As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.— Henry Hill
THIS line is the start of the dream, the turbulent life story of the Irish-Italian-American mobster Henry Hill, before the heavy whomp-whomp-whomp of Tony Bennet’s Rags to Riches blasts from the screen. Henry the kid, from Brownsville, Brooklyn was obsessed with the idea of the mob life from an early age, when he watched the Luchesse crime family associates at the cabstand across the street from his parents house and longed to be a part of something.
A breeding ground for both criminals and gangsters, Brownsville was the birthplace of Murder, Inc., a crew of Jewish and Italian gangsters that brought a swift death to enemies of the mafia in the 30’s and 40’s. The area was long plagued by crime, poverty and high unemployment rates, so it was little wonder that the glamorous lifestyles of those men in silk suits, shined shoes and fast cars, who did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, appealed so much to young Henry. This is the setting of Henry’s life in Goodfellas, which was based on the biographical true crime novel Wiseguys: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi. Wiseguys chronicles the rising star and spectacular downfall of Henry Hill and his associates over the decades, from the fifties to the eighties. Director Martin Scorcese then took this rich source material and resource notes and spun it into gold with his sixth film collaboration with Robert De Niro, which would become one of his masterpieces amongst the ranks of films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Goodfellas, as we know it now, is considered a film classic in the mob genre, which has been a huge influence on its descendants, most notably The Sopranos. Goodfellas inspired director David Chase to create the series, with Chase stating “Goodfellas is the Koran for me.” It only misses out as the top spot of the greatest mob movie of all time because The Godfather exists. But where The Godfather feels operatic and tragic, grand and majestic, the story of a war hero who turns to crime to protect his family, Goodfellas feels a lot more authentic, realistic and visceral.
The guys in it could be guys you know. Guys who put on a barbeque, play with their kids, love their wives and like to joke around. But deep down you know and they know that they are not what they seem. The same guy might have just last night killed someone over something as inconsequential as a card game or have beaten someone half to death over a $200 interest payment. There’s a great line about this in the film:
So your murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends, the people who have cared for you all of your life, and they always seem to come at a time when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.
At its core Goodfellas, like many other mob movies, is an exploration and a criticism of the American Dream, especially the attitude of entitlement and that everyone is deserving of a life of luxury, if only they have the courage to go out there and steal it. From the very beginning of Henry’s life amongst the gangsters, huge parts of the mafia revenue stream comes from hijackings, robberies and loan sharking. The main aims of all three is to steal from the “schnooks” who don’t deserve to have the money anyway, because they were dead to Henry and his friends.
The first major appearance of this theme comes in the form of a lucrative bust-out. A bust-out is any wiseguy’s idea of Christmas, a way to generate extraordinary amounts of profit, score a lot of free loot and screw over a citizen all in one fell swoop. The idea is simple: a mobster forms (or forces) a partnership with a local business owner and from then on takes them for everything they are worth.
This business owner in Goodfellas is Sonny, who enters into business with Henry and Luchesse capo Paul Vario for protection from Tommy DeSimone (Joe Pesci). The mobsters then proceed to use the business’ credit line to bulk order liquor, cigarettes, clothes and merchandise that will ultimately never be paid for, and then sell it at a profit. And it’s all profit, because it’s all stolen. Eventually, when the credit line dries up and creditors are knocking on the door and threatening litigation, the final blow is to burn down the business for the insurance money, leaving the owner penilless and drowning in debt.
A very similar scheme and obvious throwback to Goodfellas is shown in the aptly named season 2 episode of The Sopranos, Bust-Out, where Tony extorts a fellow parent at Meadow and AJ’s school, David Scatino, because of his massive gambling debts. In both situations the victim ends up totally devastated both financially and emotionally, and in both situations the instigators (Tony, Henry & Co.) are both remorseless and happy to have made so much money at the expence of another person. This is repeated again and again throughout Goodfellas, someone gets ripped off by the mobsters and the mobsters don’t care because they have their end. And if someone else does care enough to try and intervene, be it a police chief or city councilman, they were usually bribed or otherwise subverted to be a beneficiary to this criminal activity. Two major heists are turning points for Henry’s life, the 1967 Air France robbery which marked his ascension to recognition in the crime world and the 1978 Lufthansa Heist which began his and his associates’ crashing downfall.
The Air France robbery was a huge success. Henry Hill, Timmy DeSimone and two other associates stole $420,000 in cash sourced from US currency exchanges in Southeast Asia. This robbery differed from most in that the mobsters walked in, took the money and left with no alarms raised, no shots fired, and no one injured or killed in the process. This massive loss on Air France’s part was a massive gain for Henry, who gave a large percentage of the score to Paul Vario and cemented himself as a rising star and valued associate of the Luchesse crime family, something he had been striving for since childhood.
A man who developed Henry’s talent for theft was his mentor, Jimmy Burke, played by Robert De Niro in Goodfellas. Henry met Jimmy at a young age when the latter was handing out tips like there was no tomorrow at a card game, and Burke quickly took Henry under his wing. Henry, through the film, describes Jimmy’s passion for stealing:
But what Jimmy really loved to do, what he really loved to do was steal. I mean, he actually enjoyed it.
This kleptomania manifests itself fully about halfway through the film when Jimmy starts planning the second heist shown in Goodfellas, the one which would eventually bring about the downfall of Henry and his friends. The Lufthansa Heist was initiated from a tip-off from wig store owner and bookkeeper Martin Krugman (Maurie in the film). The heist was similar to the Air France haul pulled off earlier by the crew, the cash that was the target of the heist was sent to JFK airport as part of currency exchange by American servicemen and tourists in West Germany.
After getting the required permission for a young John Gotti, who was then capo in the Gambino crime family whom the Luchesse family shared JFK airport with, the heist went ahead. In the early hours of December 11, 1978, a crew of seven men (including Tommy DeSimmone and Jimmy’s son Frank) bound and gagged all of the employees of the JFK cargo terminal and committed the largest money heist ever committed on American soil at the time. Overall, they made away with $5 million in cash, which is $18.1 million adjusting for inflation and $875,000 in jewellery, which is about $3.2 million today.
Henry Hill was not a part of the heist but he bore witness to the aftermath. He recounts in the novel Wiseguys that Jimmy became increasingly paranoid about FBI attention over the heist and the number of people and witnesses that could implicate him as the organiser of the crime. This paranoia was increased because “Stacks” Edwards, played by Samuel L. Jackson, neglected to dispose of the robbery vehicle in a compacter, getting drunk and high instead. He was found dead a week later, a murder attributed to Tommy DeSimmone and Angelo Sepe. Burke, displaying the mafioso attitude of “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine”, began to methodically plan the deaths of all parties involved with the heist to avoid distributing the cuts and to sever ties to his involvement.
As Jimmy began his killing spree, Henry was starting to have bigger problems. His drug trafficking operation that he started while in prison during the mid 70’s was expanding and earning him enormous amounts of money. Though for all the upsides of the money, there were several major problems with his drug operation. Hill started to get addicted to cocaine and he became increasingly paranoid that he would either be caught by the FBI, that he would be murdered by Paul Vario for breaking the taboo of dealing drugs, or that he would be killed by Jimmy Burke because he could link Jimmy to the Lufthansa heist.
Two years after the Lufthansa heist, the day of Henry’s arrest is played out with these increasing pressures and paranoia in mind in Goodfellas. Henry is frantic, snorting cocaine in-between trips to pick up his brother, sell guns, visit his wife Karen’s mother and getting one of his drug mules ready. All the while, he keeps seeing a helicopter looming over his head and following his every move throughout the day. Just as he is about to leave in his car on another errand, Henry is surrounded by screaming narcotics officers and knows that everything is over. His mafia life, the dream of a kid from Brownsville, Brooklyn, comes crashing down around his head. Hill eventually perpetrated the downfall of Jimmy, Paul Vario and the entire crew by becoming an FBI informant. Overall his testimony led to 50 convictions, including Jimmy Burke for one of his dozens of murders and a basketball point fixing scheme, and Paul Vario for getting Hill a union no-show job for Henry’s parole. Hill was put into the Witness Protection Program with his family, in which he is shown at the conclusion of the film. Henry remarks that he misses the action and the mob life, with the final line of the film:
I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
Hill and his wife were eventually expelled from the program due to committing numerous crimes.
Goodfellas is an authentic telling of a classic mob tale, the rise and downfall of a group of wiseguys. Of all Scorcese’s mob movies (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed), Goodfellas stands out as an intense ride in the life of a mobster in the heydey of the organisation in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The film combines gorgeous visuals and excellent period music to give life to Henry and his friends, the self-proclaimed Goodfellas. The film is a classic example of the American Dream gone wrong, and it is worth the watch for all of the cultural references and influences that one will pick up on in other media.