Monday, June 4, 2012

Goodfellas - The Story of the Real Wiseguys

"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster." 

Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised that this statement by Henry Hill, real life gangster-turned- informer, made the right connections for Martin Scorsese.  They both grew up with that peculiarly American desire never to be a disappointment to themselves.  For Scorsese, the adolescent vortex sent him flying towards the vocation of priesthood, but the altarpiece gave way to the cinema screen.  Hill was not so high minded.  Respect, easy money and never having to stand in a queue were the prerequisites of a desirable life.  

'On Tuesday, May 22, 1980, a man named Henry Hill did what seemed to him the only sensible thing to do: he decided to cease to exist.'  So begins Nick Pileggi's Wiseguy, a bestseller in 1985 that exploded several myths in its worm's eye view of the New York Mafia at play.  This story of sustained robbery, corruption and casual murder was far from the patrician world of darkened Long Island mansion living rooms found in the Godfather.  Wiseguy was mainly the first-person testimony of a half-italian, half-irish kid.  In 1955, at the age of eleven, he wandered into a Brooklyn cabstand looking for a part-time, after-school job.  His efficiency in running errands led to his being accepted into the family of Paul Vario, and within a few years he was stealing cars, running up expensive tabs and dabbling in occasional urban violence.  He married, had children, set himself up with a girlfriend, and in 1972 was sentenced to 20 years for extortion.  He walked out of prison in 1978, by now well trained in drug trafficking.  After helping put together the famous Lufthansa raid, in which 6 million dollars were lifted from Kennedy Airport, Henry watched his mob friends be murdered one buy one as a web of paranoia enveloped them all.  When he was finally caught red-handed by narcotics officers, Henry was passed over to Assistant US Attorney Edward McDonald and made to realize that a severe prison sentence for drugs conspiracy would almost certainly lead to death behind bars at the hands of his 'friends'.  With his old crew wanting him out of the way, Henry accepted McDonald's offer of going into the Federal Witness Program, and named names.  He took on a new identity in a new town, and will live the rest of his life, in his own words, as a 'schnook'.

Henry may not be known to his new neighbors, but he made sure he was known to the rest of the world.  To pay off his legal fees, he signed up with the publishers Simon & Schuster to deliver his life story.  A highly respected writer on New York magazine, Nick Pileggi was the obvious choice as his scribe.  He also grew up in the Italian-American community of New York.  Since the mid fifties, Pileggi had covered crime and the workings of the mob as a reporter.  He got to know some of the big shots by hanging out at their favorite restaurants.  But for Pileggi, Henry was a kind of different Mafia man.  He was smart, he was articulate, and he had a sense of perspective on his life that very few mobsters in the past had displayed when telling their stories.  In addition Henry had told the truth.

After reading Wiseguy, Martin Scorsese contacted Pileggi to say that he had been looking for this book for years; here was a set of characters close to those who fill all his greatest movies, men caught in the grip of devilish obsession that only a criminal life can sustain (assuming you are denied artistic talent or a religious vocation).  These were the type of stories that Scorsese himself heard as a child in Little Italy - stories people still talk about, hence the necessity for some significant changes in names when the book was made into the movie.  And in Henry Hill, Scorsese found a hero untainted by any of the fake grandiosity brought to gangsters in the standard Hollywood biopics.  Those seeking the great arc of abasement  endured by Jake La Motta will find Henry unrepentant to the end, bemoaning the cold turkey of the law-abiding life.  Scorsese's movie begins with gross act of killing, and closes with Tommy Devito firing at the camera surrounded by a hellish glow.  In Goodfellas (a substitute title was necessary because of the appropriation of 'wise guy' by the television and Brian De Palma) the gangsters are hooked on the drug of criminal ecstasy, and unlike its closest predecessor, Howard Hawks's Scarface, there are no moralizing inserts to warn us of the stuff.  Scorsese even dares to end the movie with the song 'My Way' in the version of Sid Vicious, a spit in the face of every good, clean citizen who dares to object.  

Scorsese and Pileggi workd together in an exceptionally close collaboration.  They decided separately what they felt to be the important events in Henry's rise and fall, then came together and found their preferences matched perfectly.  Then it was a case of paring away and building up certain visual ideas, meeting for regular discussion, which led to eleven drafts being produced in five months.  The insistent narration was there from the beginning, a burning memory of Scorese's excitement on watching the opening few minutes of Truffaut's Jules and Jim.  The speed and exhilaration of the early nouvelle vague was also to be recreated in the freeze frames and jump-cutting.  The final shooting script is extraordinarily close to the finished film.  Only one structural alteration is significant: the film was to have opened with Billy Batts holding court at the Suite, followed by the car sequence, with a reprise of only the latter segment in the proper chronology of events.  By placing it more centrally, the sequence now gives greater weight to the sense of Paulie Cicero losing control over his family.  But essentially the movie before us is much as Scorsese and Pileggi laid it out on paper, without a single discarded scene.  Only the characteristic improvisations and the incessant repetitions (familiar from the authentic verbal crisscross in Mean Streets and Raging Bull) have filled what were relatively sparse dialogue exchanges.  But, as Paul Schrader observed in Scorsese's treatment of his script in Taxi Driver, the words may be different but the meaning remains the same.

While the published script may be close to what is actually said in the film, no amount of detail on paper can convey the energy rush that Scorsese's camera moves give to the movie.  Seductive crane shots re-create the young Henry's adulation of the cabstand fraternity.  A four minute steadicam take glides us along with Henry and Karen into the Copacabana, spelling out the sexual allure of the criminal's omnipotence.  When Henry snorts cocaine on his last day of freedom, wild cuts and one staggering zoom combine with a whiplash use of rock tracks to draw the audience into a high of near-chaotic abandon.  Music is used throughout with the faultless sense of the unexpected familiar from the juke box delirium of Mean Streets.  If The Color of Money's delight in visual tropes over the meat and sauce of human interest, in Goodfellas, we find Scorsese caught again in the fever of life and death games, but with an even greater confidence in technique.  The fluency of Michael Ballhause's cinematography, and the sheer speed with which he works (something the audience doesn't necessarily know) have paid rich dividends.  Even the simplest shots belie the craft at hand, such as Jimmy Conway gripping his cigarette at the bar, thinking about murder with an air of satanic majesty - an effect created by running the camera at thirty-six frames per second rather than the standard twenty-four.  With Sorcese's regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker on the splicer, not a shot seems misplaced nor a cut mis-timed.

And of course there are the performances.  It is almost a cliché now, but when was there a bad performance in a Scorsese film?  Ray Liotta as a lean and hungry Henry confidently displays the character's charm as well as his frazzled wariness.  Both he and his character are up against stiff competition.  Joe Pesci's psychotically insecure Tommy is a man who couldn't be closer to the edge, while Robert De Niro as Jimmy takes on his first secondary role in a Scorsese movie, and nowhere unbalances the triumvirate.  De Niro is as watchful as ever in his pressure-cooker manner, and his angry little boy act on hearing of the death of Tommy, even has a touching helplessness.  Both Paul Sorvino's brutish impassiveness in the role of Paulie Cicero (note Scorsese's discreet placing of a bulldog by his feet) and Lorraine Bracco's exciting and excitable Karen fall naturally into place in this gallery of unconscionable rogues.  Many of the supporting cast were found among the clientele of a Bronx restaurant run by Frank Pellegrino, who wound up playing Johnny Dio as well as helping Scorsese's parents prepare the vast Italian dishes served with ritualistic zeal throughout the film.  

Goodfellas started quite a few rumbles with the ratings board in the USA, and it upset censors everywhere.  The reason is not a specific act of violence, but the fact that nowhere does Scorsese supply any special moral pleading.  Some of his on-screen crew enjoy killing, others regard it as merely buisiness.  Gangsters are gangsters because they want to be, the film tells us, and if they can have a high old time of it too, so much the better.  In the three decades the film spans, no one seems to be touched by any changes in politics, and fashions are only embraced in the tackiest of ways.  It is a self-enclosed world, but the dynamics speak much wider.  And that special mixture of comedy and terror that Scorsese has made his own is here in extra portions.  There is no excess of sentiment awash with blood; or, to put it in another way, there aren't too many onions in the tomato sauce.