You might be confused at seeing a prefix ‘The’ to the title of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’. The purpose of this article is to address, and expose, the characterization of Goodfellas. What makes the Goodfellas so appealing? They don’t give a fuck. The approach director Scorsese and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker employ at making them give off that vibe is more than meets the eye.
Scorsese chooses long tracking shots to introduce us to the Goodfellas. You come to know of their quirks. Take their style of nicknaming, Jimmy Two-Times who always said everything twice”I’m gonna get the papers, get the papers.” Or that the sons were named Peter or Paul and their wives were all Marie. The three principal characters here are Henry Hill(Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro) and Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci). They work under caporegime Paulie (Paul Sorvino).
Let’s begin with Henry Hill and his ambition. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster. It meant being somebody in a neighbourhood full of nobodys. It meant belonging somewhere and being treated like a grownup.” The moment that line falls on your ears, you believe it.
Henry goes on to explain the perks of being a gangster “If anyone complained, they’d get beat up so bad they wouldn’t complain again. This was all routine. We didn’t think about it.” Light is shed on another perspective, that of his wife, Karen Hill who says “None of it seemed like crime any longer. Henry just seemed enterprising.”
“The circles had no outsiders. It was a close knitted group of people,” Karen explains. The trade hardly requires being networked, right? You’re part of a mafia family, people come and go. Anyone, outside of that, is just weak prey that needs to be pecked on and milked dry.
One of the best sequences has the trio kill a made guy in Henry’s restaurant and stuff him in the trunk of a car. Tommy sincerely apologizes “I didn’t mean to get blood on your floor.” Then they go to Tommy’s home and eat dinner. They’re at complete ease, except for Henry who’s trying to keep calm. Tommy’s mother asks him why he doesn’t talk much and then picks up on it with an anecdote that would’ve sounded better in Italian. The reason I bring up this sequence is because it adds great naturalism to the proceedings.
Henry Hill fuels a domestic fight at home and begins to walks out with wife Karen screaming behind him. The camera introduces us to his little daughter by slowly zooming into her face. We think “What must be going through her mind in all of this?” The scene strikes a chord with the viewer. Then it cuts to Henry hill cheering at a card game, which is later interrupted by Tommy, who shoots an apologetic waiter in the foot. Henry tends to the waiter while Jimmy asks “You in?” reminding Tommy that it’s his turn to play.
Henry leaves his wife and moves in with his girlfriend. Paulie and Jimmy pay the couple a visit, counselling Henry to go back to his wife. “You have to keep up appearances,” he explains. “Take some time for yourself, relax, and take some time under the sun. I have a job for both of you.” He affirms once again about the need to keep up appearances when he says “I know just what to say to her.” That’s their trade- keeping up appearances. And experience has taught him what words would be precise to smoothen out such a situation.
The Goodfellas, unlike Michael Corleone, aren’t invincible. They do their share of time and when in prison, they’re on their own; even though they have it relatively luxurious. Henry begins dealing coke. He cuts off contact with his mistress, Rossi, to get his wife to smuggle cocaine into prison. But later, when he’s out, he finds a new mistress.
When out of prison, Paulie talks him out of selling drugs. “You did what you had to do in prison. Now, you stop and if you hear anything about it, you come to me.” Henry nods and they both exchange a prolonged glance of understanding. Fading into the audio track is ‘Gimme shelter’, with the film cutting to a visual of cocaine being split with a playing card.
A major breakthrough in the life of The Goodfellas is the Lufthansa heist. Henry hears of it on the radio. He’s just out of prison and he’s got to keep his head low. Also, having been part of the clan for so long must’ve moved him up high enough to no longer actually need to carry them out, right? The way the Goodfellas react to this is probably the most idiosyncratic and funny part of the film.
Jimmy harangues members of the crew on the heist for spending on shiny valuables and garnering attention of the cops. But Henry, who keeps his head low and his mouth shut, gets a taste of the dough and some advice “Don’t buy lavish stuff like the other guys. We gotta be careful.” Goodfellas then cuts to Henry storming into his home loudly announcing “I got the most expensive Christmas tree!”
The Goodfellas prey on the weaknesses in people. If you’re one of them, you stay one of them. At the same time, you better not make one of them feel like a commoner. Walking this tightrope without losing your balance is not easy. There’s a character that keeps annoying Jimmy for owed money. He knows that there’s no such thing as honour and integrity in these guys and their dealings. He must’ve seen plenty of people getting fucked over. In his mind, if he doesn’t press he won’t get the money. But he’s a commoner and you don’t treat a Goodfella like a commoner. There’s nothing lower for a Goodfella than being one.
At this point, we’ve seen too much of Goodfellas not giving a fuck. So when Tommy shoots Stacks in the head and tells his accomplice “make that coffee,” it might be going a bit overboard. Or maybe not, this is just the kind he’d say. At that point Scorsese probably thought “maybe, the characters are getting too colourful.” The guy begins to make it. And Tommy says “It’s a fuckin joke.” He really is a funny guy.
And he’s going to be made. The pride and excitement in being associated with a soon-to-be-made guy is brought out. Nice. It feels so real that it might remind you of a nice event in your life. However, when you think about it, both events are likely to be worlds apart. Sadly the event is only a set up for Tommy, who gets shot in a move of vengeance for touching a made guy, Billy Batz.
A lot of characters come and go. Makes sense right?It’s a saga, an entire life time, a generation’s story in crime. Lot of people have to come and go. But there’s no time to develop them. The Sopranos, on the other hand, had enough screen time to do both- characterize and develop, every character that made its way into the crime world. This is just what made The Sopranos so great and I think one could assume that the idea was borrowed from here.
The Goodfellas aren’t nearly as colourful or iconic as Tarantino’s characters. They just seem like a bunch of guys following a set lifestyle. The glamour in their lives, the leather jackets, the never-say-die attitude. They just don’t give a fuck. They’re diehard optimists. This is what makes these guys so fascinating. We wish we had these balls of steel.
While the Goodfellas might not have honour or integrity, they are organized and professional. They are intolerant towards incompetence. So when Stacks sleeps off after getting high on coke when he should’ve been somewhere else as a getaway driver, Tommy won’t stand for it. Neither would Paulie, who is dead against the drug trade out of fear of being ratted out by a cokehead. Jimmy decides to whack some members of the crew for not following instructions. They skip the execution and get right to the bodies, one of which stands frozen in a meat-truck. Henry Hill continues narrating “He was frozen so stiff it took two days to thaw him out.” Cut to Jimmy sitting by the window of a restaurant laughing over the excitement of being associated to a made guy. The camera’s perspective is of that of an outsider.
The Goodfellas remain unwilling to make any compromises on their lifestyle. When in prison, Henry explains his plans “...and then I could come back and sell the dope the cops never found.” The negative possibilities in any situation are automatically discarded. There’s never a Plan B.
Balancing their unbridled optimism is the ability to recognize the more powerful creature. “When I got out of prison, for some reason I thought I’d be stabbed,” states Henry, who makes the wise decision of surrendering (and apologizing) to Paulie. Paulie gives him some money and says “Now I gotta turn my back on you.” Funny, considering that it eventually is Henry who turns his back on Paulie when he enrols himself into the witness protection programme and rats them out in court. We see both parties exchange glances as the camera cuts between their expressions while dramatically zooming out and you wonder what that must be doing to Henry’s conscience. His response is instantaneous “The hardest part was leaving the life. I have to wait around like everyone else. I’m an average nobody. Get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck.”