Karen: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”
It is exhilarating – and it’s a continuous three minute-long single take, no edits. The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”provides the underscore. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill hands some bills to the valet attendant. Lorraine Bracco – playing his date and future wife Karen – exclaims “You’re leaving your car?” They cross the streets approaching the Copacabana nightclub and a crowd waiting to get in, and walk towards them. They make their way in through a service entrance. “I like to go in this way, better than waiting in line,” he confidently proclaims. We’re eagerly tagging along behind them – trying to keep up with their pace. They go down a few stairs, make a sharp left and then another right turn. The doors open and we’re greeted by a welcoming security guard. Henry is holding Karen’s hand and he’s leading us through the labyrinthian narrow hallways of the kitchen, making quite a few further turns. There’s a lot happening in the kitchen. It’s a busy night. It’s all quite electric. Henry greets staff who seem accustomed to his appearance and salute him warmly. A bus boy carrying a dishwashing tray of glasses cuts our path – Karen and Tony still moving ahead. We catch up with them and we finally enter the nightclub. Colors are red. It feels warm and inviting in here. “Nice to see you,” the maître d’ tells Henry. He commands a waiter to bring a table – which appears from the left and we follow it, the flapping white tablecloth leading the way like the sail on a boat. It is stationed right in front of the stage where the band is. Another waiter puts down chairs. Henry tips the maître d’ and the couple sits down. Karen is impressed. She comments he’s given everyone $20. An adjacent table sends a bottle of Dom Perignon – the camera moves for us to see them waving hello. There hasn’t been a single cut yet. “What do you do?” she asks. “I’m in construction,” he says. She caresses his hand. “They don’t feel like they’re in construction.” “I delegate,” he states.” The show gets started and Benny Goodman begins his act. Just like Karen has been seduced by Henry’s brashness, we have been seduced by Scorsese’s. This scene took a lot of planning to achieve but it’s a rush and awe-inducing.
“Goodfellas” (1990) propels forward with stunning virtuosity. This is Scorsese’s crowning achievement – what he does here has been imitated in other movies but nothing has come close to his storytelling abilities. It details the true story of the rise and fall of Henry Hill from 1955 through the 80s– and his two unstable friends Jimmy Conway and the mercurial and dangerous Tommy – as they climb the ranks of the Mafia from petty crimes to murders, one of the biggest heists in history and drug dealing. “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Henry. We’re told this story from his point of view – we hear directly from him as his voice moves us forward – introducing characters. Scorsese assertively uses freeze frames as if they were yellow highlighters to make greater emphasis on important moments or characters we should remember. And then abruptly, the commanding Karen will at times take over the narration. “I couldn’t stand him,” she tells us. “I thought he was really obnoxious. He kept fidgeting around…” Early in the film, Jimmy Conway – played in great form by Robert DeNiro – tells Henry that there are two lessons in life, “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Of course, breaking these rules will be Henry’s only way to stop the madness and his disgrace.
The arc of the narrative is told in three movements. The vertiginous and thrilling ascent; the complications of success and a life in crime; and the spiraling collapse. Scorsese matches those movements with the camera work, the pace of the editing and a torrent of a sonic world – comprised of juke box music. The content and style are perfectly in sync. By the time we get to the last reel, when the DEA is closing in on Henry and his drug deals – the frenzied and jaunty cutting will match his drug-induced state. Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” starts speeding things up. Shots of the helicopter and Harry’s paranoia are enhanced by George Harrison’s “What is Life” – and it all comes crashing down to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”
There are extraordinary set pieces and moments that thrill this film geek. I’m particularly fond of the stopover at Tommy’s mother’s house – in the middle of one of the most violent and outrageous murders – to pick up a spade. The mother – played by the director’s own – Catherine – is awake and forces them to sit down and have a meal – while the still alive body of Billy Bats is thrashing in the trunk of the car. “Did Tommy ever tell you about my painting?” she asks, completely deadpan. She brings out the painting of a man on a canoe with two dogs. “”One dog goes one way and the other goes the other,” she comments. The camera zooms in on the man in the painting with white hair and a beard. “Looks like someone we know,” says Jimmy – obviously referring to the body they have in the vehicle parked outside.
Joe Pesci won a Best Supporting Oscar as the psychopathic Tommy, but everyone’s a standout – including Lorraine Bracco, Ray Liotta as Henry and Paul Sorvino as the mob boss Paulie.
I still cannot believe this film didn’t win Best Picture. It’s Scorsese’s best and a towering film in history.
Henry Hill : “If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”
Available to stream on Netflix and Sling and to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, FandangoNOW, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Pileggi
Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino
Writer and Director Martin Scorsese on Bringing “Goodfellas” to the Screen
“I read a review of ‘Wiseguy’ when I was directing ‘The Color of Money,’ and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it.” (rollingstone.com)
Author and Co-Screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi on the Casting of “Goodfellas”
Nicholas Pileggi – who co-wrote ‘Goodfellas’ – looked back on the film’s unusual casting process, saying “We’d put the word out [to the Mob guys]: ‘Anybody who wants to be in the movie, come.’ [Scorsese] must have hired like half a dozen guys, maybe more, out of the joint.” Kristi Zea, the production designer on “Goodfellas” recalled, “Sometimes the verisimilitude got too real. Somebody started pushing our counterfeit money, you know, the $100 bills.” Pileggi continued: “Warner Bros. now had to put [the wise guys] on the payroll, and they wanted their Social Security numbers. The wiseguys said, ‘1,2,6, uh, 6,7,8, uh, 4,3,2,1,7,8 – ’ ‘No, that’s more numbers than you need!’ They just kept reciting numbers until they were over. Nobody ever figured out where that money went or who cashed the checks.” (ranker.com)
For Hill’s two partners in crime, Scorsese turned to the stars of Raging Bull, casting Robert De Niro as Jimmy and Joe Pesci as Tommy. Actually, he didn’t think he had a part in the movie for a star of De Niro’s caliber, but the actor himself suggested he play the supporting role, and his presence helped encourage the studio to boost the budget to $25 million, the most Scorsese was allotted for a production up to that point. For the central character, Henry Hill, Scorsese wanted Ray Liotta, who had never carried a major film himself but who had attracted a lot of attention for his supporting role as Melanie Griffith’s dangerous ex-husband in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” (1986). Producer Irwin Winkler was against using Liotta until the actor pulled him aside for a long private talk. There’s no record of what was said, but when it was over Liotta had the part. To prepare for the part, Liotta obsessively listened to tapes of Pileggi’s interview with Henry Hill while driving back and forth between New York and his parents’ New Jersey home. De Niro talked personally to Hill many times about Jimmy Conway, whose real last name was Burke. According to Hill, De Niro would call him up to five times a day to discuss the minutest detail of every small action or gesture. Arguably the film’s most memorable scene, Tommy goading Henry with the threatening “How am I funny?” banter, was actually an incident that happened to Joe Pesci years before. As with many other scenes (and typical of the way Scorsese usually worked with De Niro), it was improvised between Liotta and Pesci several times, then incorporated into the script. Scorsese decided to capture it in a medium shot rather than intercutting to a lot of close-ups, so that he could get the full effect of Tommy’s diatribe on all the other characters in the scene.
The cast also includes a number of actors familiar to any fan of the genre, particularly those who watched “The Sopranos” television series. One such player is Michael Imperioli, who played the major role of Christopher on “The Sopranos,” making his third feature film appearance with “Goodfellas” as a young man who waits on the mob guys in their social club and gets his foot shot by psycho Tommy. The creators of the TV series paid homage to this film by having Christopher do the same thing to a bakery employee and then remarking casually, “It happens.” Scorsese also used members of his own family and not for the first time. Mother Catherine makes her third appearance in one of her son’s films as Tommy’s mother, improvising a kitchen scene with De Niro, Liotta, and Pesci. Father Charles, in his fifth Scorsese film, plays the prisoner who gets chided for putting too many onions in the tomato sauce. Also in the cast, as Jimmy’s wife, is Julie Garfield, whose father, John Garfield, often played an early prototype of the New York tough guy in his brief but memorable film career (1938-1951). And the U.S. attorney who negotiates with Karen and Henry Hill about entering the Witness Protection Program is played by Edward McDonald, the real-life federal attorney who did the actual negotiating with the Hills. Following the popularity and critical praise for the film upon its release, Henry Hill couldn’t resist letting people know he was the basis for the lead character. Some sources say this was why he was taken out of the protection program, although other sources cite multiple drug arrests as the reason. In the years since the end of this story, Hill has been, among other things, an Italian chef, and once operated a restaurant called “Wise Guys.” He was sentenced to two years probation for public drunkenness in March 2009. Hill is the only one of the principals in the famous 1978 Lufthansa heist (a central plot point of the film) still alive. Jimmy Burke lived to see the release of the movie (and claimed De Niro consulted with him frequently, although that has been disputed) but died in prison in 1996 of lung cancer, eight years before he would have been eligible for parole. (tcm.com)
The Music of “Goodfellas”
Christopher Brooks – the music editor for ‘Goodfellas’ – recalled, “Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film. There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor.” In the film, Scorsese uses nostalgic ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop songs to ground Henry Hill’s childhood days spent working for the Mafia in a recognizable historical period. As Hill becomes entrenched in mounting mob activities and substance abuse in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, songs like “Layla” by Eric Clapton and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones jar viewers out of youthful innocence and into the unforgiving world of adulthood. Scorsese explained his inspiration for the soundtrack, saying: “When I talk about recreating the spirit of that world, the music is as important as the dialogue and the behavior. From 1947 on, music scored what was happening in the streets, the back rooms. And it affected, sometimes, the behavior of the people, because this music was playing in the streets. Jukeboxes were brought out during the summer. Windows were open, and you could hear what everybody else was listening to. It expresses the excitement of the time. Simply, it’s the way I saw life. The way I experienced life.” (ranker.com)
Author and Co-Screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi on Henry Hill
Adapted by Pileggi and director Martin Scorsese into the 1990 film ‘GoodFellas,’ it follows the rise and fall of true-life Brooklyn gangster Henry Hill — “a little cog” in the Lucchese crime family who turned FBI informant after a drug arrest. “He was sort of a soldier in Napoleon’s army,” Pileggi remembers. “And I said, ‘You know, if you’re going to do a book about Napoleon, it might be interesting to see that world from the point of view of the soldier.’ ” The other key part of Hill’s appeal as a subject, Pileggi explains, is that he was no dummy. “He was extremely articulate, he was funny, and he was an easy interview,” Pileggi tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “He remembered everything. The first money he made was on a number — he bet the number. He was a little kid, like 16 or 17. The number came in, and it was like 1,200 bucks. And I said, ‘What’d you do with the money?’ And he said, ‘I put it down on a yellow Bonneville convertible.’ I mean, this guy not only remembers what he did, he remembers the color of the car.” Hill might just have been spinning yarns, of course, but Pileggi had a pretty thorough fact-checker. Hill was in the federal witness protection program, and “everything he told me, he was basically telling the FBI. And if he lied — or the FBI or the U.S. attorney caught him in a lie — he was getting yanked out of the program. He was gone. He was gonna go back into prison, where about 1,400 mob guys were waiting to kill him.” In some ways, Hill was a kind of model employee. He was charismatic, even charming. He worked hard to get ahead. “But he wanted to put all that energy into doing bad things,” Pileggi shrugs. “He thought of [ordinary] people as suckers. His father was an electrician; he said: ‘My father gets on a subway every day, and he goes back and forth, and he comes home with no money. I’d rather go out there and steal, and make as much money as I can, and live as good a life as I can.’ ” And Hill did love to spend — but only when he had to.
“They’d just take a suitcase full of cash, jump on a plane, fly to Las Vegas,” Pileggi says. “Sometimes they would take private planes and stiff the private charter service — I mean, everything had to be a scam and a ripoff — and they would go and lose all this money in Las Vegas. And then they’d fly back and have to go rob somebody else. That’s the lifestyle.” Hill went from almost complete anonymity — he had multiple identities, but no legitimate Social Security number — to substantial fame after Pileggi told his story. It wasn’t something he entirely enjoyed, says Pileggi, who remains in touch with the 63-year-old ex-gangster even today. “He’s ambivalent about it. He’s proud of his book, but he knows he betrayed all of these people to whom he was closer than anything.” Hill didn’t take well, either, to life in hiding. “He was an addictive person to begin with,” Pileggi says. “Once he went into the witness program, he wound up drinking more than he should; there was probably not a pill out there he didn’t take.” Drug busts and drunken-driving arrests followed. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, of course, he would be arrested under whatever alias they gave him,” Pileggi says. “And then he would call the Marshals, and somehow they would get him out. So it gave him a kind of immunity. But it also meant there was nothing to hold him back.” Even when it came to close relationships, Hill didn’t play by the rules. He called Pileggi once on the phone, with news: “I’m getting married.” “I said, ‘Henry, you’re already married,’ Pileggi remembers. ” ‘You’ve got two kids.’ He said ‘No, no, I’m not marrying under my old name. Under my new name.’
“That, of course, was annulled,” Pileggi says. “But that’s who he is; that’s the way these guys live. They move in a manic world, with no downtime.” The book, like the movie it inspired, belongs to a genre that some have accused of glorifying the Mafia life. And there’s no question there were parts of Hill’s life that seem attractive at first glance. “The first half of the movie is this little kid falling in love with the lifestyle,” Pileggi says. “And a lot of people like the beginning of the movie, because it’s great fun. But then the criminality of that world kicks in, and you see the price you pay. There’s not much to glorify.” Still, the author acknowledges, Hill himself probably misses his mob days. “This is a kid with very little education, a whole bunch of money — he could go to the Copacabana, he could walk through the kitchen and get a table right there in front, with Tony Bennett singing to him,” Pileggi says. “Now, I don’t think of that as ‘glorifying the lifestyle.’ … I’m just trying to articulate what it was about that lifestyle that then allowed him to do horrible things.” Things like beating people up. Like breaking a guy’s arm by slamming a car door on it. “For certain types — like Henry and the guys around him — that’s what they were willing to do to have the money and the access and the power,” Pileggi says. (npr.org)
About Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus
The son of Oskar Ballhaus and Lena Hutter, stage actors, Michael Alexander Ballhaus was born in Berlin on Aug. 5, 1935. In 1943, amid the Allied bombardment of Berlin, the family moved to Coburg, in Bavaria. After the war, Michael’s parents founded a theatrical company, the Fränkische Theater, and the family went to live in the theater’s home, a disused castle outside Coburg. Young Michael pined to be an actor, but his parents, who knew the uncertainties of that calling, insisted on something more secure. He trained as a still photographer, but after being allowed onto the set of “Lola Montès” (1955), the last film directed by Max Ophuls, a family friend, he became smitten by the moving image. In the late 1950s, Mr. Ballhaus became a television camera operator in Baden-Baden, in southwestern Germany. A decade later, he was summoned by Fassbinder to shoot “Whity” (1971), a melodrama centering on the butler to a fractured American family in the Old West. His first experience of Fassbinder, Mr. Ballhaus recalled, was a harbinger of their many later collaborations, which also included “Fox and His Friends” (1975) and “Satan’s Brew” (1976). “He was very dictatorial,” Mr. Ballhaus told The Times in 1986. “He wanted to own you. But he was also a tremendously exciting man and director. Toward the end, though, he was using more and more cocaine — he was up to as much as five grams on ‘The Marriage of Maria Braun,’ the last film I did with him, and it became impossible.” After moving to the United States in the early 1980s, Mr. Ballhaus shot his first film for Mr. Scorsese, “After Hours.” A dark picaresque released in 1985, it follows the fortunes of a young New Yorker, played by Griffin Dunne, as he weathers a series of nocturnal misadventures. Reviewing the film in The Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The best thing about ‘After Hours,’ however, is the photography by Michael Ballhaus,” adding: “Mr. Ballhaus’s camera takes on an aggressive, willful personality of its own. Racing across images, like a dog straining at a leash, to scrutinize small details, or watching with rapt attention as a $20 bill floats to earth, the camera plays the role of a narrator whose manner is amused, skeptical and not at all inclined to allow itself to become sentimentally involved.”
Generally credited with restoring luster to Mr. Scorsese’s career, “After Hours” earned him the best-director award at the Cannes Film Festival and has endured as a cult favorite. Mr. Ballhaus’s later collaborations with Mr. Scorsese include “The Color of Money” (1986) and “The Age of Innocence” (1993). Among his other films are “Baby It’s You” (1983), by John Sayles; “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), by Frank Oz; “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), by Mr. Coppola; “Quiz Show” (1994), by Mr. Redford; “Working Girl” and “Primary Colors,” both by Nichols; Volker Schlöndorff’s television adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman; and music videos for Madonna, including “Papa Don’t Preach” (1986), directed by James Foley. His laurels include an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement from the Berlin Film Festival. Mr. Ballhaus, whose eyesight began to fail as a result of glaucoma, retired after shooting “3096 Days” (2013). Directed by his second wife, Sherry Hormann, it is based on the true story of Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian woman abducted and held prisoner for more than eight years. Mr. Ballhaus’s first wife, Helga Betten, whom he married in 1958, died in 2006; he married Ms. Hormann in 2011. Besides Ms. Hormann, his survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Florian, a cinematographer whose credits include “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), and Jan-Sebastian, an assistant director; a sister, Nele Maar; and four grandchildren. As Mr. Ballhaus made plain in interviews and throughout his work, the photographic stasis that some cinematographers seemed to favor was emphatically not for him. “If it’s a movie,” he told the magazine American Cinematographer in 2007, “it’s got to move.”
With a filmography of more than 100 pictures, he worked alongside Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Barry Levinson, among other directors. But he was most closely associated with Fassbinder, for whom he shot more than a dozen films in turbulent collaboration, and Mr. Scorsese, for whom he shot seven in satisfying amity. (Mr. Ballhaus, who often declared that he abhorred violence, esteemed Mr. Scorsese’s work so much that he swallowed hard and kept on shooting whenever the viscera started to fly.) Mr. Ballhaus’s best-known pictures include Mr. Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Departed (2006), which won the best-picture Oscar; “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), written and directed by Steve Kloves; and Nichols’s “Postcards From the Edge” (1990). His films for Fassbinder included “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972), “Despair” (1978) and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979). Mr. Ballhaus received Academy Award nominations for “Broadcast News” (1987), directed by James L. Brooks; “The Fabulous Baker Boys”; and “Gangs of New York.” In a statement, Mr. Scorsese recalled: “We started working together in the ′80s, during a low ebb in my career. And it was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies.” It is the task of a cinematographer (or a director of photography, as the position is also known) to conjure a film’s visual aesthetic, realizing the director’s vision through meticulous choices concerning lighting, film stock, camera angles, the rhythm and flow of camera movements, and much else. Hallmarks of Mr. Ballhaus’s style include shots so fluid that the camera, a normally unwieldy creature, takes on the persona of a dancer. Over the years, critics concurred, he conceived some of the most emblematic camera movements in world cinema. His signature shot, instantly recognizable as his work, was the 360-degree dolly, a tracking shot in which the moving camera describes a circle around its subject. He first used the shot in the early 1970s for Fassbinder and became so enamored of it that he reprised it in many subsequent films. (nytimes.com)
About Writer and Director Martin Scorsese
Born in New York City on November 17, 1942 and raised in Little Italy, Martin Scorsese directed Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets” (1973) with Harvey Keitel, “Taxi Driver” (1976) with Jodie Foster, “New York, New York” (1977) with Liza Minnelli, “Raging Bull” (1980), “The King Of Comedy” (1983) with Jerry Lewis, “Goodfellas” (1990) with Ray Liotta, “Cape Fear” (1991) with Nick Nolte, “Casino” (1995) with Sharon Stone. He directed Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York” (2002) with Daniel Day-Lewis, “The Aviator” (2004) about Howard Hughes, “The Departed” (2006) with Jack Nicholson, “Shutter Island” (2010), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). He also directed “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) with Ellen Burstyn, “The Color of Money” (1986) with Tom Cruise, “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) with Willem Dafoe, “The Age of Innocence” (1993) with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Kundun” (1997), Hugo (2011), “Silence” (2016) with Andrew Garfield, and “The Irishman” (2019) with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. (goldenglobes.com)