Absence of Conscience [on GOODFELLAS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990).  From the vantage point of  2013, The Wolf of Wall Street might be regarded in certain respects as an inferior remake of GoodFellas, with all the limitations of the original dutifully preserved. — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese

With Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Chuck Low, Frank Sivero, and Debi Mazar.

Greed, indiscipline and amorality drench the money-military culture, in its upper echelons and in its pits. Somebody destroyed the national superego. Does anyone have a plan to make one anew? — from a recent editorial in the Nation

The opening, white-against-black credits of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas whiz horizontally across the screen to the sounds of traffic in quick, isolated bursts, telling us at the outset that speed is of the essence. Using a cast of almost 150 players (including a delightful performance by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) and a sound track with about 40 pop singles that are both apposite and subtle in the way they comment on the action, Scorsese pushes the narrative along with a sense of gliding motion and legible fluidity that is often breathtaking.

As pure story telling and as exposition of a particular milieu and life-style, GoodFellas is the most masterful work Scorsese has ever done. “The film is based on a true story,” we’re informed during the opening credits, and Scorsese has reportedly stuck very close to his source, Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book about gangsters in Brooklyn and Queens, Wiseguy. Covering a total of 30 years, the story begins midway through the chronology, then backtracks to Irish-Italian hood Henry Hill’s entry into crime in Brooklyn in 1955 and proceeds chronologically thereafter, with a couple of quick flashbacks along the way. Most of the offscreen narration is given by Henry (Ray Liotta), but when his Jewish wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enters the picture she gives her side of the story; the film effortlessly incorporates this additional narrative voice, which then alternates with Henry’s for a long stretch before Henry takes over again.

The film proceeds like a continuous set piece, broken in flow only by a series of strategically placed freeze-frames — 13 by my count — which are clustered mainly around the opening and closing portions of the film. (The first seven carry us through the party following Henry and Karen’s wedding; the last six chart some of the murders, betrayals, and disillusionments that occur over the last 15 years in the story, beginning with the murder whose final stages are first shown in the opening scene of the film.) These freeze-frames register simultaneously as scrapbook snapshots implying memories and as sudden moments of reflection that the characters themselves never have — temporary stations of reckoning for the audience about where they’ve just been and what may still lie ahead.

I haven’t read Pileggi’s book, but critic and Scorsese specialist David Ehrenstein assures me that the film is unusually faithful to it, apart from two changes: the elision of one major robbery, the celebrated Lufthansa heist (which is briefly described but not shown, and is still a pivotal turning point in the plot), which would have added much time to an already long movie; and the elimination of U.S. Attorney Edward McDonald, who plays himself in the film, as a narrator (along with Henry and Karen). So from many points of view, Scorsese’s story-telling talent lies largely in the translation from book to film; for better and for worse, he’s at the mercy of the material he’s chosen, as he was in Raging Bull.

Although the movie’s gangster milieu overlaps with that of the Mafia, this is not, strictly speaking, a movie about the Mafia. Henry’s childhood entry into crime commences when he’s taken under the wing of Pauly Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the Mafia don who rules the neighborhood, but the mixed blood of Henry and his older cohort Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) prevents them from being full-fledged members of the Family — unlike Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), another close cohort, who’s purely Italian. In any case one can’t accuse GoodFellas of romanticizing the Mafia the way Coppola’s Godfather films do by celebrating, however ambivalently, the links between the Family and families in general. (If Pauly, the closest thing in the film to a moral patriarchal authority, comes across as more sympathetic and less cold-blooded than either Tommy or Jimmy, this is basically because he’s never shown committing any acts of violence; but the film never actually glorifies him.) On the other hand, Scorsese’s ironies about the incongruous ways that everyday domestic life becomes intertwined with gangster life, while often funny, are familiar comic staples by now; they’ve been with us at least as long as Bonnie and Clyde.

The first time that Henry is busted and goes to court (for selling stolen cigarettes), Jimmy congratulates him and gives him a wad of dough as a “graduation present”; as Jimmy puts it, “You’ve learned the two greatest lessons in life: never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” By the end of the film, after Henry has opened his mouth and ratted on all his friends, including Jimmy and Pauly — serving as a key witness against them in order to join the federal protection program — there’s no indication that he’s any wiser or any more coarsened by the experience; the only regret he seems to have about living incognito in suburbia is the lousy food he gets and the overall mundanity of his existence “as an average nobody.”

Unlike Jimmy and Tommy, Henry never kills anybody, and twice the camera catches some fleeting expressions of disquiet in his face when Tommy, a veritable psycho, commits a brutal, gratuitous murder. But he helps Tommy cover up the evidence, shows that he’s perfectly capable of vicious violence on his own, and never betrays a hint of remorse about the sort of life he leads. His first line in the film, delivered offscreen, is “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. . . . To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” Brainless and conscienceless, he can’t really function as a hero in any ordinary sense, but he’s the closest thing the movie has to offer.

Scorsese has suggested in interviews that part of what he was after in GoodFellas was the larger-than-life glamor that the neighborhood gangsters had in his eyes when he was growing up. It’s certainly true that the film’s overall curve describes a path from exuberance to disillusionment that is partially matched by the shifting moods and prospects of this country between the mid-50s and the mid-80s, particularly in relation to consumerism; Henry himself may not go through much of a moral education, but the film is shaped in such a way that we do, in a sense, as we follow his progress. As Scorsese notes in the current issue of Film Comment, “the lifestyle reflects the times,” beginning with hope and finally ending with “disillusionment and the state of the country that we’re in now.” Indeed, the mutual betrayals of the gangsters in the film parallel the unraveling of the bounty and idealism of the American Dream through the progressive cultivation of greed, unchecked expenditure, and moral anesthesia, and in many ways the film’s sense of forward thrust and perpetual motion figures as an ironic counterpart to Henry’s glib tunnel vision as he pursues his notion of the good life.

As splendid as GoodFellas is as an intelligent, provocative, and brilliantly structured entertainment, I suspect, after two pleasurable viewings, that it is still some distance from being a great film. With Scorsese, one always has to exercise a certain caution about leaping to conclusions; The King of Comedy, which I now regard as his best film, in many ways eluded me the first couple of times I saw it, and it’s possible that GoodFellas may grow in stature for me as well. For the moment, though, it suffers for being easy to take and relatively undisturbing; as entrancing as it is to watch, the aftereffect it yields — to me in any case — is minimal. Given its subject, it should scare the living daylights out of us, but it doesn’t, and I think it’s worth wondering why.

Significantly, Scorsese’s movie represents only one of the first entries in a slew of ambitious gangster movies opening over the next few months, including State of Grace, Miller’s Crossing, The Krays, Desperate Hours, The Grifters, The King of New York, and The Godfather, Part Three. To what can we attribute this recent surge of actual or anticipated interest in the genre? Back in the 30s, when the genre first flourished, gangster films offered a kind of shorthand for radical discontent with society; they implied that to play honestly by the rules of capitalism — to be “an average nobody,” as Henry puts it — was to play a losing game. The unbridled drive to power of movie gangsters like Muni’s Scarface, Cagney’s Public Enemy, and Robinson’s Little Caesar always ended in violent death, but they became sacrificial victims to certain dreams that their movies helped to keep alive; as the critic Robert Warshow wrote in the 50s, “the gangster is the ‘no’ to that great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.” For giving vent to that negation, movie gangsters ultimately had to die, but their glory was that they always went out like Roman candles.

Clearly, the meaning that movie gangsters had for audiences in the 30s is closely tied to the meaning that they continue to have today, although now they no longer necessarily have to die, which points to a more honest and less mythical reading of social and political realities. It’s also possible, given the cynicism of our present climate, that what constituted (in Warshow’s terms) a “no” for Scarface may constitute a slightly uneasy “yes” for Henry. We currently live, after all, in a society in which theft, murder, and drug dealing are not only “better than being president of the United States,” as Henry says, but also from certain points of view — if one thinks about, say, the savings-and-loan rip-off, the invasion of Panama, or the Iran-contra affair — might even be regarded as indistinguishable from the options and practices of that post. By and large, thanks to our more jaundiced views, gangsters are no longer perceived as tragic losers but rather as something closer to comic winners — those lucky fellows who don’t have to pay taxes. Henry Hill may not qualify fully as a winner — though he does manage to stay alive and out of prison by squealing on his buddies, which puts him ahead of everyone else — but there’s no question that he’s comic. (To say that what he does has a tragic side would make sense only if he betrayed his own principles, but there’s nothing in the film that suggests he has any principles to betray.) From this point of view, a macabre comedy like GoodFellas isn’t telling us anything new or challenging us with any new concepts; it’s simply telling us something about the way we live now, but it’s nothing we’re apt to lose any sleep over.

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