How Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas Transformed True Crime into an Epic Tale of Power and Paranoia

"GoodFellas" follows Henry Hill’s journey from aspiring mobster to guilt-ridden criminal, exploring the allure and destruction of organized crime with gripping authenticity.

GoodFellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a visceral journey into the life of Henry Hill, whose childhood dream of joining the Mafia leads him into a world of high-stakes crime and moral decay. Narrated with gritty authenticity, the film captures Hill’s transformation from an ambitious boy enamored with the power and glamour of mobsters to a conflicted man burdened by guilt and paranoia. Through meticulously crafted scenes and complex characters like the volatile Tommy DeVito and the shadowy Jimmy Conway, Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of the seductive, yet ultimately destructive, allure of organized crime. Hill’s descent, fueled by drugs and betrayal, reflects a larger commentary on the price of unbridled ambition and the hollow pursuit of material success, culminating in a poignant metaphor for the loss of one’s soul in the quest for power.

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There really are guys like this. I’ve seen them across restaurants and I’ve met them on movie sets, where they carefully explain that they are retired and are acting as technical consultants. They make their living as criminals, and often the service they provide is that they will not hurt you if you pay them. These days there is a certain guarded nostalgia for their brand of organized crime, because at least the mob would make a deal with you for your life, and not just kill you casually, out of impatience or a need for drugs.

Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is a movie based on the true story of a midlevel professional criminal named Henry Hill, whose only ambition, from childhood on, was to be a member of the outfit. We see him with his face at the window, looking across the street at the neighborhood Mafiosi, who drove the big cars and got the goodlooking women and never had to worry about the cops when they decided to hold a party late at night. One day the kid goes across the street and volunteers to help out, and before long he’s selling stolen cigarettes at a factory gate and not long after that the doorman at the Copacabana knows his name.

For many years, it was not a bad life. The rewards were great. The only thing you could complain about was the work. There is a strange, confused evening in Hill’s life when some kidding around in a bar leads to a murder, and the guy who gets killed is a “made man”—a man you do not touch lightly, because he has the mob behind him—and the

body needs to be hidden quickly, and then later it needs to be moved, messily. This kind of work is bothersome. It fills the soul with guilt and the heart with dread, and before long Henry Hill is walking around as if there’s a lead weight in his stomach.

But the movie takes its time to get to that point, and I have never seen a crime movie that seems so sure of its subject matter. There must have been a lot of retired technical consultants hanging around. Henry Hill, who is now an anonymous refugee within the federal government’s witness protection program, told this life story to the journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who put it into the best seller Wiseguy, and now Pileggi and Scorsese have written the screenplay, which also benefits from Scorsese’s firsthand observations of the Mafia while he was a kid with his face in the window, watching the guys across the street.

Scorsese is in love with the details of his story, including the Mafia don who never, ever talked on the telephone, and held all of his business meetings in the open air. Or the way some guys with a body in the car trunk will stop by to borrow a carving knife from one of their mothers, who will feed them pasta and believe them when they explain that they got blood on their suits when their car hit a deer. Everything in this movie reverberates with familiarity; the actors even inhabit the scenes as if nobody had to explain anything to them.

GoodFellas is an epic on the scale of The Godfather, and it uses its expansive running time to develop a real feeling for the way a lifetime develops almost by chance at first, and then sets its fateful course. Because we see mostly through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), characters swim in and out of focus; the character of Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), for example, is shadowy in the earlier passages of the film, and then takes on a central importance. And then there’s Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), always on the outside looking in, glorying in his fleeting moments of power, laughing too loudly, slapping backs with too much familiarity, pursued by the demon of a raging anger that can flash out of control in a second. His final scene in this movie is one of the greatest moments of sudden realization I have ever seen; the development, the buildup, and the payoff are handled by Scorsese with the skill of a great tragedian.

GoodFellas isn’t a myth-making movie, like The Godfather. It’s about ordinary people who get trapped inside the hermetic world of the mob, whose values get worn away because they never meet anyone to disagree with them. One of the most interesting characters in the movie is Henry Hill’s wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who is Jewish and comes from outside his world. He’s an outsider himself—he’s half Irish, half Italian, and so will never truly be allowed on the inside—but she’s so far outside that at first she doesn’t even realize what she’s in for. She doesn’t even seem to know what Henry does for a living, and when she finds out, she doesn’t want to deal with it. She is the conarrator of the film, as if it were a documentary, and she talks about how she never goes anywhere or does anything except in the company of other mob wives. Finally she gets to the point where she’s proud of her husband for being willing to go out and steal to support his family, instead of just sitting around like a lot of guys.

The parabola of GoodFellas is from the era of “good crimes,” like stealing cigarettes and booze and running prostitution and making book, to bad crimes involving dope. The godfather in the movie (Paul Sorvino) warns Henry Hill about getting involved with dope, but it’s not because he disapproves of narcotics (like Brando’s Don Corleone), it’s because he seems to sense that dope will spell trouble for the mob, will unleash street anarchy and bring in an undisciplined element. What eventually happens is that Hill makes a lot of money with cocaine but gets hooked on it as well, and eventually spirals down into the exhausted paranoia that proves to be his undoing.

Throbbing beneath the surface of GoodFellas, providing the magnet that pulls the plot along, are the great emotions in Hill’s makeup: a lust for recognition, and a fear of powerlessness and guilt. He loves it when the head waiters know his name, but he doesn’t really have the stuff to be a great villain—he isn’t brave or heartless enough—and so when he does bad things, he feels bad afterwards. He begins to hate himself. And yet he cannot hate the things he covets. He wants the prizes, but he doesn’t want to pay for the tickets.

And it is there, on the crux of that paradox, that the movie becomes Scorsese’s metaphor for so many modern lives. He doesn’t parallel the mob with corporations, or turn it into some kind of grotesque underworld version of yuppie culture. Nothing is that simple. He simply uses organized crime as an arena for a story about a man who likes material things so much that he sells his own soul to buy them— compromises his principles, betrays his friends, abandons his family, and finally even loses contact with himself. And the horror of the film is that, at the end, the man’s principal regret is that he doesn’t have any more soul to sell.

Roger Ebert

September 21, 1990


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