain. In those memories are the films that mean the most to us, giving us what we want from them, our dreams, our fantasies, the life we aspire to, the joy of being whatever we wanted to be, even if it was the very worst version of ourselves. The hope that we belong. At the start of his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES, the director quotes Frank Capra saying, “Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.” Capra was right, of course, because through that sickness of film we get better each time we see a new one, then the next film infects us even more, grabbing on to those dreams. But film is also food, at least it is for me, and the very best films nourish us, make us feel richer inside. These are the films that mean the most of all as we desperately try to remember.
Because as much as we might want to think that it doesn’t matter, facing the past is unavoidable. No matter how much we shouldn’t dwell on it we wind up going there, trying to understand what our past really was. One of my own personal flashbacks that feels like a dream now is the day back in May of ’89 when I saw Martin Scorsese shooting a few scenes from his new film, witnessing greatness happening in front of me. If you’ve seen that film, and of course you have, you assume the scenes in question take place out on Long Island in the Five Towns but they were actually being shot over in plain old New Rochelle in Westchester County, not far from where I lived in Scarsdale. The film didn’t have an official name at this point but since it was based on the Nicholas Pileggi book “Wiseguy” and there was an unrelated TV show with the same name, not to mention the recent Brian De Palma comedy WISE GUYS, it would likely be called something else. One crew member said the name was going to be “Made Men” but of course that changed by the time the film called GOODFELLAS came out a year and a few months and a lifetime later. But that night no one in the crowd watching knew this was going to be GOODFELLAS. That night it was just another movie, an idea that seems impossible now.
GOODFELLAS is one of the most purely enjoyable, addictive films imaginable but even that doesn’t sound like high enough praise. Even saying that it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen barely seems like enough but every single moment becomes its own drug, powerful enough to give me multiple rushes as I get sucked further and further into it over countless viewings. There’s a freedom to each moment which maybe means more right now than ever but that makes it even more powerful, an unrelenting energy that can’t be shaken. These are awful people, yes, but there’s a joy found in each shot, an excitement that keeps the camera moving to catch just the right snatch of conversation, the right glimpse of nasty behavior. The film never stops. I never want it to stop. If it ever stopped, it wouldn’t be GOODFELLAS. Based on the true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and the years spent in the mob alongside the likes of Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), the boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), showing us how Henry rises in the ranks moving to bigger scores, getting thrown in jail and back out again until it all comes crashing down because of how he couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop the drugs, the fucking around, couldn’t stop thinking that this would never end. With a screenplay by Pileggi & Scorsese mixed together through all the improvisation and embellishments with editor Thelma Schoonmaker making every single moment explode as it all connects, the film catches the feel of being in that life like no other with a power that keeps it going, never letting us catch our breath and it gets us to understand the appeal of how beautiful it can be to say go fuck yourself to everyone, that this is my life and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
“It was when I met the world,” Henry Hill tells us in that neverending voiceover about his first encounter with Jimmy Conway and that’s what it was like seeing GOODFELLAS when it finally opened in September 1990, thirty years ago. Thirty years. Within its totally unapologetic look at this world is the feeling of total freedom coming from Scorsese in how it’s all filmed, an excitement as if this is one long musical number with lots of criminal activity and food mixed in. Right from the start just before a trunk is opened when Joe Pesci pulls out that enormous carving knife, courtesy of his mother as we later learn, the movement seemingly timed perfectly with the camera panning away unimpressed, not bothering to linger as if to say it’s just a knife, what do you care. Every movement in the film and cut and action down to the tiniest gestures by an actor counts just as much, everything feels absolutely real, every laugh is bigger than expected because of the absurdity of how real it is. Every shot is part of that whirlwind, the feeling of being at home in the Bamboo Lounge with everyone there greeting Henry, giving us a taste of that freedom we all want out of life. In that one shot Scorsese places us in Henry’s point of view moving through the place past everyone then before we realize what’s going on puts Ray Liotta there in the shot to haggle over those fur coats, a moment that places us both inside and outside of the action all at once, maybe one of the best examples of doing whatever he wants to make this film and it probably breaks some sort of rule but what the fuck are rules, anyway? It’s the freedom that it shows off in being able to observe yet bring us right in there, presenting every moment as a document not just of the mob world but the feeling of being inside of it with the people around you that you think are the ones you’re loyal to, but you can never be sure.
Henry Hill knows this because he’s watching, always watching. That’s what he’s doing the first time he’s seen as a boy, when the film cuts right from the director’s credit to the close-up of his young eyes doing that watching, a reminder of whose eyes all this is about just as much Henry Hill, wanting to be nowhere else but across the street hanging out with those wise guys who seem to control the world. He grows up and watches when the deals are made, when the beatings happen and during those few moments confronted with his own awfulness he doesn’t do anything. It’s just onto the next score, the next card game, the next night out at the Copa and when called out on this by Catherine Scorsese as Tommy’s mother for never saying anything, just listening to them, he doesn’t even know how to react. His life is his own movie, these guys seem to want to mythologize everything they do into the movies even while sometimes telling us that things don’t happen the way they do in the movies. You can spend your life watching and Henry Hill wants to do that, maybe he’s even ok with doing only that since not being fully Sicilian will always keep him a little bit on the outside, always watching a little but as long as he’s close it means he gets to be somebody, whatever that means, living this life without a care, his friend Tommy making that legendary “How am I funny?” challenge to him and it’s all one big test that he cackles through. All of this information seen through those eyes of course gives it a documentary feel but one that’s combined with the flourishes of the stylization that Scorsese brings to each moment so everything goes together but, hell, you could say that we all see the world stylized in our own way crossed with the reality that’s there. This is just as Henry Hill sees it but it’s also the director’s version of that, filming all this better than anyone else possibly could, paying attention to every little detail so it all matters. Every moment is all about what happens in it so the way he famously doesn’t bother with matching, no point in keeping track of the exact location of a cigar between cuts, instead caring about the emotional connection between every single shot, those small touches to connect them together and the frenzy throughout it all keeps those moments alive, always adding to the reminders of how much we feel at home at least until it all goes wrong.
Everyone around Henry is watching people too, everyone is watching everyone, keeping tabs on each other, the wheels turning in Jimmy’s head as Cream plays on the soundtrack, the undeniable rage of Tommy when the wrong thing gets said to him, Paulie’s accusatory looks when he insists that he’s not going to die in jail, Karen and her eyes like Liz Taylor that finally catch Henry’s attention, the way Illeana Douglas looks at her with a tinge of sympathy at the wives’ get-together. Even the shots of small children that pop up throughout peering into this world to get a look at what Henry is part of, witnessing the behavior in front of them that they can barely comprehend. So many Scorsese characters through the years are about watching people around them with those giant close-ups of the eyes of Travis Bickle through the steady buildup to the madness that TAXI DRIVER culminates in. Even the growing freneticism of AFTER HOURS as Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett becomes increasingly paranoid over what any random person is thinking as they hold their glare on him, the dark comedy of that film seemingly informing how GOODFELLAS pushes that feeling to make the danger seem all the more real, when after fucking with so many people Henry Hill is the one being fucked with, drugs and helicopters everywhere, and he doesn’t find it so funny anymore.
The way the film tells us everything is never about plot but it is about the sheer amount of information in the voiceover, all the names we’ll never keep track of, the incessant and unending details of it all and, if you dig in between those lines, even a fondness for some of the people he’s ratted out. It’s the memory of the lives they lead, the diners they hang out in, all those nights of playing cards that lead to the worst of what we see in Tommy’s response to the one person who talks back to him. Those details matter as much as anything whether it’s the restaurant that will inevitably be run into the ground or the new couch in Henry and Karen’s home, so the specifics of the all-important Lufthansa heist and who has to do what barely make a difference. What matters is their world and how much of it appears to be set below all those overpasses and elevated trains always looming above, these guys ruling their own subterranean world in the outer boroughs as people overhead drive through to Manhattan or the rest of the world out there that doesn’t matter. It all makes me think how it’s been so long since I spent any time there that in my mind it’s always 1979 in Queens. Part of this is my own memory of visiting family who lived out there back then, part of it is this film. It probably has changed by now but I don’t have to believe it.
The men are in charge, always ready to snap back at the women if they get out of line not to mention fuck around on them, but it’s clear that the few people we see from the real world people aren’t much better, the way Karen’s mother screams at her and the normal, clean cut guy across the street who turns out to be a total piece of shit with no clue what he’s messing with. Some of the best moments hold a few seconds too long on the simmering rage that comes out of that especially from Tommy, not even letting his date get away with finding Sammy Davis Jr. attractive. The casual racism of these guys isn’t dwelled on but it’s there so when the one friendly civilian in the whole film is an African-American doctor taking pity on Henry with some valium the kindness stands out even more (the doctor is played by the now-familiar Isiah Whitlock Jr. the same year he turned up briefly in GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH which makes him, as far as I know, the only person who appeared in the two best films of 1990). The women accept the reality of all this but not always without a fight and when the film unexpectedly shifts to Karen’s point of view as she’s introduced in the middle of her first date with Henry it’s a jolt, one of the most important cuts in the whole film in telling us that someone like her notices what’s going on with Henry, the danger of it all attracting each of them to the other. And she willingly becomes a part of it, ready to hang on to the gun Henry used on the face of the guy who assaulted her to drive home the connection between them but so much of the dialogue in the entire film is about that give and take, the women always more than ready to laugh at all this even when there’s a joking-but-not-really vibe to the laughter on both sides. The instantly legendary Steadicam shot through the Copacabana is filmed like a dream for Karen, seducing her as she floats along with Henry leading her to the table just for them suddenly appearing in frame, but of course ending one of the greatest shots of all time on the glorious image of Henny Youngman there to tell a joke about all those fights between men and women that never end. The one sighting of him that I ever had in my life was at the Carnegie Deli, because of course it was. The things you remember.
There’s a danger always around that comes with that energy, those screams of agony carrying over into the next scene mixed with the comfort level that makes it all so welcoming in spite of everything. The smell of cigarette smoke and coffee always hovering in the air in all those bars and diners plus the pitch perfect feel of Morrie’s wig commercial so the New York flavor is always tangible, it feels like every TV is turned to Channel 11 WPIX with the local ads endlessly blaring between Abbott & Costello. And there’s all that food, both in the very careful way it’s all prepared (How many onions are too many, anyway? How much should you balance that out with the razor-sliced garlic?) along with the simple, perfect slam cut to dinner at Paulie’s and that giant plate being brought over to the table, one of the greatest in a movie already filled with the most memorable transitions in all of cinema. Even all these years later I still dream about this food, including when it's mixed in with the drug-induced frenzy of the big final day, the paranoia of those helicopters always on Henry's mind but always circling back to the the sauce that has to be stirred for that glorious final feast. Even the brief glimpse of the dinner has that feeling with Karen insistently and nonsensically telling her daughter “Please don’t feed the dog from the table from the plate on top of it,” easily one of the greatest lines in the whole film that passes by almost unnoticed, one of the best reminders that the food and all that nitpicking in the out of nowhere dialogue that probably wasn’t scripted is just as important as everything surrounding it. These things matter just as much as the drugs that have to go out to Pittsburgh, all part of this world which, in the end, is what Henry knows and it makes him the perfect person to share it with us.
The film does stop even if Henry Hill doesn’t want to stop, he just wants to keep talking about how great all this is. He’d talk after the credits if he could. But every Martin Scorsese picture stops eventually, that point in his movies when everything suddenly gets quiet, when the camera is no longer moving and the music cuts off to let us know things won’t be the same after. It’s the blandness of the office setting in that scene when Henry and Karen confer with the federal agent about witness relocation with no more hyperactivity between the cuts and the angles so cinematically it’s all just dead, all of the excitement turned off at the moment as everything reset in the zoom in/dolly out in the diner. Even today, GOODFELLAS feels like the most quintessentially Scorsese of all Scorsese films. It’s not a culmination of everything he does since it was too soon in his career at this point but it does feel like a fulfillment of all that promise of everything he was doing up until then, a perfect combination and renewed sense of freedom unlike anything his films had expressed before, mixing his life and the films he cared about leading to every Scorsese ending that cuts to the credits with the main character isolated, hidden away from the world and everyone he ever knew as things go on without him, forced to reckon with the actions of his life even while never fully admitting what was so wrong about it in the first place, never apologizing for who he chose to be.
There’s no introspection to any of this, that’s what Martin Scorsese films written by Paul Schrader are for. Instead the feeling is sheer, dazzling exhilaration mixed with a reportage that always keeps an unapologetic distance no matter how repellent the behavior is. Starting with his remake of CAPE FEAR
released only fourteen months later Scorsese shifted the aspect ratio for the majority of his films to 2.35 Scope and the feel of them largely got slicker, bigger, often reveling in the movie-movieness of it all. GOODFELLAS holds onto the roughness so it feels perfectly at home on those streets, with all these people that it loves and hates at the same time. Even with the backing of a major studio the film often feels like it was made on the run, desperately keeping any anachronisms out of frame but in the end who cares if a license plate falls off, not when everything else matters so much more. The deeper meaning comes not from anything these people say or do but from the music that, just as it does for any of us, means whatever you want it to mean when the mix tape of a life is put together. Jerry Vale performs at the Copa, Bobby Darin is heard as dinner gets prepared in jail, Nilsson to get Henry going at 6:55 AM, Donovan singing in “Atlantis” about being way down below the ocean. That’s where these guys are anyway, in their world below all those overpasses ready to bash in the head of anyone who tells them to go get their shinebox all the way to the haunting, wordless sounds of the “Layla” piano break as we view Jimmy’s carnage, that point when the good times are over and there’s nothing left to do but look at all those dead bodies, people too stupid to have known it was going to end like this but you feel a tinge of sympathy anyway. All they wanted was the world, after all, they just couldn’t keep quiet about it.
And it’s the Billy Ward and his Dominoes version of “Stardust” that plays when the film flash forwards to Henry as an adult in 1963, a song that came back again a few years later in another version at the very end of CASINO, each time reflecting back on each other. The lyrics say it all about the dreaming of a song, the stardust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by and all that, how this film looks back with all the joy but also an emptiness felt, asking what did it all mean and there’s no answer except for what’s in those words. That’s the past, remembering those days of thirty years ago. What it meant was what we saw, what we experienced, what we thought we had until all that is left is the dream of getting it back. Of course, at the end of the film when he’s fled from the life into the bland nothingness of witness relocation Henry Hill hasn’t learned anything and he still doesn’t care. He just knows that he misses it. As far as he’s concerned the life as a schnook is just one more beating he has to take.
The charm of Ray Liotta comes through just as much as the rage, putting so much in his eyes, the eyes doing that watching but also as he crosses that suburban street with the gun in his hand and his unstoppable energy keeps going all the way through, walking that tightrope of being us, the audience surrogate, understanding what this all is but still loving it, embracing this world as long as it lasts. Robert De Niro takes what is basically a supporting role and makes it more crucial than you ever expected, a symbol of the star power that Henry wants but De Niro is willing to stand off to the side in scenes sometimes laughing his ass off, just waiting for the fight moment when he can explode in moments like the way he won’t stop when laying in on Johnny Roastbeef about that damn Cadillac. It’s the little moments in the small things he gets annoyed by as well as the small, unsung pleasure found in the way De Niro says the word ‘hoof’ in a certain scene. Joe Pesci in his Oscar-winning role brings all the power imaginable, embracing the simmering rage that builds as Tommy sits there, waiting for his moment, even during the casual joking with his mom and during all those viewings over the years it's those moments that stand out at least as much as the rest of it along with the unexpected shame in getting blood on Henry’s floor. Lorraine Bracco and her own eyes do just as much, almost like she's out of a silent movie at times and she becomess the counterpoint to everything Henry does as she stands off to the side watching, forcing him to take some accountability and during the growing desperation that becomes so palpable during her best moments she seems absolutely possessed. It’s that feeling of anger bubbling up that makes every moment genuine and even when it feels like Paul Sorvino is doing almost nothing in his scenes, which I mean in the best possibly way, when his head moves an inch it means everything and whatever he isn't saying is right there in his look. Just like the songs, there are way too many people to mention in their small roles but there’s the unforgettable Chuck Low as Morrie, Frank Sivero as Frankie Carbone with the Mutt and Jeff act in his scenes with Pesci along with Kevin Corrigan as Henry’s brother stirring that sauce. And there’s the women who get caught up in all this particularly Welker White as the babysitter intent on retrieving her hat or Debi Mazar stumbling as she backs up when Henry approaches her but especially Illeana Douglas, not that I have any idea who that is, who has only a few lines but just as much as the best performances in the film not only clearly gets the joke but knows exactly how far to take it and how dangerous that can be.
As a film, GOODFELLAS is everything. It still feels like everything, all these decades later. There’s no way to put all that it means to me into a few paragraphs, the excitement and dream of this life mixed in with the ugliness of it all. But I don’t need films to make me feel better. I need them to make me feel alive, to find that life in every other film that I see, searching for that next hit. To nourish me. To remind me. To keep the disease that is film going inside of me. The legend of Martin Scorsese is undeniable by now but even on that the day he was directing scenes in New Rochelle (this included the phone booth scene where Henry picks up a sobbing Karen followed by stuff outside of her house nearby) he was no doubt as obsessed as always, watching it all come together, turning this into the masterpiece that it became. A film that asks what did you want out of the world and how close did you come. And how many ways did you manage to fuck it all up. There’s nothing redeeming about Henry Hill, not at all. Is there anything redeeming about you or me? Is there anything redeeming about that one person you can’t stop thinking about? Looking at it now, looking at it always, GOODFELLAS is about where the world was going. It’s about where the world is now. Strip it all down, sell it for parts, let the people die, take the money. Who gives a fuck, what are you gonna do, complain? Right now that destruction is the American way.
This is a film about where all that came from, where the people in this world came from. “Prejudiced against Italians,” the New Yorker in me sometimes thinks, hearing it in Joe Pesci’s voice, flashing back to the afternoon when I took my dad to see this film. Once I posted a photo on Twitter of myself taken long ago and someone asked why I looked like an extra in this movie. Hey, when you’re an Italian-Jew named Peter, not Paul, that grows up in New York it comes with the territory. It’s a feeling I’ve had a few other times over the years but we won’t talk about that right now. Flying too close to the sun gets you hurt and the pain doesn’t go away. With Tommy’s brief appearance dressed as a gangster of the old school to fire his gun at Henry at the end that's right out of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY it’s as if Scorsese is saying every film made since that one (not to mention the birth of sound with THE JAZZ SINGER, playing on the TV for Karen earlier) has been building to his. He’s saying this film, this life, is every film and every life. And he's right. But that shot of Tommy is also the past, firing at Henry, firing at us, never allowing us to forget who we were. Because you can’t outrun your own past any more than you can outrun all the films you’ve ever seen and why would you want to. The past barely matters at all. It matters more than anything. Knowing that both things are true may be the only way to move forward.
Man, you have written a lot of great pieces, but every line in this one resonates. Thank you.
Thank you so much for saying that, Larry. This was the first thing anyone said to me about the piece, so what you said is an enormous relief and greatly appreciated.
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