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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas is seen as an iconic movie, taking the role of a mafia man (without getting into the role of a mafia boss as in Gangster) through 30 years of his file, from a childhood yearning to be a man of power and money, to a final stage of obscurity in the Witness Protection Program, a man hidden by the Government to keep him safe from former companions (who have been betrayed). After all, in the mafia, the code of silence, 'omerta' is one of the most powerful weapons and breaking that is liable to lead to expulsion and enmity (and enmity with the mafia means death).
The number of Italian-Americans involved in the mafia is a very small fraction of the US, but the influence on the crime scene, and the level of intrigue in knowing more about their criminal activities has always had a very strong attraction for the US movie market and for audiences (and hence the large number of successful movies detailing various elements of the mafia). Goodfellas is probably one of the best in the league, and has been counted as among the top 100 movies ever made.

Goodfellas (1990)
The movie is based on a true story, about a small-time gangster of Irish-Sicilian origin (and hence not a true Sicilian, and hence never be able to be a 'made' member of the mafia. Unless you were a pure-blood Sicilian, you could never be a full member) called Henry Hill. Eventually Henry reached a situation where he squealed on his friends (or in legal parlance, he helped the police and FBI break up an organized crime gang) and had to be put in the Witness Protection Program for his own safety. This real life story was captured in Pileggi's 1985 non-fictional book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.
Goodfellas depended on the acting capabilities of a few prime actors:
Robert De Niro playing Jimmy Conway
Joe Pesci playing Tommy DeVito
Ray Liotta playing Henry Hill
Lorraine Bracco playing Karen Hill
Paul Sorvino playing Paul Cicero
And, luckily for the movie, and for us, these actors delivered. To portray a good mafia movie, there has be to a certain inherent level of violence shown both in actual physical violence as well as being able to display a force through acting and dialogues, and it all seems to have come together. Goodfellas garnered 6 Oscar nominations in all (Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay). It must not have clicked with the voters though, since it was able to get only one Oscar - Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joe Pesci.
In a Italian-American neighborhood in the 1950's, mafia members had a certain attraction for boys growing up due to the easy money and power they projected, and Henry Hill was one of the boys so impressed. Eventually, he quits school and goes to work for the local mobster Paul Cicero and grows up in this company, learning the ropes of theft. He gets help from Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and associates with a violent sociopath Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They indulge in stealing cargo from the airport and make a pretty penny out of this racket. Henry also falls for a Jewish girl, Karen who initially is put off by him, but slowly gets intrigued by the mafia and the different life it entails for a member.
They (particularly Tommy) get more vicious, and eventually indulge in the ultimate sin, killing a 'made' mafia member without sanction, and hide the body so as to seemingly escape the responsibility and retribution. One of their activities in Florida (hanging a gambler over the lion cage in Florida zoo) gets them 4 years in the slammer, a period when Henry is left adrift by his friends and he has to start indulging in dealing drugs to stay afloat (and which also starts his downslide). When Henry gets out of jail, he continues to indulge in the profitable business of drugs despite Paul Cicero's express disapproval.
The downfall of these gangsters continue - primarily displayed in 2 separate situations. In the first one, after a major robbery, Jimmy starts killing off his associates because they start flashing their wealth, something that could draw attention. And then Tommy is killed due to his role in the earlier unsanctioned killing of the mafia member, Billy Batts.
The day which changes Henry's life occurs on Sunday, May 11th, 1980, when Henry is involved in many separate things. He has to coordinate a cocaine shipment, meet his mistress, get his brother from the hospital, cook a meal for his family, all the while when he is suffering from lack of sleep and an overdose of drugs; on top of everything, he is under federal surveillance. Eventually, he is arrested by the police; he is bailed out by his wife but the family becomes penniless as she had destroyed the entire cocaine shipment in the process.
Now Henry starts feeling abandoned, and not only abandoned, as being marked for elimination. He decides to turn approver, and break the code of silence. He and his family enter the federal Witness Protection Program, disappearing into anonymity to save their lives, but not before he testifies against Paulie and Jimmy in court.
The movie was a great review hit and earned around $47 million dollars, and also cemented Martin Scorsese's reputation as a great director. Scorsese wanted to depict the film's violence realistically, "cold, unfeeling and horrible, and that was the effect that the film's critics and viewers got to see.

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