The GoodFellas about to whack Billy Batts in a Queens' bar room; left to right: Henry (Ray Liotta), Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci).
was the Roger Corman-produced Depression-era train robbers drama Boxcar Bertha (1972). The most striking of his early films is Mean Streets (1973), a tour-de-force which established Scorsese's style. Made for $500,000 and originally called Season of the Witch, Mean Streets told the story of four friends, small-timers Charlie, Johnny Boy, Tony and Michael, in Little Italy, New York (although much of the action was shot in Los Angeles). Charlie, a good Catholic boy, is a debt collector for his Uncle Giovanni and is dating Johnny Boy's sister, Teresa. Johnny Boy owes everyone money, including Michael, who decides to collect, but Johnny Boy pulls a pistol on him. Later, as Charlie, Teresa and Johnny are driving out of town, Michael and his hoods pull up in a car and open fire, hitting Johnny in the neck and badly wounding Teresa and Charlie.
Mean Streets certainly wasn't a tale of crime aristocracy, of cons and dons, but rather the Dead End Kids grown up. Most memorable is Scorsese's casual attitude to violence (in particular a vicious poolroom bust-up, which explodes from nowhere) and his use of music. A stripper performs to 'Tell Her' by the Rolling Stones while Charlie looks on; later Johnny Boy swaggers into the bar with two pick-ups to the same band's 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'. Johnny does a goofy dance to 'Mickey's Monkey' by the Miracles; the poolroom fight is accompanied by 'Please Mr Postman' by the Marvelettes. The effect is electrifying, as is Robert De Niro's performance as Johnny Boy; Harvey Keitel is equally notable as Charlie. De Niro's first appearance in the film is memorable, as he mischievously blows up a street corner mailbox. Emphasising Charlie's Catholic guilt, Mean Streets' tagline was 'You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets'. Mean Streets was one of Henry Hill's favourite films; he even took Paulie to see it. Paulie usually only liked westerns, but he loved Mean Streets. Who knows how much these wiseguys were influenced in real life by Mean Streets? Then years later Scorsese went on to make another crime film about these very same gangsters.
Scorsese again cast De Niro in GoodFellas, as Jimmy Conway. De Niro was a regular collaborator with Scorsese. He was the lead in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), New York New York (1977), the acclaimed boxing biography Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1983). As Jimmy Conway he delivers one of his best gangster performances, a mature version of mad-ass Johnny Boy. Brooklyn-born Lorraine Bracco was a former model. She was married to Harvey Keitel from 1982-93; Karen Hill remains her best role to date. Handsome Ray Liotta, a dead ringer for Jeffrey Hunter, was cast as her husband Henry. Liotta had appeared in the short-lived TV series Casablanca (1983), and as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams (1989). He had turned down the role of the Joker (finally played by Jack Nicholson) in Batman (1989) to accept the role of Henry Hill. Both Liotta and Joe Pesci were born in Newark, New Jersey. Pesci had caught Scorsese's eye in The Death Collector (1976 -also called Family Enforcer), a very low-budget Mafia flick, which also starred Frank Vincent. Both Pesci and Vincent were cast in Raging Bull, with the latter playing Salvy Batts; in GoodFellas he played Billy Batts, while Pesci played Tommy DeVito.
Scorsese also cast his own family members in GoodFellas: his mother Catherine Scorsese played Tommy's mum, while his father Charles played elderly gangster Vinnie, who oversees Tommy's murder. Comedian Henny Youngman appeared as himself, as did singer Jerry Vale (singing 'Pretend You Don't See Her'); Robbie Vinton played his own father Bobby, miming in a Copacabana scene to Bobby's 'Roses are Red'. Real US attorney Edward McDonald played himself; it is he who persuaded Henry that the Witness Protection Program was Henry's only option to prevent him and Karen going to prison.
GoodFellas was filmed, like Once Upon a Time in America and The Godfather films, in the screen ratio of 1.85:1 (width to height - a ratio more often seen in TV movies), rather than the CinemaScope/Techniscope/Panavision letterbox ratio of 2.35:1. GoodFellas was photographed on location in Queens, New York and in New Jersey, during the spring and summer of 1989 for a budget of $25 million. JFK Airport, where the gang carry out the Lufthansa heist, doubled as Idlewild Airport; the airport's cargo buildings were used for the Air France hold-up and the Lufthansa job. The airport diner is Jackson Hole Diner, with its distinctive 'Airline' plane sign above the entrance. Henry's neighbourhood was filmed around Astoria in Queens, the railway bridge was the Long Island Railroad trestle in Queens. The Copacabana Club actually exists, and was filmed, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, while the 'Bamboo Lounge' was the Hawaii Kai restaurant. During the making of the film, the real Hill received ten phone calls a day from Scorsese and De Niro, although Liotta didn't really get to know Hill until after the film's release; he didn't want the real Henry to alter his take on the character during filming.
As with Mean Streets, Scorsese's soundtrack is littered with classics. Scorsese evokes the different decades through period music. Tony Bennett aptly croons 'From Rags to Riches' over the title sequence. Italian Mina sings the beautiful 'This World We Love In', in the scene where we are introduced to Paulie's crew in the sixties. other classics include 'Then He Kissed Me' by the Crystals, 'Leader of the Pack' by the Shangri-Las and 'Frosty the Snowman' by the Ronettes, while Dean Martin sings the appropriate 'Ain't that a Kick in the Head'. The Rolling Stones provide 'Gimme Shelter', 'Monkey Man' and 'Memo from Turner' (from Performance). Cream's 'Sunshine of your Love', Donovan's 'Atlantis', George Harrison's 'What is Life' and the Who's 'The Magic Bus' all make an appearance. 'Mannish Boy', the blues song by Muddy Waters, was also performed by Waters in Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz (1976). The end titles, following the shot of Henry in his new anonymous suburban identity, play out with Sid Vicious's version of 'My Way' from The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980).
The mob depicted in GoodFellas is the archetypal one big happy Italian family. The film is steeped in the Italian immigrant tradition of Scorsese's own childhood, growing up in the 'Little Italy' district. Their heritage is particularly noticeable through the Italian emphasis on the preparation and consumption of rich food. As Henry Hill himself noted, 'In 1957 grade-A imported prosciutto was all the evidence the government needed to prove there was a Mafia in the US'. Eating and wiseguys go together: you make better decisions on a full stomach; years later, Hill co-wrote 'The Wiseguy Cookbook'. There is also a lot of background dialogue based on language from the 'old country' - Sicilian slang from the older wiseguys (which is explained with footnotes in the published continuity script).
The gangsters' world is especially dangerous; there is an edge to some of the Bamboo Lounge scenes, for instance, where the threat of violence is omnipresent. The hoods, like Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, are constantly joking around; this ribbing, riling, violent horseplay is referred to in wiseguys' slang as 'busting' or 'breaking their balls'. In the film's most famous scene, Tommy tells a funny anecdote in his inimitable way and then flies off the handle when Henry says, laughing, that Tommy is 'really funny'. 'What do you mean I'm funny?' snaps Tommy, his rant escalating in venom: 'I mean, funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh. I'm here to fucking amuse you. What do you mean funny? Funny, how? How am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me?' before revealing that he's just joking around. This scene was written and then improvised by Pesci himself.
Familial and gang loyalty is paramount in Scorsese's films and in this respect, GoodFellas is the middle film of his 'New York Gangs' trilogy: bracketed by Mean Streets (1973) and Gangs of New York (2002). When Henry is convinced he is about to become the target of his own kind, he recalls: 'They never tell you that they're going to kill you .so your murderers come with smiles. They come as friends, the people who have cared for you all your life, and they always seem to come at a time when you're at your weakest and most in need of their help.'
Henry's voiceover lends immediacy to his story and is highly effective; more so than the 'March of Time' framework that performed this function in the old Warners movies. 'As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster,' says Henry, as we see three hoods murdering a helpless elderly victim in the trunk of a car. 'To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. You were treated like a film star.' Later, when Henry first meets Karen, her voiceover tells the story from her perspective. Everywhere the gangsters go, the red carpet is rolled out - the best seats, free drinks, kickbacks. In a memorable scene, Henry impresses Karen on a date by jumping the Copacabana Club queue, taking her down through the kitchens and whisking her to a table right beside the cabaret (this scene is impressively lensed in one long take by Scorsese).
An opening 'flash-forward' to 1970 depicts the killing of'made' man Billy Batts and introduces us to Henry, Jimmy and Tommy in violent fashion; later the story is contextualised. In a bar, Batts riles Tommy. After hours, Tommy returns and with help from Jimmy and Henry he viciously beats up Batts. Hill notes that in reality Tommy pistol-whipped 'made' man 'Billy Bates' until the weapon fell apart. With Batts unconscious in the trunk of their car, the trio visit Tommy's mother in the middle of the night to pick up a shovel. The black comedy of these scenes is well played by the actors and Catherine Scorsese. Although they're in a rush, she insists they join her in the kitchen for pasta. Tommy says they've hit a deer and wants to borrow a butcher's knife; he explains she's seen him so little because 'I've been working nights'. Later the trio drive into woodland and hear banging in the trunk - they open it and Tommy stabs Batts, who is beginning to recover, with his mother's knife, and Jimmy shoots him. In Hill's actual recollections, they finished Batts off by clobbering him with a shovel and a tyre iron, then they buried him, covering him with lime. The coda to the story is also true: six months later they discover that the land is to be developed and they have to go back and disinter the body. As they dig, Jimmy and Tommy joke around: 'Here's an arm.' 'Here's a leg, here's a wing... hey what do you like? A leg or a wing?'
The most memorable character in the film is Tommy DeVito. Pesci was well cast as the killer, a hood of whom it was said that he would shoot you 'just because he felt like trying out a new gun'. Pesci's machine-gun delivery, profuse swearing and violence put him in a different league to his co-actors: a Cagney for the nineties. Interestingly, the only scenes where Tommy doesn't swear are the ones with his mother. He is respectful, like mother's boy Cody Jarrett in White Heat, whom Tommy resembles in terms of his furiously volatile temper. Tommy is 'crazy... a cowboy'; the last image of the film is Tommy firing a pistol at the camera, echoing a scene in the silent western The Great Train Robbery (1903). As revenge for killing 'made' man Billy Batts without permission from his bosses, Tommy is 'whacked'
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