One Liner Review:
A Gangster movie that welcomes the audience into the experience and the lifestyle while spinning an elaborate tale of greed and deception.
Goodfellas is a gangster movie that isn’t afraid to glorify the life of a gangster. While using voice over to explain to us the spoils and perks of this profession, the movie also doesn’t hold back on presenting the horrors and brutality of this life. It manages to present both sides and find the perfect balance by giving us the self portrait of a man who feels like he doesn’t quite belong, yet has to watch every vicious moment of it and reserve his judgment. That man is Henry hill, played by Ray Liotta as a mild mannered family man just trying to find his place in this group of cool, but violent and sadistic tough guys.
He’s not a killer and he’s not a psycho and that means he’s basically an impostor, just pretending to be one of them. But these guys are his best friends and he is so in love with the world of the gangster and the life style of being treated like a king that he just goes with it. The movie opens with a violent, bloody trunk murder. Director Martin Scorsese stages the scene beautifully, by playing off the comedy of having the three guys in the car, pretending as if they don’t know what’s making the noise in the back. When they do stop the car and open the trunk, their weapons come flying out. Joe Pesci uses a butcher knife to get in close and salvage the brutality of it all. Robert Deniro uses a gun, not wanting to get his hands dirty (similar to a scene later on, where he cuts ties to anyone involved in a job he pulled, by just having them all neatly killed). And Ray Liotta, … well. He just shuts the trunk. He’s the driver who turns his back and pretends what he’s seeing is not actually happening at all. Henry Hill might seem like the least gangster of these guys, and that’s exactly the point. He’s a fish out of water, taking us into the world, and he narrates the entire movie. He’s also the character we can relate to and experience this life with the most, simply because he’s the most rational and realistic of the bunch. Tommy (Joe Pesci’s) the killer. Jimmy (Deniro’s) the schemer. And Liotta is just the soldier who does what he’s told. He’s the one with the conscience, although he’s certainly in no rush to do anything about it.
Scorsese carefully depicts the good and the bad, giving us the golden lifestyle with all of it’s treasures, but then the horrors of seeing hill’s good friends get killed by the guys who are supposed to be like his family. There are glamorous moments like the Copa Cabana steady cam sequence, which has the best tracking movement since Orson Welles invented the idea in touch of evil. And then there are brutal moments, made ten times worse because they seem to come out of nowhere.
Part of the appeal of this movie is that these guys are scary and unpredictable and completely threatening. We don’t even know if Henry is going to make it out alive. And the guys who seem most likely to kill him are his best friends. Joe Pecsi won an Oscar for playing Tommy, the loose cannon, and he is so evil and so scary that it’s the role which single handedly makes this movie. Just look at his eyes, as he walks up to Billy batts (frank Vincent’s single scene in the film, where he gets to leave an unforgettable mark). Tommy’s a small guy, who clearly took shit when he was younger (spit shine Tommy), and now he’s out to get back at the world. Deniro is also superb as the calm, relaxed gangster who is just angry as Tommy, but more in control of the way he handles it. And poor Henry Hill gets in so over his head that he turns to drugs as his only means of dealing with what’s happening all around him.
Scorsese paints this picture with a master’s brush. He has all the right music, all the most perfectly timed freeze frames, and all the most beautifully choreographed shots. The voice over of Henry hill is brilliantly written with jokes, analogies, and genuine feelings of uncertainty and concern. Most gangster movies are about the tough guys. From the godfather to Scarface, the tough guys are the cool cats and so they’re the stars of the films. They’re the Humphrey Bogart’s, running their own cafe’s. But Goodfellas is something different. Henry hill wants to be one of the cool guys, but he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. It’s a complete contradiction; an oxymoron that becomes more and more apparent as hill gets older, wiser, and less thrilled about hanging out with murderers.
Goodfellas is the greatest depiction of the gangster world because these are real guys pulling real crimes (none of them lives in a mansion, for example), and because it allows the viewer to take on the point of view of an outsider looking in. Henry Hill is almost like a fly on the wall and Scorsese masterfully invites not only hill, but also the audience to become a part of the world and slide into the criminal culture, making best friends out of brutal killers.
Full Length Analysis:
Goodfellas is a movie that brings the viewer into the world of the gangster through the eyes of a guy who is not a gangster at all. Henry Hill is on the inside, and trusted by these mafia figures, but he is not a killer like they are. He has one violent scene in the whole movie, and that’s when he uses his gun to smash the face of a guy who just accosted his wife. It is a completely justifiable act, and it shows that he is not weak, as we might have thought, but is just not as reckless as the other gangster figures we come across during the movie. He is not as insane and free-willed about killing as his friends are.
The movie is extremely violent, but Henry is the cause of very little of the violence. It is his friend, Tommy, played by Joe Pesci with terrifying conviction, who kills most of the figures we come across, from Mouri to Stacks to Spider, an innocent kid who offends Tommy and pays the price. Jimmy Conway, meanwhile, is Henry’s mentor, (played by Robert DeNiro with a more quiet, deadly conviction than Tommy), is also responsible for a number of murders. After a well-planned and perfectly pulled off robbery is completed, and it seems like it should be time to celebrate, Jimmy begins killing and having everybody associated with the robbery killed. Bodies of men we have spent time with throughout the film are suddenly found in dumpsters, meat lockers, and sitting upright in the seats of a parked Cadillac. Jimmy is responsible for each one of these brutal murders. So it is Henry’s friends and not Henry, himself, who are the cause for the violence in this world of gangsters while Henry stands by and watches and takes it all in.
Long before the brutal killing rampages, Henry is just a kid. That’s where Henry’s story begins. On his eye. A close-up on his eye as he watches gangsters rule the streets outside of his window. But even before that, there’s an introduction, as the movie opens with our three leads, (Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy) driving in a car at night. They are tired and some of them are even sleeping. Nobody is talking. Henry sits behind the wheel, always in their service no matter what the task. The car is still and quiet. And then we get the noises. The banging.
The best thing about this scene is that the guy’s act like they have no idea what it is. Since we, the audience, have no idea at this time that there is a guy in their trunk, director Martin Scorsese has all three of his characters act as if they don’t know either. With such a move, he is cleverly toying with our expectations and suspicions. Especially when he has them start making ridiculous guesses, such as, “Did you hit something?” Scorcese’s motive for doing this is to make the audience as unsuspecting as possible, but the characters have a motive as well. They don’t want to give Billy Batts, the man in their trunk, the satisfaction. Even as he’s trapped in they’re dying, they don’t want to admit that he’s the reason for them to have to stop and pull over. So, while their refusal to acknowledge what is really happening is quietly telling us a lot about these characters, Scorsese is leaving us with absolutely no idea of what is up ahead. He’s setting us up for a shocking moment.
Suddenly the trunk opens and there is a bloody body in there, still moving and moaning, all wrapped up in a white table cloth that accentuates the sharp red of the man’s blood. When he made Taxi Driver, close to two decades earlier, Scorsese had to mute the red color of his blood during the most brutal scene, and make it look more brown than red, for the ratings board. He is back with a vengeance in Goodfellas, opening the film up with this vibrant and powerful red blood and doing it in such an unsuspecting way that it hits you like a punch in the face. His opening the movie this way is Scorcese’s way of getting back at the ratings board that made him alter the blood colors in Taxi Driver.
So, we watch the guys approach the trunk and it pops open and the bloody mess of the body is there. Before we have the chance to take this in and think about it, Tommy pulls a steak knife out and stabs the guy over and over again. The sound of the blade going into the body from such close range, and slicing into it, resonates in our ears. Then Jimmy pulls out a gun and steps forward to shoot the body a number of times. Tommy stabs, Jimmy shoots, and Henry… he shuts the trunk. This opening scene clearly depicts Henry’s status in the group.
Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill as the good son. He is the star of the movie, and he is by no means a saint, despite appearing that way when compared to his associates. Henry cheats on his wife and does crazy amounts of drugs, but he is
Still not a psycho killer like his friends are. For this reason, despite his flaws, he is the character that we, the audience, can relate to most. To help us look past his flaws, Henry never mentions them in voice-over. He talks about every detail of every little thing, such as every food he makes and how it is prepared, but he never talks about his flaws or anything else that would require him to show he has a conscience. He’ll never say in voice-over, “I knew cheating on Karen was wrong,” or “I couldn’t believe Tommy killed Spider.” The reason why such comments are never heard is because Henry never thinks them. His mind has deteriorated so much throughout the film from both the drugs and from becoming desensitized to the violence, that the thoughts of morality he should be thinking don’t even enter into his mind.
By not addressing his own flaws in voice-over, there is a little less emphasis and attention paid to what a dirt-bag Henry truly is. The flaws seem to be a given, as if they just go with the territory. And since he never addresses them in voice-over, we can’t exactly say, “Henry knows the drugs are bad for him, so he’s an idiot for not stopping.” This approach to the non-mention of the drugs in voice-over is exactly what it’s like in Henry’s head. There are so many other things going on all around him that he doesn’t have time to spend thinking about the drugs. He just does them and moves on.
If Henry gets off on drugs, using cocaine as a way to look at the things his friends do as if they aren’t really that bad, then Tommy gets off on killing. He’s the little guy who was probably picked on as a kid, and has become a tough guy bully ever since. Throughout the movie he’s killing, more and more, as if it’s his way of getting a fix. And most of the time he’s not provoked at all. But when Billy Batts starts busting his balls one night, about the way Tommy was as a kid, you know the big guns are going to come out. It’s our only hint at how Tommy really was a kid who others laughed at and gave a hard time to. And Billy Batts meets his end just for mentioning it.
The Billy Batts scene is very different from any other murder in the film because of the complexity surrounding it. When Tommy enters the restaurant, ready to strike on Batts with the look of death in his eyes, Henry tries to hold Tommy back. It is Jimmy Conway who gets in Henry’s way and enables Tommy to do as he wishes. In this case, that means beating Billy Batts nearly to death.
In a sense, Tommy is like the child of the movie, being pulled from two sides by the mother and the father, or the angel and the devil. Jimmy is the one who opens the gate and helps Tommy kill Batts. Henry is the one who tries to stop it. Since it is the killing of Batts, a made man who by mafia laws should not be touched, that ultimately leads to Tommy being killed, it is Henry, and not Jimmy, who is looking after Tommy’s life in this scene. Tommy chooses to go with his id, despite the consequences, rather than to think rationally, and he chooses Jimmy over Henry, thus choosing to break mob rules, kill Billy Batts, and sign his own death warrant.
Deniro does not play Jimmy as a devil figure, sitting on Tommy’s shoulder throughout the movie, but only in the Batts scene. It is worth noting, however, that it is Jimmy who eggs Tommy into killing Spider. After Spider tells Tommy to go fuck himself, it is Jimmy who makes the biggest deal out of Spider’s insult. In disbelief that Tommy might sit back and take this, Jimmy shouts out, “What is the world coming to?” He wants Tommy to respond, even if this doesn’t mean killing Spider, but just throwing a critical beating the boy’s way. When Tommy does kill Spider, Jimmy gets angrier with him than anyone else in the room. He does not, ever, accept any responsibility for what has just happened. An instigator and a hypocrite, Jimmy practically takes Tommy by the hand and leads him to his death by teaching the boy no self-control throughout the movie.
Similar to the Spider scene, Jimmy Conway leads and helps Tommy kill Billy Batts every step of the way. Both the Batts and Spider sequences use the same formula. Tommy is insulted. Jimmy gets as upset or more upset than Tommy about this, and Jimmy either leads or helps Tommy kill the offender. Jimmy’s significance in the Billy Batts scene ranges from him holding Henry back from stopping Tommy to Jimmy being the one who keeps Batts talking and drinking at the bar, into the after hours of the night, in accordance to Tommy’s words. “Keep him here for a while,” Tommy mutters to his friend, before leaving the bar. Jimmy does exactly as asked and spends the next few hours humoring Batts, while knowing full well what are in store for him once Tommy returns.
Later in the film, when the news comes that Tommy is going to be made into a mob boss, Jimmy is happier than anyone. It is here that we realize, (if we haven’t done so already), that Jimmy is the father figure in this dysfunctional family and that he spends the movie raising two sons. He’s raising them to be bad and to disregard human life. The son who listens gets killed as a result of listening and following without questioning. The son who questions and ultimately decides against his father, ends up the victor of the movie as he stands up against his father, breaks away from the mafia, and sells Jimmy out to the FBI.
If Henry is one of the sons, than Paulie, played by Paul Soriano, is the grandfather. He’s the guy who moves slow (like an old man), says little, and who everybody respects and loves. For much of the first half of the movie, he says absolutely nothing at all. “If Paulie moved slow,” Henry tells us in voice-over, “it was because Paulie didn’t have to move for anyone.”
How, exactly, Henry got the job at the cabstand, working for the mob, we never find out. But he starts working in there, as a kid, and the movie starts using freeze frame to tell its story as the screen and the action taking place on it suddenly stand still. One of the freeze frames comes on Henry’s father whipping him with a belt. Another freezes on the cars, that Henry just poured gasoline all over, exploding. The freeze comes right at the moment of explosion with the red flames in the air and Henry running away from them, Another freeze frame comes on the post-man having his head shoved into an oven right before it might have gone in. Each of these freeze frames comes right in the middle of something violent. Mid-whipping, mid-explosion, and mid-head shoving. We don’t get to see whether they do indeed put his head in the oven or not. We don’t get to see when the gangsters let the post-man go, and he runs away from the cabstand. Scorsese intentionally deprives us of seeing any aftermath and getting any calm feeling to know that it is all over. We never get that. We never get to
Take a breath and relax. We don’t get to see the father walking away after whipping Henry, and know that it is over. We don’t get to see the gangsters come back to their destroyed cars after the explosion. Scorsese freezes during the climactic moments and never lets these explosive feelings settle down. Instead, he just cuts away to a new scene. This technique, of freezing the screen during the violent climaxes and then moving away to something else, keeps the tone of the movie very intense because there is never a sigh of relief that the violent event is over.
The final freeze frame is on kid Henry, on the courtroom stairs, after he has beat an arrest charge and is being let free. The freezing is significant here, because it is as if this is the most explosive moment of them all, when he has beat the system and is first realizing that maybe cheating the law really is the way to go. Henry later tells his wife in the movie, “You don’t go to jail unless you want to.” By the end of the movie, he has found out how wrong that statement was.
After that last freeze-frame on the court-room steps, following Paulie’s comment, “You broke your cherry,” meaning that this will be the first of many future arrests and beating of the cases, we don’t get another freeze frame for a while. In fact, we don’t get any more at all. The next time we get anything close to a freeze frame with voice over playing during it, is at the end of the movie, with Henry on the witness stand of another courtroom. Only things are a little different this time. The screen and everyone on it freezes, except for Henry. He gets up and walks around the courtroom and talks to the camera. Changing the freeze frame style to this new method has some relevance to what has taken place in the story. Considering the previous freeze frame was also of Henry at a courthouse, and that one was after Henry had beat the system, this new type of freeze frame shows us that what he learned in that earlier courthouse scene has finally been corrected.
When the screen freezes at the end, and Henry walks around the courtroom while everyone else is still, Henry has not beaten the system again. In fact, this time he has joined it. He’s become a part of it, going against what he used to believe and now ratting out his friends (as the movie even uses one of the trial lawyers to define the term “rat”). But there is also reason for why the freeze-frame is a different style in this point of the movie. The voice-over story at the beginning was told alongside us watching other stories happen. In other words, two stories were constantly taking place at once. There was the story we were listening to in Henry’s voice-over, and then there was the story we were watching on the screen. For example, when we were listening to Henry tell us in voice-over about how the neighborhood kids carried home his mother’s groceries out of respect, we are watching Henry run around, blowing up all of the cars. Two stories running at once. The reason was because there was no time to waste amidst all of the excitement and because everything glided together with an ongoing fluidity. That was the smooth style of the gangster, especially as Henry saw it at the time. The editing style represents how Henry felt.
But at the end of the movie, after Henry has turned on his friends, things aren’t so smooth anymore. He no longer has the power and authority to freeze the frame whenever he wants and make us watch a still image while listening to what he has to say. Instead, for him to get our attention, he can freeze the screen, but he has to stay in it, no longer an all powerful voice narrating flashbacks of his past. Time and reality have caught up to him. Now, Henry has to get up and walk around. Not an all-powerful voice, not a guy sitting in a chair, (like a King’s throne), but a guy who has to get up out of his seat and walk over to us just to talk to us. How the mighty have fallen.
It is because Henry is the least malicious of the gangster crew, and because it is his voice-over and character that bring us into this world, that the gangster lifestyle is made to seem almost justifiable to us. Karen, Henry’s wife, uses her voice-over to analyze the situation when she says, “they were blue-collar guys and this was the only way they were going to earn extra money.” Henry speaks of Paulie and puts into simple terms what the man does when he says, “All Paulie did was offer protection to guys who couldn’t go to the cops.”
When we watch Jimmy stealing from truckers, we see either him putting money into the wallets of the truck drivers whose trucks he is stealing, or we see the truck drivers actually bringing their trucks over to Jimmy. They hand their goods over voluntarily, not because they are scared, but because they want to work with him. This way of stealing from the big companies is good for the drivers, the little guys, as well. It has a sort of Robin Hood feel to it, and watching one truck driver after another come to Jimmy and hand over their goods makes it feel like he is not really stealing. In these ways, Scorsese makes us see the lifestyle as not all that corrupt and evil. Of course the movie will get more violent and fly farther off the handle of self-control as the film goes on, but in the first half of the film, we see the world through Henry’s eyes to such an extent that since it is not an evil existence to him, it does not seem that way to the audience either.
Jimmy, Tommy, and Paulie all pull Henry in different directions and try to alter his path throughout the movie. But there is another character that has as significant an impact on Henry’s life as any of them. It is Karen Hill, Henry’s wife, played by Lorraine Bracco. The movie is not about her at all, but it is about using her to show a different side of Henry. We can tell this because there are scenes which would have been important to Karen’s story, that are blatantly left out of the film. For example, we never see her start taking drugs or even in the early stages of drug use. Instead, one day, out of nowhere, she looks all coked up while Henry is doing business with an associate, and she starts announcing that she needs a hit. In another scene, when Henry shows up at the house in the middle of the night, one evening, and Karen’s mother bawls Henry out, we don’t go back inside the house to watch Karen deal with her mother. Henry turns around, gets back in the car with Tommy, and drives off, and we stay with him.
But Karen is there to show a side of Henry that the other characters can’t bring out in him. His raging tough side and his cool confidence. They are only apparent when he is with Karen. There is the scene where she sits atop of him, pointing a gun at his head and Henry diffuses the situation with his own anger. There is the scene where he pistol-whips the neighbor who molested her. And there is the scene when he comes home to find she flushed sixty thousand dollars worth of cocaine down the toilet, and he manages to act with a toughness and control that he doesn’t show when he’s with his gangster friends. To them, he is the weak link, stuttering in the “How am I funny?” scene, when an innocent comment of Henry’s is taken as an insult by Tommy. Henry never stutters with Karen. Instead, he is the king of confidence when he is around her. At the wedding, when she worries over their gift money being stolen, he calms her down by telling her she doesn’t even need to think about something like that around these people.
There are plenty of early scenes in their relationship that show off this new, confident side of Henry. The Copacabana tracking shot scene, where they walk through the back entrance of a nightclub just to get a front row table that is brought right up to the stage, is the most famous sequence in the movie. It represents how Karen feels as they glide non-stop through every open door and she is in constant awe. But it also represents Henry’s confidence to be able to show off his life like this. He talks to people that they pass with such relaxed, calmness and humor that he is like a whole different person from the Henry Hill we have seen so far.
Another Karen scene that shows off a different side of Henry is a scene that happens before this date, when he has not yet started taking her seriously. In fact, he has just stood her up for a double date with Tommy. Now Tommy takes Karen to find Henry and catch him off guard. This is funny because if Henry ever did that to Tommy, then Tommy would probably kill him, or at least threaten to kill him. Look at what happened from just Henry calling Tommy funny, which was meant to be a compliment. But Tommy doesn’t respect Henry, so he takes Karen to see Henry, where he is hanging out on the street. She pops out of the car, surprises him, and starts screaming at him in front of all of his friends. Now, all of a sudden, Henry comes to life. He was practically dead sitting at the table during their first date, which was all preplanned by Tommy and which Henry knew about. But now, when taken by surprise, and caught off guard, Henry enjoys it.
At this moment, Henry doesn’t get embarrassed like we might expect. He doesn’t stay still, hoping she will finish yelling and then leave. In fact, when she does finally turn around, he goes after her. He wants to smooth things over and pursue a talk with her. This has suddenly become fun to him. Karen turns away a number of times and tries to walk off, but Henry keeps pulling her arm and spinning her back to him. At first, it seems that the reason for Henry acting this way is because she has made him look bad in front of his friends, and he now needs to smooth things over before letting her leave, in order to save face with them. But then we think deeper about how his character has suddenly come to life for the first time and it seems clear that the real reason he can’t let her go is because she is the only person who can both excite him and also enable him to respond back with confidence. If his friends excited him and he tried to talk back to them with relaxed humor, he was liable to get himself killed.
Many people have said that Goodfellas is a movie that breaks all of the rules. It breaks the rules of where you can put a camera and what you can do with a scene. But instead of breaking the rules, I like to think of it more like Citizen Kane in that it makes its own rules. It conducts experiments, tries things out, and ends up reinventing the rules. The Copacabana tracking shot is most inspired by another Orson Welles movie, Touch of Evil, which featured a similar long tracking shot outside, over the streets. But a moving crane, raising the camera over everything and everyone, does that shot. In Goodfellas, Scorsese uses a steady-cam to actually move the way the character moves, on floor level. Unlike Touch of Evil, Scorcese’s shot takes us inside and leads us past tight corners and narrow hallways. It is a revolutionary sequence, both for its original filming technique, and for how it makes us feel like we are there with the characters.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s one of many new innovations this movie brings us. Having two different characters contribute voice-over is an original move, especially since one of them is a woman in a mob movie. The opening of the movie on the trunk and whole Bats killing that doesn’t really come into the story until much later in the movie, is also a creative choice, known as fracturing the narrative. The freeze frames and way they go from still images with voice-over to still images with Henry walking around and talking to the camera is another bizarre technique. Usually its one of the other, but never both. Even when we first enter the restaurant where Henry hangs out, the camera acts as a person Henry is introducing to all of his friends in such a way that his voice over introduces them by name and as the camera gets close, they look into it and say hello.
And then there’s the one-day in the life of a gangster sequence, which carefully depicts the way it feels to be in Henry’s shoes at all moments of the day. It just happens that Henry spends this day running from place to place while being completely hopped up on cocaine. He has a ton of errands to do during this day, such as pick up drugs, bring the drugs somewhere to mix them, pick up his brother from the doctor, make pasta sauce, pick up silencers, bring the silencers to Jimmy to make sure they fit Jimmy’s guns, and more.
Scorsese films the sequence with a massive amount of cuts and music changes. He uses quick shots that are often on screen for less time than it would take for them to register in our heads, and when we do follow the characters, we follow them through lots of movement. During the whole day, Henry talks fast and questions whether or not a helicopter in the sky is following him. Up until this moment of the movie, Scorsese has made a point to limit his cuts and editing. The Copacabana sequence is the most famous one-shot ordeal, but there are plenty of others, like when Henry goes across the street to see the neighbor who molested Karen. The shot starts on Henry getting out of the car. Then it pans across the street to the neighbor. Now it pans back to where we left Henry and he is already walking across the street, heading towards the neighbor with a look of insane rage on his face. And throughout this whole time, there is not a single cut. Not even when Henry reaches the neighbor’s house, walks up the driveway, and belts the neighbor in the head with his gun. And then we follow Henry back across the street, with another pan from the camera.
Scorsese loves camera movement like this and will use a moving camera instead of cuts any day. It takes talent to film an entire sequence in just one shot, but Scorsese is not doing it just to show off. He’s using the camera movement to make us feel more like we are there. In this neighbor sequence, he puts us right on the street with the two houses, making us know the layout of the location and exactly how far one house is from the other, and exactly how long it takes to get across the street. By the end of the sequence, we feel like we have done the walking with Henry, from one house to the other, and crossed that street twice. The same can be said of the Copacabana scene with us feeling like we were walking through the club right alongside the couple.
But despite his love of long tracking shots and limited, if any cuts during a sequence, Scorsese suddenly goes the opposite way during his one-day sequence. That part of the movie is loaded with a vast amount of cuts and edits that move in front of us at rapid speeds. Scorsese goes from a guy who has made it his goal not to use lots of quick cuts, to a guy who has suddenly made them his best friend. He waits until we think we know his style and then he revamps it.
In this sequence, with Henry so high on cocaine, the rapid cutting makes perfect sense. The cuts help make us feel the same way that Henry does, with his mind all fractured and things coming right at him from jagged angles. At one point on the highway, Henry slams down the brakes and nearly drives his car right into the back of a car that is sitting still in front of him. Scorcese’s furious cutting of the images Henry sees and the speed that he sees them at, makes us swear that we were in the front seat with him. We feel like we are the ones who almost hit the car.
The music choice during this one-day sequence is also rather amazing. It ranges in variety and is flooded with quantity, all of it coming in a small amount of time. When the cops finally do bust Henry, and bring him into the police station, he’s sits there watching as the cops start bringing each of the people he met during that day past him. They bring in Sandy, whom he mixed the drugs with, the dealer that he bought them from, and the babysitter who was helping Henry transport them. It’s like watching the cast of characters from that day come in and take a bow.
During the one day sequence, Scorsese throws times of the day onto the screen so that we know exactly when everything is happening and are able to follow how long each errand Henry runs is taking him. This is another move of absolute precision that helps make the audience member feel like he is there, with Henry. When it begins, the sequence feels out of place in the movie. Here we have been watching this powerful film for about two hours, and now, out of nowhere, it starts clocking off times and taking us through a single day, hour by hour. But while it starts off feeling like it is a different movie, thrown into the middle of the one we were watching, and very out of place, by the end of the sequence, we realize exactly why it was so important. Just like the Billy Batts sequence which opened the movie and pointed out how relevant it was later on, as it led to Tommy’s downfall, this one day sequence is so relevant because it is a moment by moment deconstruction of the events that led to Henry being caught. And the humor in it is that Henry knew the whole time that the helicopter was following him and never did a thing to alter his plans for the day and the errands he needed to run. The cocaine must have been too strong in his system for him to stop for a moment, even to rethink his plans and possibly change them.
After Henry is caught and brought in by the police, we find ourselves heading toward the end of the movie. Tommy is long dead. He is the only character in the movie that absolutely needed to die in front of us because of how much we hated him. We hated him for countless reasons, one of the most powerful being for what he did to the innocent kid, Spider. Scorsese
Serves up Tommy on a plate, bringing him into a trap, having him realize where he has been led to, and then having him get shot in the back of the head. The blood spurts out of his mouth and then spreads along the floor after Tommy is lying there, dead. The puddle of blood gets bigger and bigger as if tracing us back through time over all of the blood that Tommy has spilt in the movie. It is the blood of Stacks and Mori and Billy Batts and Spider and many more.
Despite our hatred of Tommy, we can’t help but remember how after nearly killing Billy Batts, he and the others stopped off at his mother’s house and sat down for coffee with her. They were stopping there so that Tommy could get a knife to cut the body up, and they sat down and took a break with the old lady while the body was still moving around outside in the trunk of their car. So, right in between the brutal and nearly fatal beating of Batts, and the burying of his body, we get this change of tone, to what is suddenly a humorous scene. While working at the audience’s emotions like a roller coaster, the scene also points out how despite everything they have just done, these characters are still respectful enough to sit down at the table when asked. We are also meant to take note of the fact that Batts was a gray haired man and the mother a gray haired old lady, two people who, despite their age similarity, are treated so differently by the crew. We know this is significant because the guys specifically point out the hair color of Batts when they admire a picture of a gray haired man in the mother’s house and talk about how it looks like Billy Batts because of the hair.
After Henry is caught by the police, at the very end of the movie, Jimmy tries to have Karen killed. He tries to send her into a clothing store where there are men doing work in the shadows, looking like they are ready to attack her the moment she sets foot inside the door. The next time we see Jimmy, he tries to have Henry killed by asking him to do a hit in Florida that Henry tells us in voice-over, “I knew I never would have come back from.”
By now, we realize Jimmy has become the official enemy. Since Henry is not a killer, his only other option for defeating Jimmy is to enter into the witness protection program. There is no way that the mafia would let him go to jail and risk him talking, so Henry starts talking before the mob can get to him.
Considering the limited possibilities for where this movie could have gone at this point in the narrative, it is an outstanding ending. We didn’t want to see Henry get killed because he was the most innocent of all the gangsters. He’s the guy who shut the trunk when his friends were stabbing and shooting. He’s the guy who tried to stop them from even touching Billy Batts. By Henry getting off, we don’t necessarily get a happy ending, but it is certainly a relief. The ending is circular as well, taking us back to the very beginning of the movie, when Henry was just a kid, before getting involved with the mob.
Goodfellas is a masterpiece. It works on so many different levels and breaks down wall after wall of convention. Ray Liotta is perfect as Henry Hill, with his relaxed voice-over tone that tells us as he narrates over what once seemed glamorous, that he is now fully aware of just how wrong he was. His tone of voice tries to explain to us why it seemed so perfect to him at the time, and makes us feel as if we might have done the same thing.
Most movies that use voice-over use it on the sidelines. Goodfellas uses it right up front, letting it guide us and make sense out of what we see. How it found time for Karen and a relationship amidst everything else is a true testament to what a detailed storyteller Scorsese is. He even examines the way Paulie cut the onions for their meals while in prison. The level of detail this movie goes into is impeccable.
Goodfellas stands as a better movie than the other great gangster films because it finds ways to make its characters and actions more personal to the viewer. It is better than the Godfather because unlike that movie, where all of the characters were born into the family, Goodfellas brings us in from an outsider’s point of view, which is what we, the audience, really are. It is better than Scarface, because Henry Hill doesn’t wind up in a mansion firing off gigantic machine guns the way Tony Montana does. Instead, he stays grounded in reality and an existence that we can relate to. Tony Montana is about as crazy as Tommy is. If Tommy starred in his own movie, and took his dreams to the limit following a phrase like, “the world is yours,” the movie might have looked a lot like Scarface. But Goodfellas is about a guy who is in a place where he doesn’t belong. Henry is not a killer, but he is living among the killers and has been embraced into their lifestyle.
Neither Scarface nor The Godfather offers any voice-over narration, and neither film goes into the level of detail, about such things as how certain foods are cooked or how much makeup the women wear, that Goodfellas goes into. Goodfellas covers every detail of the life from mob business to social business that includes dating, weddings, casual nights of drinking at restaurants with friends, playing card games, and spending time with family. It is the story of the life as presented by a master’s paintbrush. The greatest gangster movie ever made is quite possibly also the greatest movie ever made.