“Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas”

by Sonny Bunch on July 2, 2012

Spurred on by Vic Matus’ recommendation (as well as the fact that it is only $5 for the Kindle edition), I read Wiseguys by Nicholas Pileggi over the last week or so. It’s a quick book, told in a part-reported, part-oral history style that is compulsively readable and full of fascinating little nuggets. Most interesting for me, however, is its standing as the source material for Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas, and the way in which it was adapted for the screen.

I’ve probably seen Goodfellas from start to finish a dozen times and caught enough snippets on cable to comprise another two-dozen viewings. It is an eminently rewatchable film, in large part because of the way in which it was adapted. Instead of getting sucked down a rabbit hole solely to create an action-oriented plot with a beginning, middle, and end—intricately laying out the Lufthansa heist would have been one way to go; showing Henry Hill’s rise and fall as a Suburban Scarface might have been another—the flick instead focuses on the accoutrements of gangster life: the wild nights; the prison spells; the pursuit of cash; the raucous home life; the violence, bloodshed, and brutality; etc.

In this, the movie is much like Pileggi’s book. Yes, the book features plenty of information about individual deals and how the Vario family worked and what Henry did during his time in the pen. But it’s much more open and meandering than that. Pileggi lets Hill tell his story as he sees it; he doesn’t try to jam him into some sort of larger narrative about modern crime syndicates or how cops infiltrated the mob or anything like that. The film works as well as it does because it goes with the flow, skipping details altogether to focus on the tastes and the smells and sounds of wiseguy life.

Whereas a bunch of pages in the book are dedicated to the particulars of the Lufthansa heist—in which $5 million was stolen out of JFK International Airport, and in which Henry Hill played no active role, serving only as the middle man—in the film, Henry simply hears about it happening in the shower (a nod to the real-life way in which Hill heard the job was pulled off). We then cut to Henry celebrating the score, taking his cut, and seeing his partner, Jimmy, growing more and more agitated by the others involved in the heist showing off their wealth.

This is one of the reasons why Goodfellas works in a way that, say, Scorsese’s Casino never quite does.* Another great gangster flick filled with authentic period detail, snappy dialogue, and stunning set pieces, Casino is weighed down by the dueling stories at its heart: It wants to be a “boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl doesn’t love boy back and destroys his world” kind of story as well as a “rise and fall of the mob” kind of story. In the end, everything winds up feeling a bit cramped, a bit crowded.

Goodfellas is more interested with mood and tone and details than plot points or moving the story forward—and, as a result, it moves the story forward with the implacable force of a mack truck, compelling and commanding your attention. This is why you can jump in at virtually any point in the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time and get sucked in: “Oh, hey, Goodfellas…I’ll watch this for a few minutes” and then, all of a sudden, it’s 90 minutes later, Henry’s complaining about egg noodles and ketchup in the suburbs, and you’re wondering where the day has gone.

*For the record: I love Casino. But there’s no denying that it’s basically Goodfellas‘ less-accomplished little brother.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Nedward July 2, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I have seen GF fewer times than that, but enough that I will habitually say “May 11, 1980” about all kinds of no doubt fully unrelated situations. Once I read, in a music critic database entry for either the 1st or 2nd Velvet Underground record, quoting from memory, “like any distinctive works of art it gives you a window into a world you might otherwise have never experienced.” That’s what I think about GF. By glamorizing but not sugarcoating gangsterism it gives you the sensation of being in that world. “Casino” is just too long.


Nedward July 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Also obsessive attention to gambling minutia doesn’t necessarily a compelling film make (“Croupier” I liked but “Rounders” was mind-numbing). Casino is like an indulgent cross between Goodfellas and Color of Money but somehow less watchable than either.


Sonny Bunch July 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I must disagree, both on Rounders and Casino. The best part of Casino is the 45 minute opening section where they just kind of move bang-bang-bang through the way Vegas operated. I love that; I could watch it every day. And Rounders is a seminal film for, in a way, laying the groundwork for the Internet poker boom of the ’00s. Also: It’s probably my favorite Matt Damon performance.


Nedward July 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm

De gustibus, but I did try it again last year and (aside from realizing Edward Norton has been reprising his “Primal Fear” role in every other non-skinhead part since) got nothing from 20-30 minutes of fitful viewing.

And I never quite got why intricate explications of gambling should interest guys who don’t do it. Had Dostoevsky penned a novella about the challenges of CSS and the DOM model in web design nobody’d give a crap.


Victor Morton July 4, 2012 at 10:27 am

The night before the Toronto film festival, I was in my hotel room and GOODFELLAS was on TV (AMC, I think … regardless, a broadcast-standards with comercials channel) at a fairly early point — the scene where Henry’s dad whips him for not going to school. Not only did I watch the rest of the film, but I did so despite its being an interrupted-trivia edition. That is, every so often, a caption would appear at the bottom of the screen, detailing something about the location or production, the real-life analogues, bloopers, foreshadowings. They treated the film like VH-1 used to do for that show “Pop-Up Videos.” I would NEVER recommend this for anyone who hadn’t basically memorized the film — but it was a lot of fun and kinda refreshing that way.


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