Going Undercover: ‘Goodfellas’
“When I was broke, I just went out and robbed some more. We ran everything. We paid off lawyers. We paid off cops. Everybody had their hands out. And now it’s all over.”
The relationship between organized crime in film and the reality which it is based on is both distorted and uncomfortably close. Often, on the silver screen, crime is sensationalized, a guiltless opportunity to root for the bad guys. But as I articulated with both previous installments of this series, I found that organized crime can expose dark truths about identity and American values. We don’t just consume mob mythology for the wisecracking and the brutality; under the surface, we connect with something deeper.
With that said, the best way I can conclude this cultural thread of the series is by digging deep on one of the most accurately told mob movies ever: “Goodfellas.” The mafia-fascinated journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who penned the film’s nonfictional source material “Wiseguy” ensured that nearly every scene is based on an event that actually happened, every line of narration an anecdote from the stories’ actual gangsters.
The result is a nuanced spectacle of the mafia that points out both the humanity and lack thereof among its members. Henry Hill, the story’s sharp, laconic main player complicates his sense of cultural identity when he joins the mob. While working at his neighborhood’s seedy cab stand is all he’s ever wanted, he can never truly be one of the family.
“My father, who was Irish, was sent to work at the age of 11, and liked that I got myself a job,” Hill says. “And my mother was happy after she found out that the Ciceros came from the same part of Sicily as she did. I mean, to my mother, that was the answer to all her prayers.” Henry’s half-Irish, half-Italian heritage prevents him from securing a position in the upper echelons of the mafia. His existence as an immersed outsider to the roiling, brutish politics of Sicilian families not only gives the film a unique perspective, but shapes Hill’s bitingly sardonic worldview.
For playing a boozing, robbing, racketeering wiseass, Ray Liotta’s performance as Hill is surprisingly quiet. Hill’s cool reservation is linked to his isolation from the mob, his hesitation to always speak in sharp contrast to the vitriolic comedy of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito. Tommy, a total Sicilian, is something of a foil to Hill, a hypothetical path of even greater reputation and criminal success if Henry weren’t part Irish.
One of the subtlest moments in the film that lays out this parallel is when the two are eating dinner at Tommy’s mother’s house along with Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway. “Henry, what’s the matter? You don’t talk too much. You don’t eat much, you don’t talk much,” his mother observes. And with his signature calmness, Henry replies with a chuckle, “I’m just listening.” To that, Tommy’s mother launches into a joke about a similarly tight-lipped man, concluding that “In Italian, it sounds much nicer.” What better way to articulate Henry’s permanent feeling of exclusion from the Sicilians around him?
The most hilarious part of this conversation, though, is that from Tommy’s car, a gagged mob boss, Billy Batts thuds against the inside of the trunk. Later on, when Billy, Tommy and Henry must dig up Batts’s body and rebury it, the movie goes a step further in distinguishing Henry from his brutal companions. Tommy jests while hoisting his Batts that they’re going eat wings at his mother’s house that night. Henry, in arguably the most realistic response to that comment, turns away and wretches. As much as he accepts and partakes in the mob’s violent deeds, he has a conscience. His isolation not only blocks him from becoming a “made man” like Tommy eventually does, but makes him less desensitized to gore than his fellow wiseguy.
The other fascinating aspect of Hill’s ethnic separation from the mob is that it may be the reason that he was spared from life in prison. In “Wiseguy,” Pileggi draws from Nassau County Narcotics Detective Daniel Mann to reveal exactly what made Hill an precious potential informant for the FBI. “Henry, in fact, was neither of high rank nor particularly vicious; he wasn’t even tough as far as the cops could determine. What distinguished Henry from most of the wiseguys who were under surveillance was the fact that he seemed to have total access to all levels of the mob world.” In other words, Henry’s ability to scale effortlessly between various echelons of the organization the reason he could inform on each of them.
In the end, Henry’s illegibility to become a “made” boss with his own unit working under him saved him from the heat. His outsider status was a blessing in disguise. In examining “Goodfellas” through a lense of cultural division, it becomes apparent that, what separates us from those around can shape us for the better.
Henry Hill is certainly not a defensible character. He is at his best a charismatic natural mastermind, and at his worst, a paranoid, drug-addicted, convict. And yet, he somehow gives us all someone to root for in the underworld of crime. Henry is at once a shimmering, impossibly magnetic image of the mafia’s verve and a wide window into the harsh realities of organized crime — a brute and a sympath.