Sunday, January 28, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I grew up in an Italian neighborhood that had its share of gangsters, and there was a period of violence when some killings occurred. But, it was kindergarten compared to what happens in this 1990 film directed by Martin Scorsese. Here, we have a depiction of men who defy society’s rules by establishing their own subculture, with its own guidelines (which are also violated) so as to indulge their selfish urges. Even though on the surface this movie is anything but subtle, there are lines of dialogue and situations that carry meaning that can easily be missed amid the foul language and violence.
Scorsese decided to depart from the chronological order in Nicholas Pileggi’s book, on which the film is based, starting later in the story, backtracking, and then moving forward. This process grabs the interest of the audience by beginning with an action sequence and instilling the desire to know more of the tale that led up to the opening events. The credits at the start zip by, reflecting the racing car we are about to see, but also setting the stage for the lifestyles of these men, who live their life in the fast lane on their way to self-indulgence, not caring about the dangers of not obeying the rules, like a speed limit ignoring automobile.
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 first words he says are, “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” We hear these words right after the brutal violence in the opening sequence, when he actually shys away from gangster activity. What we eventually learn is that Henry loves the outlaw lifestyle, but not necessarily some of the horror that comes with it. As a teenager in 1955 he observed the gangsters from his family’s apartment window in a neighborhood filled with “nobodies.” Henry says that the gangsters could do whatever they wanted as they came and went at the cab stand across the street. While he is narrating, we hear song lyrics about going “from rags to riches,” which is how young Henry envisioned his life if he could become one of these wiseguys. He gets a job at the cab stand, and his father, a man of Irish descent, who was a legit working man, thought at first it was a good idea. But Henry, thrilled about being able to park Cadillacs at his age, took on more tasks, including helping out in the numbers racket (something that has disappeared since gambling lotteries have become legal). His association with the mobsters brought him recognition, which is especially attractive when one is young. He says the hoods treated him like a grown-up, and, like most kids, he wanted to escape the restrictions that parents and school imposed.

When his father received a letter in the mail that Henry hadn’t been in school for two months, he calls his son a “bum,” and beats Henry, who figures it was worth getting hit once in a while, because everyone has to go through beatings in life sometime, a cynical notion at that young age. Henry says that his dad was always angry because he made lousy wages to feed seven children (a result of the Catholic ban on birth control which facilitated the “propagation of the faith”), including one boy in a wheelchair. Henry sees being a gangster as the way to escape his father’s fate. When he tells his boss at the cab stand how he can’t work there full time anymore, the hoods rough up the mailman saying that any mail for Henry goes to them. For Henry, problem solved, the mobster way, breaking society’s rules by exerting force over others who are weaklings. Henry doesn’t care about getting a formal education, which he sees as just part of the road to a drawn out, loser life.
The gangster boss is Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Henry says that Paulie moved slowly, because “he didn’t have to move for anybody.” The action, that is the money and the power, flowed to him. But, to keep control, Paulie had to constantly watch his back, so all incoming and outgoing calls were made at a phone booth, and he only communicated one-on-one to limit what people heard he said or was told to him. We see later in the story how this paranoia can spread and escalate. Paulie’s influence infiltrated the unions and the law enforcement system. Henry says that other gangsters paid Paulie money, called a tribute (a Roman empire term) for protection in their illegal activities. As Henry puts it, Paulie was “the police department for wiseguys.” This short sentence, which combines legality and illegality, sums up how there is a corrupt world existing just below the surface of the appearance of a legitimate one.

We see young Henry becoming more and more a part of this illegitimate life as he blows up cars as a part of this gangster enforcement. However, for his actions, he no longer has to wait in lines at the bakery, nobody parks in his family’s driveway (even though they didn’t even have a car), he started to make more money than most of the adults in his area, and his mother was escorted home when she went outside to shop. He says that all these actions came out of earned “respect,” but they are really out of fear. To gangsters, that is the only way to ensure respect. Good deeds don’t pay off. For Henry, there is no reason why he should lead the straight life which brings economic frustration.

We now see some of that compassion mentioned before that lives deep in Henry. He relates the first time he saw someone who had been shot. He is outside the cab stand when a man, his arm bleeding, stumbles by, asking for help. He knows that Paulie would not want someone wounded going into the shop, drawing attention, and linking violence to one of his establishments. But, he still feels sorry for the guy, and grabs a bunch of aprons to wrap around the wound. His boss yells at him, saying that he wasted some good aprons. Caring about those outside of the gangster family and showing vulnerability are signs of weakness in a wiseguy. Henry is told that he needs to toughen up.
Henry meets Jimmy, who has a hardened reputation going back to age eleven, and who killed for the mob at age sixteen. He is now one of the most feared wiseguys. Again, a simple sentence reveals the upside-down world in which Henry has entered when he says that Jimmy would root “for the bad guys in movies.” Jimmy had no feelings about killing people, and saw it only as part of doing “business” (we heard this before in The Godfather). But, what excites Jimmy is stealing. The act of taking from others, depriving others for his own gratification, is what excites this man. Henry said Jimmy would hijack anything. He would spread money around everywhere, not to be generous, but to stimulate the greed gland as a means to upend the social contract of abiding by the laws. He would bribe truckers, policemen (supposed enforcers of legality), even crossing guards (guardians of children), subverting the social order in order to acquire his stolen goods.
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.

The owner of the restaurant wants Paulie to become a partner so as to curtail Tommy’s behavior. Henry uses this plea as a way for Paulie to make money. The boss makes no investment, and the owner must pay him a regular fee for his “protection.” Paulie controls Tommy and deals with the unions. But, Paulie demands his money no matter the number of paying customers at any given time. Paulie’s men just take the inventory which the owner pays for and then they resell it. It doesn’t matter at what price, it is all profit for Paulie. He and his friends can run up huge tabs for free. When the restaurant must go out of business, Henry and Tommy set it on fire so Paulie can collect the insurance. We have here a good example of how the criminals drain the economic life out of a hard-working, legitimate businessman.
While waiting for the restaurant to burn, Tommy pushes Henry into going on a double date because his girl’s Jewish parents won’t let her go out alone with an Italian. Tommy points out the prejudice in the situation (although he has no room to talk since he spouts bigoted statements often, as he does here about Jewish people always having money), and complains what “is the world coming to?” This statement is comical because anarchistic Tommy has no right to complain about the decayed state of society to which he has contributed. The Jewish girl on the double date is Karen (Lorraine Bracco, later Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist). Scorsese shifts the narration to Karen, and although Henry remains the predominant storyteller, his perspective now alternates with Karen. She is an outsider to the gangster world, and we now get an alternative to the male’s seduction into the outlaw world. Karen is an innocent woman of this time, and her reaction to the first encounter with Henry’s rude, gangster-selfish attitude is one of being hurt by his ignoring her for his criminal activities. When he fails to show for the second date, she makes Tommy drive her to confront Henry. Her anger, which she is not afraid to show in public, is attractive to Henry, because the gangster mentality respects someone with guts.
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.

The crooks pull off a big paying robbery at the airport. Morrie brought the job to Jimmy, along with Henry. But some of the guys involved are showy by spending money, and one of them is sloppy leaving behind a getaway van with fingerprints. Jimmy gets paranoid, which is one of the side effects of this stressful life of always worrying about getting caught. He gets Tommy to kill almost everybody involved, even though Henry tries unsuccessfully to prevent Morrie’s death, again showing his less lethal nature. Henry does get sent up for a stretch in prison when he leans on a guy whose sister happens to work for the FBI, and who testifies against him. In prison, Henry becomes involved secretly, and against Paulie’s permission (again breaking rules) in the illegal drug business. Meanwhile, while acting like they are going to turn Tommy into a “made” man, the gangster bosses actually set him up to be killed for having murdered the “made” Billy Batts. Here is an instance that even the rule-breakers have to enforce some rules.
Henry is also doing coke, and in a tense, frantic day, which mirrors what one feels like under the influence of that drug, Tommy makes up a “to do” list, like all normal people. But on a gangster’s version of this list, along with everyday things like picking up your brother, and preparing a meal, there are items such as selling guns, getting drugs ready for transport, and having the babysitter set up as a mule to carry the shipment. Henry keeps seeing helicopters as he drives, and his paranoia now matches Jimmy’s before, and he feels that he is being followed. He is right. The narcotics squad has been onto him for a while and make an arrest. He is released on bail, but Paulie disowns him, and he and Jimmy think that Henry may strike a deal. When he meets with Jimmy, who wants him to do a job, he knows he won’t come back from it alive. He is told about the job while a tricky camera shot allows the background to zoom in, visually telling us that things are not right here, that the world is out of whack. Henry says that “murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends … and they always seem to come when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.” Gangsters are deadly fair-weather friends.
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.”

At one point he says that the wise guys were were called “good fellas.” Despite the allure of obtaining immediate gratification of their wants and living a rebellious lifestyle, the harm that they inflicted on others in their immoral, reckless drive to satisfy their self-centered appetites would make it hard to say these “fellas” could be considered “good.”

The next film is Million Dollar Baby.

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