CJ Wood on the transformation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy into Martin Scorcese’s film epic Goodfellas
Goodfellas is a film which lives and breathes life, a criminal life set in a world unfolded by convincing narration and a visual style which is perhaps the finest mix yet seen of visceral life and the artist’s eye.
Many of the details which make Goodfellas a compelling and involving experience are reflections of detail included in Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy. Pileggi, a seasoned crime journalist, includes a great many aspects which clearly were essential to the cinematic feel. His research into the life of Henry Hill spans further and wider than the film, but it lacks the drama and sense of reality which the film captures so perfectly. Few parts of the book are interested in specific incidents, but more a general description of what the people were like and what went on. Interestingly, many of the parts in the book did not make the film, for example Paulie’s son, what happened to people who showed Paulie disrespect and the details of various scams beyond theft and drug dealing.
The book Wiseguy is far more illuminating into the details of criminal life, and Pileggi details a good many of the scams Henry Hill ran, such as sabotaging college football games to secure a safe bet, or systematically cheating restaurants.
A good deal of the book’s content is the result of access to the FBI surveillance tapes of ‘wiseguys,’ the result of bugs in cars, restaurants and hideouts. Almost all of these tapes have loud popular songs of the day blaring on in the background. In the film, this was translated into a chronology of the years, eclectically soundtracking the film’s events. The soundtrack of the film moves in chronology with hits of the time which the gangsters lives would have taken place to, and key events are recalled with songs in mind much as most people can date a particular time in their lives to the songs they used to listen to, what they liked when they first met certain people and so on. Notably, when Henry and co are sent to prison, there is no music. Dating songs so accurately within the movie serves as a reminder of the outside world, the world of industry and culture which these guys skim and then bask in the enjoyment of their loot. The use of pop songs is a reminder of how the outer world changes, while the wiseguys live in their own world. Teenage girls swoon before Frankie Valli while the gangsters take their girlfriends to see him at exclusive venues; the best of what they want is for the taking.
One scene in particular is mentioned by the director in the book Scorsese on Scorsese. Moving into the bar the gangsters frequent at the time of the Lufthansa robbery, the camera closes in on a very suspicious looking Robert De Niro, as the 60s classic “Sunshine Of Your Love” slips the unusual mood into gear. De Niro is looking wired and the cunning in his eyes can be seen as they slide to and fro. According to Scorsese, this is the point when De Niro’s character Jimmy is deciding to kill many associates and friends – all ‘Goodfellas’ – to keep the money and cover his tracks.
(As a smartarse aside, this scene is set in the late 70s and the song was popular in the 60s – however, it was re-released and rose in the American top 40 at the time, so they would have been hearing it on the radio).
The subsequent killing spree accounts for the fates of many of the minor characters. Goodfellas? Feel safe around your friends? I’m sure you do. As narrator Henry says, “murderers come with smiles.” Robert De Niro is not shown to commit one murder, and yet corpses surround him. This is subconscious reality, as nobody around the real life figures would see much, but they would notice that people kept on winding up dead. Henry Hill in the film asks Jimmy about Stacks, who has been killed since they last saw each other. Jimmy laughs it off, and tells him not to worry about it. The result is that Henry knows their mutual friend is dead, and he isn’t even told why.
Style like this breathes. It is a clear example of pure artistic value in an industry where a price is set on anything. After the 1991 award ceremony, where Scorsese missed out on the key Oscars to Kevin Costner, Harvey Kietel – who featured in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver – commented that “Marty got what he deserved, exclusion from the mediocrity.”
The book has two narrative voices aside from Pileggi’s – that of Henry, who was accessed at great difficulty via his witness protection programme, and his ex-wife Karen. The film uses only these two narrators, and bear in mind that they are independent in a world which is very limiting. Even the wildcards Jimmy and Tommy only act within their society. Tommy who shoots on a whim, Jimmy is more calculating, but either is capable of taking life for profit or insult. They will kill their own, but sending a fellow to jail is the ultimate in contempt. Ironically, Tommy killing one of their own, a ‘made’ man, is the end of him.
Camera is the language of cinema, and Scorsese’s camera flatters and lifts the material in every way. It is a good illustration of storytelling next to fact. Pileggi’s style is functional and not flattering, although the gold of the material and long quotes of dialogue – Henry’s own words, as often occur in the film – make the book very enjoyable. The movie, however, selects careful angles for every sequence, each section depicting a clear part of the life and its place in the age, although the flow of the picture is such that it is often hard to recognise the seams. One of the most revealing touches of the movie is when the sounds of the night before – a glamorous showbiz night – carry through to the shots of the next scene, an early morning robbery, where the lack of violence (owing to the carefully arranged payoffs) underlines the nature of ‘the life.’
In the book Tommy is depicted briefly as an example of an insecure proudnut who carried two guns. He was over-anxious to prove his own ‘respectability’ (through violence) as a reaction to one of his cousins being a ‘rat’, a hideous blotch on the family name. Naturally, shooting all and sundry does a good deal for his status; or at least, who would challenge him? And so the code emerges, odd though it may be. Perhaps odd is not the word, and pure is a more accurate description of their society, where the elders are accountable to themselves and the people who do the work are answerable to them, a sort of reverse democracy.
The film is quite beautiful, owing to the lavish detail and genius cinematography. The first time I looked at the screenplay I found it hard to square the language (“So I said to him, bing! I thought I told ya, go fuck ya mother” – verbatim quote) with the film I knew well. I was falling into a popular error, that of confusing a film with its subject matter. Consider how many great and glorious films are made about ugly subjects, while the substance of beautiful lives often make trite, glossy voids. Scorsese’s film of course centres around these people, but it is his film, not theirs.
Scorsese grew up in the Bronx in the 40s, a small, athsmatic child. Unable to take part in the more vigorous activities, he spent much of his youth wide-eyed in a movie theatre, and his development seems to have been inexorably entwined with cinematic landscape. It is ironic that Scorsese and Joe Pesci, who plays the insecure psycho Tommy, are the same height; the director clearly found his size within the cinematic frame. Growth, guilt and atonement are key Scorsese themes, milestones of lives are to be had by what they have done to get where they are and how it cost them. To get his shot at the title in Raging Bull, Jake La Motta is ‘obliged’ to throw a fight; and it sours further what was already an extremely twisted man.
Scorsese’s breakthrough film, 1973’s Mean Streets, astonished in many ways. For one, it came hard on the heels on three films which could have been massively influential on Mean Streets – The Wild Bunch (1969, directed by Sam Peckinpah), Dirty Harry (1971, directed by Don Siegal) and The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola). Each of these contained violence so stylised and impressive that impersonations of their impact have never ceased, and still Scorsese was assured and individual enough to make a film very much his own. Punch ups are the currency of violence, not killings. The smacks in the face the characters exchange are enough to deter and startle, and in an odd way characterise their lives; they are children in many respects, adults who still live in world which may be harsh but does not impose ‘adult’ authority on them. Their rules and lives are very much of their own making and undoing.
The gun in Mean Streets is underplayed; it is far less a symbol of potency than a man’s good name, perhaps a remnant of Scorsese’s passion for John Ford westerns.
There are three key gun scenes. The first comes in a bar late at night, when an incensed son is avenging an insult to his father. He has brought a gun into the bar, and he shoots his foe in cold blood as the latter drunkenly leaves the men’s room. Too far gone to recognise shock or pain, the man lumbers on, and is shot time and again by his surprised killer, and comically continues to absorb shots like a pissed-up terminator. The scene is comic, despite the man’s eventual death.
Secondly, Robert De Niro threatens a creditor with a revolver he bought, the result of more borrowing. The act is seen as more dangerous to him – the man with the gun – because of who he threatens, which is a far cry from the all-powerful magnums of Clint Eastwood. This is in some sickening way real; a young man making a threat he does not understand, which he will not fulfil, towards a ‘man of respect’ who will see such an act through; and does soon after this.
Finally the shooting at the end, in which the shock and power of Scorsese’s violence first really muscles in (Scorsese, tellingly, makes a cameo as the gunman). Here, finally, the pistol makes its entrance and exit in a speeding car, and the truth of all the manipulations and warnings is out. The end is stunning, unreal for its speed and unusual brutality (cue bullet in the jugular). The camera is quick enough to shock, and the pace of the crashing car, the shots and the impact produces a disorientating result.
Now cut to Goodfellas, Scorsese’s next gangster film, 17 years on The first time I saw the film, I was under the impression I had seen an incredibly violent movie. After all, it opens with the famous ‘three guys driving around with a bloke in the boot’ scenario, and if that seems violent when taken out of context – and it does – then this is nothing next to its impact in the film’s narration, when the perpetrators go to one man’s home for a snack in between half kicking the man to death and then finishing the job with a pistol and a knife borrowed from Tommy’s mother.
This is very telling, the violence is set to remain in the mind, and to unsettle. Because of this, Goodfellas actually contains very little violence for a film of its impact. Like The Godfather, cunningly chosen setpieces make the impact. Goodfellas does not even contain half a dozen shootings, and about as many beatings. Admittedly, a few corpses wind up here and there (of the ‘here’s one I made earlier’ variety), but this is not a great deal for a movie which leaves the senses tingling.
As with Mean Streets’ second gun scene, as described above, the pistol moments are carefully chosen to ‘live the life’ for the viewer. Take one scene, in which the “murderers come as your friends” ethos is chillingly displayed. Tommy engages a man in conversation, and then comments – in keeping with the conversation: “You’ll be late for your own fuckin’ funeral,” at which point he empties the man’s head all over the white sheets with a silenced pistol, which he clinically empties into the corpse.
The scene is replayed in slow motion from a different angle, as the narration kicks in and Henry patiently explains why the man – their friend – had to die. His death, and potentially all of theirs, really is that simple. That killing was a dramatisation of a real death, a killing made for the exact same reason given in the book; namely that the man made a mistake which could undo them all and paid for it.
The mixture of this ruthlessness and an acceptable, outgoing charm is anchored in Pileggi’s book. In life, Jimmy (whose real name was Burke, not Conway) was thought to have killed over one hundred people, included an ex-boyfriend of his wife who wouldn’t stop pestering her. The unfortunate man was found in his car the day Jimmy married – sliced into a dozen pieces. Henry himself rarely performed violent acts, preferring to tip his more unstable friends towards the necessary brutality, thus saving himself the risk. Machiavelli would have been proud.
Toward the film’s incredible aftermath sequence, where several key mob figures’ corpses are uncovered, unceremoniously left in rubbish vans or meat trucks and soundtracked by the piano exit from “Layla,” Henry is heard to say, “I just gave Jimmy the tip and Jimmy gave me some Christmas money.” This is so different from the film’s glamorous, idyllic start (“it was just beautiful”), where there is enough to go around. Greed, drugs and restlessness have set in, and the end is in sight. Pileggi notes that, in the end, Henry Hill was the ultimate ‘wiseguy;’ an irony of poignant depth.
And how to regard a film – accused of amorality and glamorising the usual blah – based on such lives? Leave the last word to Tommy: “Yahoo, ya motherfucker!”
© C J Wood