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GOODFELLAS(director/writer: Martin Scorsese; screenwriter: from the book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi/Mr. Pileggi; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editors: Thelma Schoonmaker/James Kwei; cast: Robert De Niro (James Conway), Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Sivero (Frankie Carbone), Chuck Low (Morris Kessler), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Mike Starr (Frenchy), Michael Imperioli (Spider), Tony Darrow (Sonny Bunz), Frank di Leo (Tuddy Cicero), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry); Runtime: 146; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Irwin Winkler; Warner Brothers; 1990)

“A work of craftsmanship over art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Martin Scorsese’s stylistic crime drama about New York City Italian-American mobsters is a follow-up film to his Mean Streets (1973). It’s a sweeping epic depiction of a crime family in action that is both fascinating and violently ugly–a work of craftsmanship over art. “Goodfellas” is loosely based on true events and was adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 non-fictional book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Pileggi and Scorsese team up as co-writers for the script.

It’s about the life of low-level gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a poor Irish-Italian (mother was Sicilian, his father was Irish) growing up in the mid-1950s East New York section of Brooklyn, whose only ambition was to be a gangster. It traces his nearly thirty year crime career from his rise in 1955 to his fall in the mid-1980s, when he ratted out his fellow wise guys and was forced to go into a Witness Protection Program. Henry’s crime career begins as a mafia idolizing 13-year-old who hooks up with local crime boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and his underling brother Tuddy (Frank di Leo), serving as their errand boy. The needy Henry finds that the mob gives him someplace to belong to that’s important and real. Working his way up the ranks he meets the older ruthless thugs–Irish hijacker Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the cold-blooded loose cannon Italian hit man Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci)–and forms a tight friendship with them that revolves around heists, murders, whoring, racketeering, and living it up as gangster celebs. At age 21 Henry’s a hotshot hood, flashing money around and living like a king. He falls in love with a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, Karen (Lorraine Brocco), and marries her–moving to a beautiful home and still carrying on with his mob friends. After Tommy kills a “made man” and Jimmy organizes a successful six million dollar heist of Kennedy Airport, things begin to fall apart for the wise guys. Jimmy and Henry work a secret drug deal without Paulie’s knowledge (cheating him out of his usual take for protection), and things go bust from that point on as a falling out among the thieves develops that leads to their downfall.

The film is effective telling about these members of a marginalized society and their thirst for money, power, and a good time. It was difficult to care for any of them, but their violent escapades were entertaining. Scorsese only presented obvious insights into their motivations and shallow sociological observations, never making the film anything more than an energetic spectacle and a jarring look at how the gangsters love to see themselves portrayed as such big shots. Henry and his mentor Jimmy are gangsters because they enjoy the lifestyle and think nothing of the violence; abnormal characters who excite us because they are so detached from society and their paranoid anti-social behavior appears to be the real deal.

Pesci won the Oscar for his supporting role, whose psychopathic personality was the heart of the film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”