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He's Way Too Nice to Be a Gangster
by Jon Schuller

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Movies have shown us villains since 1903's original The Great Train Robbery. How the bad guys execute their crimes is one thing. But finding out how they really live, where they grew up, who their friends and families are – in other words, what makes them do what they do and why – hasn't been dealt with until maybe the last 30 or 40 years. But many films from the past became cookie-cutter types, with the same familiar plots, characters and endings. Did we ever get more than just a passing glimpse into a criminal's personal life? White Heat (1949) dealt with a major villain's serious psychological fixation on his mother. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) delved into the backgrounds of the major players before and after the big jewelry heist. In 1972 and 1974 The Godfather debuted and pretty much set the standards for explaining and portraying how men and their families enter crime and make it the "family business." Some people want to romanticize this lifestyle and make the criminals some sort of peoples' champions, defenders of the little guy who can't get protection from society's ills and mis-treatments. We all know the stories of immigrants who bravely came to America looking for hope and a better life (I, myself, am the son of an immigrant), fleeing their ancient homelands where bad people ruled their lives. Opportunities for a better life did exist but weren't as easily available as the newcomers imagined. They needed help and protection. All of the real stories and legends surrounding America's Mafia have been with us for generations. Has any film-maker ever dealt with this realistically and honestly? Francis Ford Coppola led us into the world of New York's families and created the standard for "wise-guy" movies. In 1990 Martin Scorsese's instant classic, Goodfellas, which raised the bar on realism about American crime and criminals, was released. This is its 25th Anniversary year and I want to feature it in this week's column.

In 1986 writer Nicholas Pileggi's book, Wiseguy, came out. It was a factual account of Henry Hill and
his life as part of the Lucchese crime family in New York and New Jersey for 25 years. Scorsese and Pileggi co-authored the movie's screenplay. The director wanted to make an unorthodox, but realistic film about gangsters. No stereotypes if possible; almost like "a mob home movie." What these men did to get money, how they used it and spent it, the inherent violence if someone or something goes wrong, what they (and their families) did while not committing crimes or killing people – all was to be dealt with at breakneck speed, with quick cuts, improvised dialogue and, ultimately, tragic endings for most of the players.

We have the story of Henry Hill as he grows up and into the mob; the wiseguys in his neighborhood whom he admires and starts running errands for. He becomes a young bigshot with more money to spend than his own blue-collar father. Henry, as an adult, is played by Ray Liotta. He's handsome and has been aaccepted into the family despite his not being 100% Italian (although his mother is). He has become a protégé of James "Jimmy the Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro), a friend and fellow criminal with Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci)and watched over by the local mob "capo" Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Paul Sorvino). They are the central characters but there are many other marvelous character actors who populate the entire movie, giving the incredible look of its territory and the reality of life in and around a crime family. Some of the actors were former mob guys themselves and that look and sound of accuracy make Goodfellas one of the most watched and discussed films of all times. It inspired the successful long-running television series, The Sopranos, plus countless imitations, comedy skits and other films. Dialogue from the film was dubbed into scenes from Sesame Street. Joe Pesci's famous "you're a funny guy" scene was mostly ad-libbed and has been seen and duplicated thousands of times around the world. The movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards as Joe Pesci won the award for Best Supporting Actor. It was also nominated for 5
Golden Globes and 7 British Academy Film Awards, winning 5. There were 26 other nominations and awards for this film.

Henry and his buddies are involved in stealing whatever, wherever and whenever they can. They would conveniently find trucks to hijack (though many drivers were "convinced" to allow this to happen).Then, in 1978, after Henry is released from prison, they graduate from the usual small thefts to their biggest score: robbing Lufthansa Airlines at JFK International Airport of $6 million in cash. They pay their "tribute" to Paulie, share the haul with their friends, as Conway warns everyone not to spend any part of their share, making themselves obvious and bringing attention from the police and the F.B.I. Of course, someone buys a new Cadillac, or a new fur coat or is seen around town throwing lavish parties at nightclubs. Conway's retribution is swift and deadly. Slowly, some of the guys (and their wives) are mercilessly killed, as Conway ties up "loose ends."
By this time, Henry has become more involved with drugs, making and selling them. His habit started in prison. His rationale is the quick, easy cash available but he's still an addict. He is warned several times about this; it will eventually be his downfall. He had earlier in the story met a local Jewish girl in the neighborhood, the beautiful and passionate Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through his friend, Tommy, on a blind date. At first she's not impressed and confronts him in front of his friends. She's fiery and fearless. They become involved as he wines and dines her (the famous all-in-one-shot scene of getting into the Copacabana is legendary), impressing her with his apparent influence and wealth. Eventually she succumbs and he asks her to marry him. They have two weddings: a small, traditional Jewish service, followed by a lavish Italian one. All of the guests at this affair bring small envelopes, stuffed with cash, to the astonished bride. When she opens them and realizes how much is there, she tells Henry she's worried someone will try to steal the
money. He assures her no one would ever do that there.

But it was Henry's drug addiction and his increasing paranoia from making, selling and distributing the drugs that lead to his eventual downfall, Karen's disillusionment with their marriage and his entire mob family, headed by Paulie, turning against him. Jimmy assures Karen that everything will be okay but her own instincts tell her that Jimmy has something else, more sinister, in mind for her. Their world is crumbling around them, the almost-serene life they originally led, having more money and influence than they deserved, as each of the principal players gets the fate they've been waiting for. Henry turns against the mob, joining the federal Witness Protection Program; Karen divorces him after 25 years of marriage; Paulie and Jimmy wind up in jail; Tommy has been killed by the senior mob guys because he had earlier lost his temper as he beat up and killed a made guy, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent).

The old saying that crime doesn't pay is only partially true in Goodfellas. It pays well, for a while, but the inherent dangers from other players – like gangs who aren't "connected" – is a never-far-away part of the entire scene. Gangsters, like those so realistically portrayed in this landmark movie, have been at times romanticized and made out to be heroes who defy the law and the odds and beat the "system." Again, it's temporary and the odds are against success. Just like sports, where records are broken and the record-breakers last for a while, crime of this magnitude attracts attention – from law enforcement agencies especially. Becoming well-known, like John Gotti, is not what the big guys want. Henry Hill, had a meteoric rise and an equally quick fall from grace. Martin Scorsese didn't pull any cinematic punches with his tough, dramatic portrayals of these men and the people surrounding them. They're not romantic heroes by any definition. They're cold-blooded, ruthless and merciless.: no one should ever attempt to separate them from their money – for too long.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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