Martin Scorsese’s 1990 biopic of the life of mobster Henry Hill clocks in at #92 on AFI’s list. Full disclosure – I’ve seen this movie over 100 times before and it has been one of my favorite movies for as long as I can remember.
The film opens with a scene from a car where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), along with mob friends James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) are in a car and there is a banging on the trunk. They pull over and open the trunk and a badly injured man that they have in the trunk struggles to get out. Tommy stabs him multiple times. Henry Hill then self-narrates “for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a gangster”
We flash back to 1955 and learn about young Henry Hill, an Irish-Italian kid in the New York who connects up with local mobsters through a part time job at a cab stand running numbers and doing other odd jobs. He struggles with his parents – his father who beats him for skipping school and his mother who objects to the criminal element. He meets Jimmy Conway, a young legendary gangster, who is spreading money around town. Henry gets arrested for selling illegal cigarettes and his mob cronies are very pleased when he takes his punishment and doesn’t rat anybody out.
Cut ahead to 1963, Henry, Jimmy and Tommy are partners-in-crime, robbing cargo shipments at Idlewild airport (the airport that would later become JFK).
We learn that Tommy is a hot head, first through the famous “I’m funny like a clown? I’m funny, I amuse you?” speech between he and Henry and then when he breaks a bottle over the restaurant owner’s head when he is bothered about his running $7K tab. Seeing an opportunity, Henry convinces the restaurant owner to go partners with Paulie, the local boss and they proceed to steal from the restaurant until it is broke and they burn it down for insurance money.
Henry goes on a double date with Tommy and meets Karen. We learn through the next few scenes how despite a rough start, Karen falls for Henry as she becomes enamored with the power, status and money he commands. After a neighborhood man tries to sexually assault Karen, she calls Henry and he beats the guy to a blood pulp with the handle of a gun. Karen and Henry soon get married.
An out of town mobster named Billy Batts is back in town at a bar with our three leads. Billy starts picking on Tommy, reminding him he used to be a shoe shine. Tommy later comes back to the bar and kills Billy, which is a huge problem for Tommy as Billy is a made man and Tommy is not (as the movie explains, made men in the mafia are untouchable by non-made men). This brings us to the first scene of the movie, killing Billy Batts and disposing of his body.
We learn more about a mobsters life and that “Saturdays are for the wives, but Fridays are for the girlfriends”. Henry sets up his girlfriend, Janice, with an apartment nearby.
At a card game, Tommy is unhappy with the drink service he is getting from a young man named Spider and winds up shooting him in the foot. The next time we see them at that card game, Spider’s foot is in a cast and Tommy continues to pick on him. Spider tells Tommy to “go fuck yourself” and Tommy kills Spider. This scene is an interesting moment as it is one of the few times we see Henry Hill upset at the actions of his mobster friends as he comes to near tears over Spider’s body.
Henry and Karen begin to fight a lot about Henry always being out all night. Karen sleuths out Janice and calls her a whore over her intercom. She trains a gun on Henry as he is waking up and threatens to kill him. He eventually talks her out of shooting him, gets the gone and leaves the house. Paulie sits him down and tells him that he has to go back home to his wife, after a quick trip to Florida to collect a debt.
Henry and Jimmy head to Florida and collect the debt by threatening to feed the debtor to the lions at the zoo by hanging him over the ledge. It turns out his sister is a typist at the FBI and Henry and Jimmy get arrested when they return home and sentenced to 6 years in jail.
We learn about life in jail for mobsters. They have most of the guards on the take and as such, they get their own private room, premium meats and seafood they can cook and even wine and scotch. Henry is also running a drug distribution ring from prison.
Karen visits Henry in prison but see that Janice was also on the visitors log. She and Henry proceed to get in an argument. We then cut ahead 4 years to Henry’s release from jail.
Once out, Paulie warns Henry not to get involved in the drug trade. Henry agrees and then proceeds to set up a distribution ring anyway, using the connections he made in prison.
A small-time wig shop owner names Maury gets a lead on a huge Lufthansa cargo shipment and Jimmy pulls together a crew and pulls off the biggest heist in history to that point. Jimmy then proceeds to kill almost everybody on the crew rather than give them their cut.
Jimmy and Tommy learn that the bosses are going to make Tommy. We learn that of the three, Tommy is the only one eligible as Jimmy and Henry both have some Irish heritage and made mobsters are required to be 100% Italian. Tommy’s making ceremony proves to just be a set-up to execute him for killing Billy Batts and he is shot to death in the face. This is one of the few senes where Jimmy shows some real human emotion, being over wrought with the loss of his friend.
We cut to 1980 and Henry is leading a crazy life. He is attempting to cook a full Italian dinner, mix and ship a drug shipment to go with his former babysitter Lois and pick his brother up from the hospital. At this point, he appears fully addicted to drugs and frantic. There is a long sequence of his day which ultimately culminates in his arrest by narcotics agents at the FBI.
Karen’s mother mortgages her house to get Henry out on bail. He goes to see Paulie, who gives him $3200 but says he has to turn his back on him for dealing drugs behind his back. Karen goes to see Jimmy but speeds away when she suspects Jimmy is going to kill her. Henry goes to meet with Jimmy in a cafe and is asked to go to Florida for a hit, something that Jimmy has never asked Henry to do before. Henry believes Jimmy is going to have him killed in Florida.
Henry decides to turn state’s evidence and go into witness protection. He testifies against Paulie and Jimmy at their trails and then is relocated to a suburban neighborhood in parts unknown. He self narrates how his life is unexciting now, he doesn’t get the respect that he got before and the food stinks “I ordered spaghetti marinara and I got egg noodles and ketchup”. We learn that (as of the making of the movie), Paulie died in prison and Jimmy was still in prison (James Burke, who Jimmy’s character is based on, died there in 1996) and Henry and Karen had separated. As a post-script, Henry Hill died in 2012 in Los Angeles after become a more public figure in his later years.
Several things strike me about this film.
First, Henry, Tommy and Jimmy are all absolutely terrible people. Henry sells out all his friends to save himself. Tommy kills innocent people for little or no offense and has no conscience about it. Jimmy kills an entire crew of people just because he doesn’t want to share a massive heist. They do awful things to people and have little remorse or regard for anything but their own gain.
Second, the movie is exceptionally raw in terms of how it presents violence, drugs and everything else, even 29 years later. Blood and death is ever-present and portrayed graphically.
Third, this is an exceptionally well acted movie. I’m not sure why Ray Liotta didn’t have a bigger career, as he is brilliant in this film. De Niro and Pesci are brilliant in their roles, as is Lorraine Bracco (who plays Karen).
As you would expect with Scorsese, the production, screenplay and pacing of the film are all pitch perfect and we get to know all the characters in depth without any heavy-handed plot devices.
As mobster movies go, Frances Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” is ranked much higher on the AFI list at #2. I will have to get to that film to reach a definitive conclusion on which movie I like better, but I can tell you this, I have been compelled to rewatch Goodfellas a lot more times than The Godfather and that’s a pretty strong endorsement. Goodfellas is a phenomenally made movie that launched a generation of inferior films about the mafia as well as one really great HBO series. Goodfellas moved up 2 spots form the 1997 list to the 2007 list from 94 to 92 and I would argue that it should be ranked far higher.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 10/10
Overall Score 37/40
Up next, 1982’s Sophie’s Choice.