The Myths of Martin Scorsese’s Mob Magnum Opus

The Myths of Martin Scorsese’s Mob Magnum Opus

The Myths of Martin Scorsese’s Mob Magnum Opus

Glenn Kenny’s critical study of Goodfellas untangles the complicated impact of the 1990 film.

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Glenn Kenny begins Made Men, his engrossing critical study of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), with a quote from the French novelist Jean Genet: “Treachery is beautiful if it makes us sing.” The citation of Genet, a juvenile delinquent and petty criminal whose 1949 novel The Thief’s Journal dramatized the writer’s picaresque pickpocket adolescence in pre–World War II Europe, is apt in the context of the gangster-movie masterpiece. It works both in the embedded allusion to musicality—Goodfellas being one of the most influential jukebox movies ever made—and in its inversion of traditional morality, the latter a staple of Genet’s fiction. Both novel and film are coming-of-age fables mapped with a demagnetized moral compass, although where Genet advocated passionately for betrayal as the ultimate form of devotion, the made men of Scorsese’s film—adapted from Nicolas Pileggi’s Wiseguys, an American cousin to The Thief’s Journal—prize loyalty above all else. Until, tragically, hilariously, and inevitably, one among them turns stoolie: our narrator, Henry Hill, no less, who testifies against his brothers and whose reward equals exile to witness protection in a suburban purgatory without decent takeout pasta.

It’s a great ending to a great movie, but Goodfellas’ greatness is no longer really a matter of debate. Thirty years on from its modest box office success and admiringly mixed reviews—including a half laudatory, half underwhelmed notice by Pauline Kael—it is not a film that lacks for admirers, exegesis, or exposure. If one salable tactic in contemporary film criticism is the attempted redemption of “misunderstood” masterpieces, a duly canonized, Oscar-winning hit hardly requires an assertive performance on its behalf.

What keeps Made Men’s inventory of interviews, production arcana, and interpretive analysis from feeling superfluous is Kenny’s commitment to examining the myths around a movie preoccupied with mythmaking and examining the terms of its acclaim. Interviews with figures either stationed outside or retrospectively excluded from the winners’ circle cloud the celebratory atmosphere. “When you called, in a way you just kicked the hornets’ nest for me,” says Barbara de Fina, the film’s executive producer as well as Scorsese’s ex-wife, whom Kenny sympathetically implies has been to some extent written out of her own film’s history

De Fina, by poking holes in the official production narratives offered by Scorsese and producer Irwin Winkler—and emphasizing her choice to cut professional ties with Scorsese the moment that he began collaborating with Harvey Weinstein for Gangs of New York (2002)—implicitly challenges Goodfellas’ boys’ club pedigree, a status that Kenny elsewhere seeks to unpack rather than blankly vindicate. Sifting assiduously through a cultural discourse that splinters into (sometimes valuable) arguments about who ought to tell which stories, and who certain movies are and are not “for,” the critic aptly notes that his subject’s popularity has yielded multifaceted consequences: Goodfellas is a classic, but it’s also a lightning rod for ideological opportunists on all sides. Kenny correctly excoriates right-wing pundit Kyle Smith for deeming Goodfellas a “boy movie”—which is to say, not for “girls,” an exclusionary ethos that rhymes with De Fina’s account of being marginalized within the film’s legend. He also bemusedly paraphrases a rascally Ringer podcast that reduces Goodfellas to “cool or shocking moments” and whose host refuses to recognize its connection to the gangster movies of the 1930s because (in the host’s words) “most of those movies aren’t that much fun to watch.”

Of course, the gangster movies of the 1930s were fun to watch—a lot of fun, which is why they emerged in the midst of vertiginous social, economic, and spiritual plunge as the hottest ticket around. In his seminal essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” critic Robert Warshow theorized that Depression-era mob movies offered contradictorily cautionary illustrations of their cash-strapped constituents’ most decadently aspirational fantasies. Ripped from the headlines and illuminated by incandescent stars like James Cagney, these thrillers offered up seductive, bigger-than-life rebels who enacted vicarious revenge on failed or exclusionary institutions, only to be cut down to size in the final reel in accordance with the moralism of the Production Code. Of all of Scorsese’s accomplishments in Goodfellas, it is the way in which he updated that sense of intoxicating complicity for a modern audience of sensation junkies that guaranteed its appeal. The film is a master class in narrative momentum and camera movement, channeling its rush through the first-person perspective of Hill, played with a combination of heavy-lidded charisma and helpless passivity by Ray Liotta in what may be the most underappreciated great performance of the 1990s.

In terms of official acting garlands, Goodfellas earned Joe Pesci an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as the gregariously psychopathic Tommy DeVito, whose hair-trigger temper Kenny reveals as partially derived from the actor’s own underworld experiences (“‘Stories,’ as Pesci put it to Scorsese, that could make the movie ‘special.’”). But as great as Pesci is—and ditto for Robert De Niro as the “Fast” Jimmy Conway, a character memorably described by Roger Ebert as having the “metabolism of a lizard”—it’s Liotta’s ingeniously conceived and directed turn as a man happy to act as a spectator to the ongoing, brutal story of his life that gives the film its voyeuristic pull. From the first shot of the young Henry’s dilating eye as he stares out his bedroom window at the old timers holding court at an East New York pizzeria circa the mid-1950s, we understand that this is a kid who likes to watch. And there are other moments that make a fetish of spectatorship: when Lorraine Bracco, playing Karen Hill, observes her lover and future husband crossing the street to assault a tennis pro who’d hit on her at the club, it’s as if she’s hypnotized by the perverse chivalry of his rage.

This attentiveness to perception makes Goodfellas an ideal text for an attentive film critic, and there are two sections in Made Men where Kenny essentially replays Scorsese’s movie through his own keen, detail-oriented perspective. The first is an elongated (but not overextended) summary of the film’s action punctuated and supplemented by extra-textual information, including the crucial tidbit that the meal served by Tommy’s sainted mother (Catherine Scorsese, the director’s own mom, in an all-time-great cameo) to Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy while they’re transporting the soon-to-be-dead Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to his final resting place is composed of pasta and beans. The second is a fully annotated survey of Goodfellas’ soundtrack, which was assembled, according to Scorsese, under the sign of Kenneth Anger’s 1964 experimental landmark film Scorpio Rising, whose proto music video deployed snippets of rock ’n’ roll to syncopate its strategically fascist, stridently homoerotic motorcycle gang imagery. (The film is often screened on double bills with Jean Genet’s lone film, 1950’s Un chant d’amour).

Kenny is right on the money when he connects Scorpio Rising’s three-chord Greek chorus to the ecstatic soundtrack cues of Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film, Mean Streets, differentiating the director’s use of pop to convey psychic states from the fond nostalgia of fellow movie brat George Lucas’s make-top-40-great-again manifesto of the same year, American Graffiti. If Scorsese is a paradigmatic figure in the yoking of cinema to rock ’n’ roll—a missing link, perhaps, between Anger and Quentin Tarantino—then Goodfellas’ astonishing auditory collage, which begins with Tony Bennett and ends with Sid Vicious while interpolating pretty much everything in between, stands at the apex of his innovations. Saturating the action in melodies and rhythm that alternately heighten and undermine its apparent meanings, the film’s musical selections manifest a terrible, irresistible beauty—it’s the sound of treachery singing.

As long as Kenny is staying close to the ground and within the world of the film, with its vivid re-creations of real-world underworld mythology and icons, Made Men makes for fleet, entertaining reading. Overall, though, the book feels a bit atomized, interestingly if inadvertently mirroring Goodfellas’ own loose, episodic structure: Whereas The Godfather films had the long, clean narrative lines of Greek tragedy, Goodfellas is as brisk and illicit as a picaresque novella. The book’s organization of material has a certain logic, using a pair of interviews with Scorsese—one conducted in 1990 before the film’s release, the other earlier this year—as bookends and including exchanges with a few other big names, including Robert De Niro, whose relative openness (by his own famously tight-lipped standards) testifies to Kenny’s wary but persistent line of questioning. There’s more merit, though, in a chapter foregrounding Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was essentially the film’s co-author, an artist who works on the same wavelength as her director. An evident fan, Kenny correctly surmises Schoonmaker’s style as privileging “dynamic discrete moments…[over] issues of continuity;” that same dynamism is at the heart of Scorsese’s art. The passage describing their editing-room collaboration is as lovely a tribute as any fan might desire, peaking with a bit of honor-among-thieves rhetoric from Scorsese that could have been snipped out of the Goodfellas script: “Thelma is the woman I trust.”

As for Scorsese, Made Men is filled with enough encomiums to his excellence that it’s a relief when he appears in a whirl of frenetic self-deprecation. The concluding chapter reprints his stream-of-consciousness recollections basically word for word, venturing into some of the same observations about the shifting values of Hollywood filmmaking that swirled around last year’s Netflix release of The Irishman (and the Twitter wars about superhero movies that saw a great artist foolishly reduced in the eyes of many to an embittered, elitist hater). It’s fair enough that we exit a book attuned to Scorsese’s go-for-broke sensibility with him moving a mile a minute. It is, after all, Goodfellas’ serene velocity—its stunning admixture of operatic stylization and brand-name reality, rendered on the fly with a speed-as-clarity aesthetic—that makes it so rewatchable and, by extension, assures its endurance. It’s the swiftness of Scorsese’s construction that puts across a Swiftian social satire positing treachery not simply as the American way but as part of the human condition. It suggests that immorality is as catchy as a pop song—one to which we all know the words.

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