Few films can claim such widespread success with casual moviegoers and critics alike. It garnered six Oscar
nominations, and Roger Ebert
proclaimed it "the best mob movie
ever". Meanwhile people who can't even spell Scorsese
's name adore
this one; they fall over themselves to recite quotes from it ("Where's my fuckin money? Where's my money you fuck?
"), they proudly put up large posters of the main characters sneering. It remains a revolution
ary work of cinema, unsettling yet electrifying
Scorsese is actively challenging the established mythology of the king of all gangster films, The Godfather and its sequel. (The sad excuse for a final entry in the series was released the same year.) Based on the book "Wiseguy" by Nicholas Pileggi, who also had a co-credit on the screenplay, this film tells the story of real life gangster Henry Hill. All other names in the film were changed to protect the guilty.
At the film's opening, Henry, a poor boy of ten in Brooklyn, wants nothing more than to be a gangster like the ones he sees strolling around his neighborhood. Since his father is Irish, he can never be "made" (truly becoming one of the family) but with hard work and clever lies he manages to win the favor of the stoic crime boss Paulie (a small role filled wonderfully by Paul Sorvino). Cut to the sixties, where robbing freight trucks at Idlewild has made him rich at the age of 22.
That's when he falls head over heels for a nice Jewish girl named Karen (an unforgettable Lorraine Bracco). His illicit ways excite her and they wed, but they soon grow apart, since he loves the life more than he ever could her. Eventually he goes to prison because of someone else's stupid mistake (his connections prevent this from being unpleasant), glad to be away from her. While there, he begins to run guns and drugs to Pittsburgh, unbeknownst to his friends on the outside, Joe Pesci as Tommy Devito (the only one to win an Oscar from this movie) and Robert De Niro as Jimmy "the Gent" Conway.
After Henry's release, he starts to lie to everyone to stay in business. He's smart enough to see it when those closest to him begin to betray him, but he can't avoid all the heat. Too soon the feds have got evidence and they bust him for good. His only option: the Witness Protection Program. He does it, but he hates himself for selling out his friends to save his own miserable life.
Thelma Schoonmaker, who had previously won an Oscar for Scorsese's Raging Bull, did a wondrous job editing this beast. In one film class I took, taught by Sam Pollard, we broke down one five-minute sequence (the day of Henry's bust) and studied it for over an hour, and the more we looked, the more there was to see. She knows when to use jarring sound bridges and jump cuts and also when to let cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' magnificent Steadicam shots play for several minutes. The years just fly by.
Another major factor in that is the sprawling soundtrack: over fifty songs, everything from Sinatra to the Stones to the Sex Pistols. The tunes not only perfectly telegraph which era you're in, but usually the lyrics contain a hint to what a character is thinking. Today it's difficult to find a television commercial that uses a pop song without that attitude.
I would call this one glamorous, in fact. A huge part of its appeal is the vicarious thrill you get from the first two acts as Henry and his cohorts answer to no one, taking whatever they want and whacking anyone who tries to stop them. The allure of the dark side of the American dream can't be denied.