The true story of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Sicilian Brooklyn kid who is adopted by neighbourhood gangsters at an early age and climbs the ranks of a Mafia family under the guidance of Jimmy Conway.
At the end of the film, Henry (Ray Liotta) still misses the old days. His money is gone, most of his friends are dead, and his best friend was preparing to kill him, but after he finds safety in the federal witness protection program, he still complains. “We were treated like movie stars with muscle,” he remembers. “Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else.”
The rewards of unearned privilege are at the heart of “GoodFellas” (1990). There’s an early scene introducing Henry’s partner Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and he enters the shot in a sort of glowing modesty; his body language says, “no applause, please.” Henry’s other partner is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who makes the mistake of over-exercising his clout instead of letting it go without saying. In one of the great buildups and payoffs in movie history, he believes he’s going to become a “made” man, realizes his mistake too late, and says “Oh, no” before being shot in the head. He never learned to relax and enjoy his privileges. He always had to push things.
The early scenes of “GoodFellas” show young Henry Hill as a gofer for the local Brooklyn mob, which has its headquarters in a taxi garage right across the street from his house. (A shot of Henry looking out the window mirrors Scorsese’s own childhood memories from Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood, and so does a following sequence which uses subtle slow-motion for closeups of the mobster’s shoes, ties, hair, rings and cigars.) In a movie famous for violence that arrives instantly, without warning, the most shocking surprise comes when Henry is slapped by his father for missing school. He had to “take a few beatings” at home because of his teenage career choice, Henry remembers, but it was worth it. Violence is like a drumbeat under every scene.
Henry’s joy in his emerging career is palpable. He sells stolen cigarettes out of car trunks, torches a car lot, has enough money at 21 to tip lavishly. In the most famous shot in the movie, he takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana nightclub. There’s a line in front, but he escorts her across the street, down stairs and service corridors, through the kitchen area, and out into the showroom just as their table is being placed right in front of the stage. This unbroken shot, which lasts 184 seconds, is not simply a cameraman’s stunt, but an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill.