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Compelling Films: Goodfellas

Whenever it's on, Robert Castle can't turn off Goodfellas. It might just be the best gangster film in American cinema.

Editor's Note: This may seem obvious, but in an entry about Goodfellas, some adult language and themes are going to crop up. Be forewarned if you click the links.

Just last week, flicking through the channels, I come upon Goodfellas (1990).

The dinner scene in the prison.

Henry Hill is grabbing a lobster from a chest full of ice. My wife asks me how they get that stuff in prison. And how did they get set up living in the same room? Four wiseguys. I know that the mob has great connections. Are they that good?

I worked with a prisoner who was on a work-release program. He shared a cell for a year with Nicky Scarfo (before Nicky was shipped out to a federal penitentiary in Texas) and told me it was the best year he had spent in prison.

No one bothered him. They had a well-stocked refrigerator. (I don’t know whether Nicky sliced garlic as thin as Paulie.)

Goodfellas is a popular and great film because of the way it treats the mob. Not operatic, like the first two Godfather films; not romanticized. Yes, Henry has a romantic view of the mob. It is a great life: stealing and spending big bundles of money. For him, his greatest punishment is being put in witness protection, placed in an anonymous suburbia, and becoming “an average nobody.”

I happened on the movie about a month earlier in the scene at the start of Henry’s last day of real freedom.

He’s got a dozen tasks to perform: take some guns to Jimmy Conway (who ends up not wanting them); make tomato sauce and meatballs; take his crippled brother to the hospital for tests; then return home and have his brother stir the tomato sauce.

Plus, Henry has to get together a drug deal and ship cocaine to Pittsburgh. He has his mistress, Janice, cut the coke and weight it. And he keeps calling home to remind his brother to keep stirring the sauce. During the day he grows progressively ragged from stress. At the hospital, his brother’s doctor gives him some valium because he looks as if he’s ready to blow a gasket.

But what this section of the film is best remembered for is Henry worried about being followed by a helicopter. He keeps trying to look up at the copter while driving his car. He comes within two inches of slamming into stopped cars in front of him. The copter seems to follow him everywhere he goes that day, including the shopping center.

Henry may be paranoid, but knows he must be careful. The coke shipment. He tells his “mule,” Lois, not to use the phone, it might be tapped; she ignores him. When they are leaving for the airport that night, the cops surround the car and bust him. His wife, in a panic, dumps nearly one hundred grand of coke down the toilet.

If I’m really fortunate, I’ll happen onto the scene at the restaurant when Tommy scares the hell out of Henry and everyone else at the table. (“What do you mean I’m funny?”)

Of course, in this and other great scenes in Goodfellas, its full impact is missed if it’s watched on anything other than a pay cable station. But I don’t care. It’s compelling drama. You hope you never meet the Tommys and the Jimmies of the world. They bust balls, yes, but they never kid. Tommy is a seriously dangerous individual.

And, of course, you don’t kid or annoy Tommy. Another great scene: the boys meet Billy Batts in a bar. Billy sees them and reminds Tommy about his shoeshine days.

Now this kid, this kid was great. They, they used to call him Spitshine Tommy.

Tommy responds:

I said, no more shines. Maybe you didn't hear about it, you've been away a long time. They didn't go up there and tell you. I don't shine shoes anymore.

You have to think Billy is bats for egging on Tommy. We don’t find out until later, but Billy’s a made man, laboring under the impression that he can’t be touched. He goes further. After supposedly apologizing and calming down Tommy, Billy takes a drink and says:

Now go home and get your f-----‘ shinebox!

Tommy goes berserk, but is held back by Jimmy and Henry; later, when they get Billy alone, they beat him to a pulp; later, even though they think he’s been killed from the beating, they stab him to death.

The scene is central for the film. When Tommy expects to earn his bones, he is killed instead because he killed Billy Batts without authorization. Tommy’s execution makes Jimmy paranoid and more distant from Henry, which, in turn, contributes to Henry deciding to testify against his lifelong friends.

Thus, in a roundabout if not completely absurd way, is justice exacted. I wouldn’t call it moral justice or even a kind that these men deserve. Martin Scorcese has dealt with gangs in many films and he never judges these vicious men.

The least successful of those films, The Gangs of New York (2002), showed how he feels gangs function and serve a purpose for society. They are soldiers in an urban battlefield well beneath the respectable veneer of everyday life. The act of gang violence is a violent social purgation from which the survivors might crawl through the rubble to respectability. Think of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part Two (1974).

Goodfellas holds a special place for me—it was the first subject (of 33) about which I wrote for Bright Lights Film Journal. Despite my “historical nullity” comment above, in the article I focused on the medieval aspect of the Mafia. Scorcese captures the inner world and workings of the syndicate unsentimentally, in its most brutal forms. Really old, old school! We don’t have to like it or approve of it. Nor can we get enough of it.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash September 05, 2012 at 05:00 PM
I saw Goodfellas in 1990 when is was released. The story telling and charcters were superb especially Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta. I guess I was the proverbial snook that Henry Hill depicts. I couldn't believe low lifes would kill with abandon. I guess they were pychopaths with flair.
ASimon September 06, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Goodfellas is a great film that seems to get better everytime you watch it. Luckily for us fans of the film, it's on TV somewhere every other day Too many great lines to even mention.... "I love that car".. "A hat?" .....
John Reynolds September 06, 2012 at 05:22 PM
From what I've read about Scarfo, if he had a refrigerator stocked with steak, beer, and dancing-girls, I still wouldn't want to share a cell with him. Most of the people around him turned up either dead or in witness protection. The movie was an entertaining look at gangster life. You grew to like most of the characters, even though they sold drugs and killed people. Even the scene where Jimmy and Tommy kicked the hell out of Billy Batts was funny because Batts had it coming. In the end, their lifestyles did them in. I felt sorry for Tommy when he got whacked. He was a psychopath, and would shoot you if you looked at him wrong, but he was funny and still lived with his mom!
Joe Kearney September 07, 2012 at 10:51 PM
The best movie ever, not one time have I passed it while channel surfing and not watched the rest of it. I talked to a lot of guys who know, they say that that movie was about as real as you could get for the era the portrayed. I thank them for giving me such lines as: "Im gonna get the papers...get the papers" "funny how?" Everyone I meet who has the name Henry is now called "Hendry" Loved the Movie! Thanks for the great article! Joe Kearney
Sean Gallagher September 09, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies of all time and I also will stop to watch it whenever it is on TV. This movie is full of memorable dialogue and characters. Some of my favorite lines are : "As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," and "...Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut." This film also boasts one of the great soundtracks in movie history. "Beyond the Sea" and "Sunshine of Your Love" are just a few of the memorable songs in the film. "I'll go get the papers, get the papers."- Jimmy Two Times

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