“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill says this to us right after we’ve watched Hill and his friends Jimmy and Tommy pull over to the side of the road, open their trunk to reveal a dying man wrapped in bloody sheets, and proceed to stab and shoot him multiple times just to make sure he stays dead. Immediately, director Martin Scorsese lets the audience know we’ll be getting all aspects of the Mafia life in GoodFellas. The rose-colored glasses that Hill wears are stained with blood from the very beginning.
Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi and based on the life of real mobster Henry Hill, GoodFellas has cemented in the mind of pop culture an image of the mafia that has persisted ever since its release. Gone was the relative romanticism of The Godfather. Here was organized crime on a nuts-and-bolts level, with the guys who were on the ground carrying out orders. Here was both the supposed sense of family and the sudden betrayals. Here was not only living the high life, but also digging up months-old corpses for reburial.
Ray Liotta stars (one year after he made a splash as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams) as Hill, who we see almost literally grow up in the mob. He goes from watching them from across the street to parking their cars to running jobs to being a full-fledged part of the “family.” His role model and friend is Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and his running buddy is the volatile Tommy (Joe Pesci, who won an Academy Award for this performance). Also crucial is his wife Karen (Lorraine Brocco), who becomes seduced into the apparent romance of “the life,” as well.
“The life” becomes the catchphrase for all that encompasses living and working in organized crime. Hill makes it plain, until the last moment we see him, that he would do it all again if given the chance. We’ve seen him and his fellow wiseguys indiscriminately kill and eliminate anyone who would threaten their universe, even those who they once considered “family.” It’s a lifestyle built on a mirage of lies and supposed loyalty— one that, despite everything, Hill still believes in.
GoodFellas is available for streaming on Peacock.