Goodfellas: Three Decades Of Life In The Mafia

A young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) grows up in the mob and works hard to rise through the ranks in the New York City Mafia during the 1960s and 1970s. He likes his life of riches and luxury, unaware of the carnage it causes. A drug problem and many mistakes halt his climb to the top.The movie shows the mob lives of three vital figures during that time. First off, there’s Henry Hill. He’s a local kid, essentially raised by gangsters; from parking the cars of bigshot mobsters to becoming bigger a high level player in a neighbourhood of the roughest and toughest.

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is a purebred hoodlum with an anger problem, who turns out to be Henry’s best mate. Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway (Robert DeNiro) introduces the two of them as kids, and runs some of the biggest robberies New York has ever seen. There’s a fourth player called Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) who is basically the kingpin who hates conferences. Heck! The guy didn’t even own a phone. He’d rather do things face-to-face with a nod added in, for good measure. Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas is the gangster biography drama depicting the life of Henry Hill and his experience of thirty years in the mob, going from rags to riches.

The iconic photo of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) which has become the brunt of so many memes (Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

The iconic photo of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) which has become the brunt of so many memes
(Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

From the start of his career, Martin Scorsese has excelled with the crime genre whether that be your period crime flicks like Casino, Goodfellas and The Gangs Of New York or modern crime dramas like The Departed or The Wolf Of Wall Street. But we also have period pieces like Mean Streets based on his knowledge of Italian-Americans’ in lives of crime, set in the Little Italy sector of New York. Goodfellas is my favourite mob picture of all time and has taken its place among many lists of great films. The mob genre is often criticized of glamourizing crime, which it does to a degree. But at the same time, it shows you its harsh nature. It’s shows you the good, the bad and the outright ugly.

This is not more evident than in Goodfellas. I read “Wiseguy” on which the movie is based, and I was impressed. Goodfellas not only works as a standalone picture, but it also pays homage to the source material. The film is essentially a page-for-page take on the biography. I love the book, and the film is just as good. Goodfellas is Mean Streets with more cinematic freedom, more money and more violence. The cast is flawless, with great camerawork (love the continuous kitchen shot that goes into the club) as well as great editing and that textbook masterclass Scorsese soundtrack. Regardless of whether you hate the gangster lifestyle or despise violence, the filmic quality on display throughout this movie is undeniable. Watching Goodfellas for me is “better than being President Of The United States.” It’s a direct challenge to The Godfather, and in my controversial opinion, it’s the better film.

"Being a gangster was being better than being President of the United States." (Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

“Being a gangster was being better than being President of the United States.”
(Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

Scorsese is one of those directors who makes class film after class film, but I don’t believe he’s made a better film than Goodfellas in his whole career. The secret to gangster survival is to “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut”, said so aptly by Jimmy Conway (DeNiro) to Henry Hill (Liotta). Goodfellas turned twenty-five last year and it still has that cult following which goes to show that it’s a timeless classic that only gets better with age, amidst the: ball-busting, body-burying, getting made and the sitting round the table for dinner with your mother while you’ve got a made-man dying in the trunk of your car, full of stab wounds. Not to forget to mention Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy getting his knickers in a twist when one guy buys his wife a fur coat, followed by lines like “I don’t need this heat” said by Jimmy in typical DeNiro fashion.

Henry Hill had it all and then lost it, because of too many lines of coke as well as another line of bad decisions. With mob dramas like this, it never ends well. A young kid who wanted to live a life luxury, which he did, but then lost it all because he got ostentatious and greedy with the: cars, women and making mega bucks. Not to forget to mention Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos) as Karen, his paranoid wife. She didn’t like Henry with his girlfriends. “Friday night at the Copa was for the girlfriends. Saturday night was for the wives.” someone says in the film. It’s in this circle of people where everyone knows everyone, a café society if you will. Everything is about family, and family is beyond the ties of blood, and more along the lines of loyalty. We see this in Tommy and Jimmy who are Henry’s true brothers with Big Paulie (Sorvino) as his father figure.

The just-married Henry (Liotta) and Karen (Bracco) (Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

The just-married Henry (Liotta) and Karen (Bracco)
(Goodfellas, Warner Bros.)

Goodfellas wins with all its performances. But more so with the story, as it doesn’t glorify the mob life. It shows it in its entirety with the good and the bad, including the importance of family with many dinners, parties and how far friendships can go before the cookie crumbles. Looking past the mafia, it’s an adult crime drama about adult problems and what characters can do to combat them. Along with Scarface, The Godfather Trilogy, The Untouchables and Once Upon A Time In America, Goodfellas is up there with all the mob greats. Goodfellas makes you root for the bad guys, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Once you watch Goodfellas, you’ve popped your mob movie cherry