“As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”
Henry Hill, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1955
Henry Hill was not a product of a screenwriter’s imagination in the Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) directed film “Goodfellas.” Instead, he was a real life associate in the Luchese organized crime family starting in his boyhood in the 1950s and lasting until 1980. When facing serious jail time for drug-trafficking, he turned government informant and entered the witness protection program. The testimony he provided during the course of several trials sent a multitude of gangsters to prison. Hill’s mob exploits were first chronicled in the 1986 book “Wiseguy” written by journalist Nicholas Pileggi. On June 12th of last month, the sixty-nine year old native New Yorker passed away in Los Angeles after suffering from a variety of health issues that included heart disease. The report of Hill’s death inspired me to re-watch Scorsese’s mafia masterpiece, “Goodfellas,” and make it the subject of this week’s blog.
Based on the previously mentioned book “Wiseguy,” the name of the movie was changed to “Goodfellas,” so there would be no confusing it with the television series “Wiseguy” that ran from 1987 through 1990. The 146 minute film, which is a mixture of biography, crime, drama, and thriller, premiered at the “Venice Film Festival” in September of 1990. Written for the screen by Pileggi and Scorsese, the film had an estimated budget of twenty-five million and went on to gross well over forty-six million dollars. The film showcases an exceptional cast; the most flamboyant portrayal is a role acted by Joe Pesci, whose character Tommy DeVito walks a fine line that oscillates between charm and violence. A harmless action that is misconstrued, the wrong words spoken in his presence, can release his fearsome temper resulting in deadly consequences. Pesci’s characterization of Tommy won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the Sixty-Third Annual Academy Awards. Robert DeNiro’s character of Jimmy “The Gent” Conway is the sort of guy who eagerly roots for the bad guys in movies and loves to steal anything he can get his hands on. He is Henry’s role model growing up and is quick to impart advice to Hill after he is ‘busted’ early on in the movie for selling stolen cigarettes and released a short time later: “You took your first pinch like a man and you learn two great things in your life. Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”
The story begins by introducing the viewer to the teenage version of Henry Hill played by Christopher Serrone (Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers). He is a Brooklyn, New York, youth who dreams big. He desperately yearns to escape the type of hard luck life being lived by his father; a man who does honest, hard work and has virtually nothing to show for it. The lack of money, Hill observes, is one of the reasons his father is always in a foul mood. Early on in the movie, the viewer witnesses the first in a series of choices that will ultimately lead to Hill’s downfall. When deciding to forgo his education he starts spending increasingly long hours at the neighborhood cab stand, a place where all of the local Mafioso’s gather. He becomes the errand boy to Tuddy, (Frank DiLeo) brother of the neighborhood boss, Paul Cicero, played by the very competent character actor Paul Sorvino. Henry aspires to a world where flashy cars, wads of cash, fawning women, and, most of all, respect are the order of the day.
Unlike numerous other films of the same genre, Scorsese views the inner workings of the Mafia in “Goodfellas” from the standpoint of someone who is merely there to observe and not make any moral judgments. Portraying the adult version of Henry Hill is actor Ray Liotta, (Identity) in this blogger’s opinion, in the best role of his career. The first person voiceover narration provided by Liotta’s character helps to serve this purpose. He offers the viewer an entry into a world most are more than likely familiar with from news reports, television shows and other movies, however, in “Goodfellas,” Scorsese gives the Mafia’s world of friendship, crime, and betrayal a look and a feel that is authentic and vibrant; it’s as if we are watching the exploits of life in the mob for the very first time. Lorraine Bracco, (The Sopranos) who brings a mixture of vigor and vulnerability to her role of Henry Hill’s wife Karen, also serves as a narrator. She lets the viewer know that once she marries Henry her entire life became restricted. With the exception of her parents, who are shown sparingly, Karen neither talks nor socializes with anyone who is not also involved with Henry’s extended ‘family.’ After a period of time, she begins to view the workings of her husband’s life as something normal and even speaks about how proud she is that he was the sort of man that was willing to go out and hustle in order to provide extra for his own.
During the course of the film Henry makes the transition from childhood day dreamer to someone who immerses himself completely into the fabric of everyday life inside the Mafia – or does he? Firstly, Henry is only half Sicilian, so according to long standing Cosa Nostra rules, he can never become a “made guy” because he’s half Irish. Right away, part of his ethnic background makes him an outsider who will be limited as to how far he can go within the power structure of the organization. In addition, Henry never partakes of the more gruesome aspects that accompany the lifestyle. He never allows his temper to reach a level where he murders someone out of sheer anger, he never calculatingly kills, nor is he instructed to carry out a hit on anyone. For example, there is his reaction regarding the murder of Billy Bats, who is played by gangster genre staple actor Frank Vincent (Casino). Hill is clearly uncomfortable with his peripheral involvement, which is his character’s saving grace and one of the few redeeming qualities he possesses; the fact that, somewhere in his alcohol and drug addled brain, mixed with his greedy thirst for money and possessions, he still maintains a conscience which can distinguish right from wrong.
The first of two very memorable scenes, which I always think back on in regard to “Goodfellas,” comes toward the end of the film and showcases one very frenetic day in the life of the film’s main protagonist. During the course of one twenty-four hour period, among other things, Henry cooks dinner for his family, is trying to get a drug deal in motion, toys with the emotions of his mistress in order to get what he needs, picks his brother up from his doctor’s visit – all of this while he is dead certain that a helicopter is following his every move. The narration during this part is for the most part devoid of having anything to do with the overall plot of the movie, nor does it transpire on screen in a linear manner. The viewer gets a sense of claustrophobia as it becomes increasingly apparent that the powers that be are slowly closing in on Henry and are just waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Henry feels guilt ridden – and he should – since as stated earlier, he does have a conscience; he is smart enough to know that the lifestyle he lives does not last forever. Pulling out of his driveway in route to get his drug mule on her way to deliver cocaine, he notices flashing lights and suddenly a gun is in his face instructing him not to move unless he wants to get his head blown off.
The second scene that made a lasting impression on me comes about as a direct result of the scene I just described in the previous paragraph. Having just been bailed out of jail, (thanks to his mother-in-law putting up her house as collateral), Henry frantically searches his home. He is looking for a very sizable amount of cocaine that he hid which, when sold, would have translated into thousands of much needed dollars. Unbeknownst to Henry, Karen flushed the drugs down the toilet while the house was being raided by the police. When Henry learns of this he lets loose with anger mixed with extreme sadness; he then informs Karen that the cocaine was the only money source that they had and that without it they’ve got nothing left. In that scene the final death blow is delivered to Hill’s character. He has no choice but to turn witness for the government and leave the gangster lifestyle in order to save his own life and that of his family. Whether he stayed on the streets, or went to jail, he was dead either way. He had violated two rules: selling drugs behind his boss Paul Cicero’s back after being expressly forbidden to do so; and, even though he didn’t actually do the killing, his taking part in the murder and disposal of the body of Billy Bats, who was a “made guy.”
Trivia buffs take note: The American Film Institute ranked “Goodfellas” number ninety-two on the list of the one-hundred greatest movies of all time and number two on the list of the ten greatest gangster films. In order to further immerse himself in the role of Henry Hill, while he was driving to and from the set, actor Ray Liotta would listen to cassette tapes of interviews of Hill conducted by “Wiseguy” author Nicholas Pileggi. Robert DeNiro’s character of Jimmy Conway was based on real life mafia associate Jimmy Burke, whose birth name is James Conway. The “Morrie’s Wig” commercial was actually the first scene filmed in the movie. Inspired by a low-budget commercial he saw that ran on New York City television for a window replacement company, Scorsese contacted the company and learned that the owner, Stephen Pacca, the spokesperson in the ad, had created the commercial himself. Scorsese hired Pacca to write, direct, and edit the commercial for “Morrie’s Wig,” so that it would look exactly like an authentic local advertisement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredibly effective soundtrack that permeates the crime infested landscape of the film. Scorsese has always been the type of director who uses well known music in his films as a counterpoint to the drama taking place on screen. I can envision him spending hours carefully selecting each track and making sure that it matches with the moments that it is being played to represent, unlike some films where it seems a soundtrack is compiled haphazardly.
The brash, compelling film is violent, visceral, and intelligent and, in this blogger’s opinion, captivates the viewer’s attention thanks to its narrative fluidity. Scorsese achieved that end by utilizing the services of the exceptionally talented cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who at current count, in addition to “Goodfellas,” has worked with Scorsese on six other films, including “The Color of Money” and “Gangs of New York.” The viewer follows Henry Hill on his journey from his humble beginnings to his successes and back down to nothingness thanks to his unyielding ambition and destructive appetites.
What the movie could not tell us, of course, was that after testifying against the mob, and entering witness protection with his wife and children, Hill reportedly lived in numerous places including, among others: Butte, Montana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Independence, Kentucky; Omaha, Nebraska; and Seattle, Washington. He and Karen divorced in 1989, and were eventually thrown out of witness protection sometime around 1990. After his expulsion from witness protection Hill began to live openly and continued to commit petty crimes and be involved in drugs. He often appeared on television and radio shows, and even wrote a cookbook. At the time of his death he lived in Topanga,California. It is amazing that he was never ‘whacked’ and somehow managed to die of natural causes.
For those of you who do not already have the film in your collection, but would like to, a special 20th Anniversary edition of the film was released on Blu-ray on February 16, 2010.
In closing, I’ll let Henry Hill’s own words at the end of the movie, spoken by Ray Liotta, sum up Hill’s feelings of life in the Mafia and what the world he so much coveted being a part of ultimately got him in the end:
“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. 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. 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.”