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That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain

I asked my husband to challenge me to watch and post about any movie of his choosing. I thought he would pick some direct to video crap like Dangerous Men. But he shocked me by asking me for my thoughts on one of his favorite real movies, the 1990 Henry Hill biopic Goodfellas.

It might have been easier just to mock a bad movie. It’s no secret that I don’t like gangster movies all that much, for reasons kind of outlined by Ray Liotta’s Hill near the end of the movie when he talks about your killers being your smiling friends. And I will admit, probably to some disapproval, that my favorite Scorsese film is The Last Waltz. I don’t mean that I look at his filmography and say, “that’ll do” when I get to The Last Waltz either, I mean that is a concert film that I hold close to my heart that he happens to have directed.

But even though I’ve forbidden my husband to watch The Sopranos while I’m in the room because it gives me nightmares, and even though I only watch Goodfellas with him on his annual viewing, I find Goodfellas to be an easy movie to lose myself in. Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s “true crime.” Goodfellas seems to fly through its 2.5 hour running time as if it were the length of a regular 90 minute movie. And I have to admit something else to you: most 90 minute movies lose my interest in the last 30 minutes because so many writers know how to start a story, but they don’t know how to end one. Ironically, two of my other favorite real movies, JFK and Zodiac, are really really long. But they’re also both based on true stories.

It’s not that I don’t like crime fiction, Lord knows I exist on a steady diet of Morse and Lewis and Frost and The Brokenwood Mysteries. But those stories have literary references, witty dialogue, foreshadowing and are about watching the detective figure out who did it by figuring out why first. Gangster movies are more like watching Columbo because you already know who did it, and you know why. There’s no poetic device to it, unless you count that one scene in The Godfather where they kill everyone intercut with the christening, and I still couldn’t tell you why they killed everyone without rewatching.

Yeah, I would like to say it’s because The Sopranos doesn’t feature a drunk genius solving crossword puzzles, but the truth is that I was a bullied neurodivergent child who has trouble working out people’s intentions, and even got bullied by a 20 year old who acted like a kindergartner through an entire semester of college French (AND the bully’s two sorority sisters who were also in the class had the cheek to sneak over to my apartment for a tutoring session before the final, and I let them because it seemed like petty revenge that they came to me and not her, plus I admired their sheer audacity) hell, even as an adult I was bullied in the workplace in a story that’s so strange I have to remember to tell it here in a future post, and now I avoid almost everyone because I assume their intentions are bad.

People I thought were my friends taking me in their car to a supposed party, or out on a boat in the case of The Sopranos, and then killing me as I sit there like a dog who thinks its going to the park, seems like a metaphor for my entire life up until age 30, even though I will fully admit that Joe Pesci’s character was a serial killer no different than the fictional Michael Myers and needed to be put down. (And Goodfellas is a better movie than Halloween.) Like I would never have gotten in the car to go be a made man, because I would have been all like, “I’m not a joiner” and then blocked their numbers in my phone.

And that’s why I can’t go for gangster movies.

You’re all familiar with the story of Henry Hill, so I don’t need to write a synopsis. And if you’ve somehow wandered onto my site by mistake, I have to tell you I don’t do movie reviews except as a form of self-discovery. There are two scenes that really impressed me on recent viewing, and I don’t know what either of them means. First of all, when Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy go to Tommy’s mother’s house to get a shovel to bury Billy Batts and end up eating a midnight snack with her. Why does she have a painting all ready to go right under the table to show off to them? Does she hold that painting under the table every time she sits down to serve dinner? Does the image in the painting somehow reveal something about how she shaped the serial murderer Tommy? I mean, we know that Henry was abused by his father, and that Jimmy just really liked stealing and so probably had a personality disorder, but we don’t know what created Tommy, who let’s be honest is the character everyone thinks of when they think of this film. We all remember his joke about being a clown who amuses Henry Hill, but not the murder of the bartender who did nothing but be pissed off that Tommy shot him in the foot. And yet we get this sympathetic portrayal of his mother. I can’t help but think the painting is really important.

Secondly, at the very end of the film, when Ray Liotta/Henry Hill stands up in the courtroom, walks off the witness box, and addresses the camera about the corrupt justice system. In a film that is shot almost entirely without camera tricks or absurdity, other than a lot of freeze frames, right at the end we get this breaking of the fourth wall and walking off the stand in a way that wouldn’t happen in a real court, he would have been made to sit there until dismissed. Does it symbolize him walking away basically free? It’s a small bit of poetry in a film that is so very straightforward as to leave very little to interpretation.

I have to say that in the end, Paulie and Jimmy deserved for Hill to rat on them because he thought they were his friends and they turned on him. More importantly, they threatened his wife, which we saw early on that he would not tolerate when he pistol whipped her rapist neighbor. We are meant to identify with Hill and I am the type of person that can absolutely allow myself to be emotionally manipulated by a film like this. The courtroom scene at the end is in sharp contrast to the scene at the beginning when all the goodfellas celebrate Henry’s first trip to jail and refusal to talk. I guess it’s set up that way, just as the two airline robberies are contrasted. Both pairs of scenes serve as bookends to the story, or parentheses at least.

As my husband pointed out, the progression of the film shows the gangsters go from being heroes in the eyes of a child escaping a hopeless life, to more and more being shown for the monsters they are. And that’s why the beginning of the film makes everything look fun and glamorous. Even the lighting and the color palette change, from sort of gold and red and sunny at the beginning to more greys and blues and darkness. My husband also noticed that the clothing and personal grooming deteriorate as the film progresses. It’s easy to get caught up in the music and the clothes, until one day you’re being chased by helicopters before your cocaine empire gets brought down by a babysitter who believes in magic hats.

I think the cocaine, guns, and spaghetti sauce (excuse me, GRAVY) day depicted in the movie is kind of a fun watch, lighthearted compared to the scenes with the gangsters in the club. Just for a moment it makes me feel what it would be like to be one of those people who brags about being busy. #bossbabe

P.S. The most active in-joke between my husband and me, the one we refer to almost every day, is that I immediately inform him the moment I see an actor on the TV who was ever on Morse or Lewis, and he does the same to me but with The Sopranos. It’s even less amusing than it sounds.