The three men in the car in 1970 are Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), on whose life this motion picture is based, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor). They hear thumping while driving and realize the sound comes from the trunk of the car. They pull over into the woods, open up the trunk, and inside is a bloody man, who the others thought was dead. Tommy precedes to repeatedly stab the guy, and Jimmy shoots him. It is significant that Henry is not participating in this lethal activity. We then here a voice-over provided by Henry, and he is our primary narrator for the rest of the movie. Filmmakers usually considered using a narrator to be a crutch to tell instead of to show the story, and in films, the primary emphasis is on imagery. But here, Scorsese uses this device well because it links episodic scenes, introduces the visual, and builds on it. Mainly, it puts the audience into the head of Henry. He is our gateway into this world of gangsters, and we see him seduced by it and grow into it. We are made to be complicit in this seduction, the way Alfred Hitchcock draws us into the story by making us voyeurs and identifying with transgressors, realizing we also have the potential to be lawbreakers. But out of this trio of mobsters, we eventually see that he is the only one who has some remnants of compassion for others.
The final line of this criminal triangle is drawn when Jimmy introduces Henry to Tommy, who, also as a youth, helps Henry sell stolen cigarettes. The police catch and arrest Henry for this illegal act. Henry thinks that Jimmy will be angry at him for getting pinched, but Jimmy says everybody gets arrested in their community. He is proud of Henry for not betraying him. Because their secret society operates within an outside world that at least espouses legality, Jimmy announces the two rules the gangsters must live by: “never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” Of course these two rules are the same, which makes it sound funny. But it shows the emphasis crooks place on secrecy, and is a foreshadowing of what lies ahead for Henry. Instead of a Catholic confirmation, or a Jewish Bar Mitzvah, the gangsters see getting arrested for the first time as a rite of passage, and celebrate Henry’s initiation with a party. Here again is another example of this alternate criminal reality existing side-by-side with the legitimate one.
It is 1963, and Henry is an adult now and an established member of the gangster world. He says that their version of the legal Citibank, which ordinary people use to withdraw hard-earned money, is stealing goods and cash from the airport. They would either bribe their way into getting information or cooperation, or Paulie, who controlled unions, would threaten businesses with strikes if they didn’t play along. In one scene, Scorsese makes the audience a member of the crime family by having the camera wind through a club full of gangsters like an individual, as the various wiseguys address their greeting to the lens. Henry again heaps scorn on the civilians who were “suckers,” who rode the subways every day to their “shitty jobs” for “lousy paychecks,” worrying about paying their bills. Henry says these people “were dead,” like zombies, whereas the gangsters felt alive in their hedonism. What separates the “suckers” from the wiseguys, according to Henry? He says having the “balls” to risk breaking society’s burdensome and unfair restrictions. Perhaps that is why Americans, who always value Wild West individuality, have always had a romantic desire to vicariously live the life of the outlaw in the movies.
Tommy, now also an adult, reflects old western lawlessness. He likes to call people “varmints,” and says at one point, wielding his gun, that he is the Oklahoma Kid, the title of a movie western that has James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in it, two actors, known for playing gangsters, portraying cowboys in that movie. Even Paulie calls Tommy a “cowboy.” There is the famous scene in which he tells a funny story at the restaurant, and then flips on Henry, going from congenial to seemingly menacing by questioning if Henry sees him as only a buffoon. It is only a pretend intimidation, and Henry finally catches on. Tommy, realizing he scared Henry for a while, jokingly says, “I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.” This statement is another bit of foreshadowing. Tommy is always being funny, but his surface humor reveals his dangerous personality. His funny stories are full of violence, as the one he tells here, where he talks about getting beaten up during an interrogation (which also connects him to the violence he shares with cops, and which is part of the same culture). His violent, anti-social nature erupts when he bashes the eatery’s owner over the head with a bottle for having the audacity to ask Tommy to pay up on his escalating tab. He smashes other objects, and frightens the waiter, who was afraid to bring the bill, and calls the man a “moron.” Tommy erupts with anger and foul language often, insulting those who get in his sociopathic way. The others at his table just laugh, showing their scorn for those they can scare, and their disrespect for a rule which says they must pay for what they have ordered.
Another noteworthy scene follows when Henry takes Karen to a nightclub. He says they don’t have to wait in line to get in. They enter by way of a back door, and we follow the couple as they walk through the basement where the help works and the kitchen where employees prepare the meals. All along the way, Henry greases palms with cash, which opens the doors for him, which he learned from Jimmy. When they enter the nightclub, the staff treats Henry like a VIP, with a waiter immediately carrying a table and leading the two to a front row seat to enjoy the entertainment. Others seated close by greet Henry, and one man buys the couple drinks. Not only does this impress Karen, it is a symbolic journey showing how Henry has been able to bypass hard labor and rise from a humble beginning to a successful position rapidly.
This obtainment of illegal power and wealth, and the sexual conquests that accompany them, requires the use of violence. One of the colorful characters in the story is Morrie (Chuck Low), who has borrowed money from Jimmy to produce his hysterical wig commercial (he says his hairpieces are hurricane-proof). He hasn’t paid Jimmy the money plus interest, and Jimmy and Henry are there to collect. Henry always tries to negotiate, and is a regular go-between separating Jimmy and Tommy from their hothead natures and others. When Henry’s talking doesn’t work, Jimmy angrily grabs a telephone cord and wraps it around Morrie’s throat, choking him. The phone rings, and Morrie still manages to answer it while being assaulted, and hands it to Henry since the call is for him. Now this of course is funny, and Henry laughs, as we do. But, this scene implicates us as viewers, joining us with people like Tommy, who derive humor from violence. The phone call is from a traumatized Karen who was sexually attacked by her young neighbor. Henry drives Karen home, takes out his gun, and pistol whips the guy viciously. This beating is the first act of violence against another person that we witness Henry committing. If we are honest, we will admit to a bit of satisfaction at wanting Henry to beat up this privileged, elitist, sexual aggressor. But the savagery of the scene then revolts the civilized part of us. Henry’s face is a scary vision of revenge. He gives the bloody gun to Karen to hide. Her narration tells us that she should have nothing to do with Henry after this incident, but she says she couldn’t help being “turned on.” She has been seduced by the power and protection that Henry represents to her. Accepting the pistol and keeping it a secret shows us that she has taken a blood oath, and joined Henry in his life defying the laws of society.
Henry marries Karen, and through her voice, accompanied by sequences of get-togethers with the wives of the other gangsters, trips, and family celebrations, we are told how everything is done together. This extended criminal family tries to insulate itself from the world at large to ensure that no outsider can acquire information that will compromise their way of life. The symbolically incestuous nature of the situation is shown when Paulie introduces Karen to her new Italian family of hoods. It seems that all the men are either called Peter or Paul (ironically named after Catholic saints), and the women are named Marie (Mother Mary?), as are their daughters. This bunch, although declaring independence from society’s regulations, has its own rigid rules to bind all of its members together, making them identify themselves as part of their shared cult of illegality. Once immersed here, Karen says it all seems normal, with their husbands working hard, even taking risks, to make a living and acquiring extras to make life enjoyable. There is an almost throwaway line when Tommy’s girlfriend says that he will kill any man if she even looks at him. Her female friend says something like,”isn’t that great,” as if this violent jealousy (which goes along with selfishness) is perversely admired as the standard for affection.
Henry says if you got out of line, you would get whacked, and that, everybody knew the rules. But the contradiction inherent in trying to regulate men who relish selfish individuality causes problems. The story returns to the to the opening scene, and provides some backstory. Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy are at a bar, and the “made” gangster, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent, another hood on The Sopranos), tries to humiliate Tommy, bringing up his childhood shoeshining days. Tommy leaves, but returns when everyone but Billy and Tommy’s two friends remain. Tommy and Jimmy brutally beat Billy, believing him to be dead, and of course, they finish him off later. “Made” men can do whatever they want, and, at that high level nobody can mess with them, so they are almost exempt from any regulation. To get permission to kill one, the wiseguy has to have done something extreme, and then there has to be a “sit down” conference, and the bosses must grant permission. So what Jimmy and Tommy did was definitely against this special gangster rule. These guys pretend Billy just went missing, but Paulie is pressured later about what happened to Billy. Again Henry is not involved in the attacks, and he later is atypically quiet at Tommy’s mother’s house, where they stop for a shovel to bury Billy. Whereas Jimmy is the typical selfish, cold hood, complaining that the man he has beaten almost to death got blood all over his shoes. A similar extreme version of self-centered thinking is shown when Tommy shoots and kills the bartender Spider (Michael Imperioli, another future Soprano gangster), and all Jimmy and Tommy concern themselves with is the inconvenience of disposing of the body. (Tommy shot Spider once before in the foot over a misunderstanding, and, of course, makes jokes about it, while Henry, like he did when he was young, gets towels to stop the bleeding, again showing his somewhat less aggressive nature).
Also, despite the emphasis on allegiance to family, the men have girlfriends, and specific alternate days are designated to entertain wives and mistresses. When Karen becomes boisterous in her anger when learning about her husband’s infidelities, Paulie, not wanting to draw attention by way of her disturbing the peace, tells Henry he must keep up “appearances,” and go back to his wife. That is a significant word, since it says that what counts is how things look on the surface, a kind of pulling the wool over the eyes of the population at large. It implies that insincerity can be packaged and sold to the public. Paulie also, ironically, says that Henry has to return home, because, as he says translated from the Italian, they are not “animals.” No, animals are not as excessively cruel and selfish as these men.
Henry makes a deal to expose his fellow gangsters in exchange for going into the Witness Protection Program. At this point we have Henry break the “fourth wall” and he speaks directly to the camera, and thus to us. He misses the old life, where all his selfish needs were met. His life has become what he wanted to escape. Now “there’s no action .. I have to wait around like everyone else … I’m an average nobody … get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
The next film is Million Dollar Baby.