Unlike The Godfather, in Martin Scorsese’s depiction of New York mafioso, no one pretends to be a man of honor. That’s one of the reasons it’s so great.
For a month now, the most frequently asked question among filmoids has been, Which gangster movie do you like? Meanwhile, the rest of the population worries about war. And yet GoodFellas, Miller’s Crossing and King of New York might provide as fitting a context as any other for viewing the present military crisis. First the United States asserts the need to send troops to a client state; then it goes around demanding payment for its services. Has our military policy ever looked more like a protection racket?
Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is probably the best of the gangster pictures now in the theaters, not least because it encourages such leaps of metaphor. Starting from the recollections of Brooklyn mobster Henry Hill, GoodFellas expands outward until it bursts the limits of its form. Like every story told in voiceover, it implies an address to the viewer. But only a filmmaker with Scorsese’s nerve would take that implication to its logical conclusion, ending with an eye-to-eye confrontation between narrator and audience. The character we’ve watched suddenly turns to watch us; the day-to-day business of the Mafia, which we’ve been observing for a thrill, turns out to be part of our own daily business.
The strategy is nervy but it’s also poised—however strange that word sounds for a film of such violence. In recounting Hill’s long career in the mob, from teenaged gofer to middle-aged dope peddler and thief, GoodFellas balances between complicity with the character (which is strongest in the many point-of-view sequences) and a face-off with him, as at the end. Camera movements weigh against occasional freeze-frames; Hill’s voiceover weighs against his wife Karen’s. (Alone among current gangster pictures, GoodFellas lets a woman speak.) Even the tones of voice sound curiously poised. Having married into the Mafia, Karen Hill describes its milieu as both an insider and an outsider. But then, so does the half Sicilian, half Irish Hill, who says of the worst bloodletting, “Among the Italians, it was real greaseball shit.” Characteristically, Scorsese manages to be both brutally physical and coldly rational, to take the viewer inside the character’s skin and yet stand at a distance. Perhaps, though, the balance is a bit too expert.
For the most part, GoodFellas shows us a great filmmaker doing what he already knows how to do. There’s a sense of mastery but not of discovery—except, of course, for one long, extraordinary sequence, in which federal agents finally end Hill’s career. At that point, you can feel Scorsese daring himself to go further, to put together the elements in a new way so that everything he does becomes expressive. What’s brilliant is that the climax of this long sequence is its only moment of stasis. Hill stops and the camera stops—both of them literally arrested—and you understand, without a word being spoken, how this moment must have come as a relief to the frazzled mobster.
Apart from that sequence, though, Scorsese seems to be on territory he knows too well. Ray Liotta, who has been impressive in the past in character parts, doesn’t really leave his mark on the role of Hill—he’s too much the gangster-next-door to sustain interest over such a long film; and Lorraine Bracco, as Karen Hill, seems more than ever a stand-in for Debra Winger. Robert De Niro has been cast more for his name than his talent; his role might have been played by anybody. So the picture falls into the hands of the person who’s most consistently energetic, in this case Joe Pesci. His performance as Tommy DeVito is unforgettable—surely no one has laughed and killed so unnervingly since Richard Widmark—and yet it warps the movie.
To come back to the original question, then: I like GoodFellas very much, but not to the exclusion of the other gangster pictures. Miller’s Crossing, by Joel and Ethan Coen, provides the strong lead that GoodFellas lacks, in the Irish-born actor Gabriel Byrne. King of New York, though the least considerable of the three, carries the greatest sense of conviction, since its director, Abel Ferrara, is hellbent on filling the screen with picturesque carnage.
Based in spirit as well as language on the corrupt-town fictions of Dashiell Hammett, Miller’s Crossing proposes, much as GoodFellas does, that gangsterism is a normal part of American life. Not that the Coen brothers take that theme to heart. As in Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, they come before us with the air of kids who have decided it would be really neat to make a movie. Last time, it was a screwball couple with a baby; this time, it’s guys with machine guns. But if the Coens are playing with us, at least they play fair. Having chosen their genre, they faithfully adhere to its rules, including the ones that allow characters to come alive.
As Tom, the deputy boss of a Prohibition-era city, Gabriel Byrne delivers a cagey, understated performance, sometimes bringing out his character’s force of will but mostly laying back, watching the people around him and playing off of their tics. Tom is trying to piece together a scheme from one minute to the next; and part of the fun of Miller’s Crossing is that you get to watch him improvise. In very few recent films has a character thought so much about what everyone else was thinking. Albert Finney plays the boss, who mostly works on gut instinct; Jon Polito plays an upstart gangster whose fatal flaw is an inability to wrap his mind around the concept of disloyalty; John Turturro is a petty crook who specializes in being more brazen than anyone can credit; and Marcia Gay Harden is the all-purpose girlfriend, who unfortunately doesn’t think or do much at all. Miller’s Crossing could have used a stronger female character, or two or three. But within the limits it sets for itself, the film manages to entertain and even suggest some of the perverse moralism of its models. However much they’re out for fun, the Coens have abandoned their visual antics this time, adopting a style that might not achieve gravity but at least does a good job of mimicking it.
As for King of New York, it doesn’t have a single idea in its pretty little head, except perhaps for the fantasy that a white man‘Christopher Walken—can be tough enough to lead a gang of jiving, rapping blacks and Latinos. Even the character’s name is White. Released from a term in Sing Sing, he reasserts his presence in the city by unleashing outbursts of violence, each striking with metronomic regularity, each louder than the last. The mayhem abates only long enough for White to present himself as a benefactor of New York’s poor, in a sequence that’s a delicious sendup of gossip-page philanthropy.
Of course, King of New York isn’t really about that. It’s about inventing new and better ways to photograph shootouts. But as George Bush, the scourge of Noriega, prepares to send troops into battle against another former client, I can’t help but feel some respect for this story about a light-skinned drug lord killing off his darker rivals in the name of charity. I watch Miller’s Crossing and think of the chaos let loose as the powerful blunder from deceit to deceit. I consider GoodFellas, with its encapsulation of a quarter-century of American life, and feel as if I’m observing a car wreck from the point of view of the passenger seat.