"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."Martin Scorsese
— Henry Hill
's famous 1990 film, based on the book Wiseguy
by Nicholas Pileggi, which followed the story of New York City gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from his induction into the Lucchese crime family in the 1950s to his downfall and entry into the Witness Protection Program in the 1980s. Along with Henry, the film follows Henry's boss Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro
), his best friend Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci
), and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco
). The film details Henry's moving up the ranks, his eventual imprisonment, his role in (at the time) the largest heist in American history, and his involvement with the cocaine trade (which eventually gets him arrested by narcotics officers and shunned by the Mob). As the ground crumbles around him, he turns to the Feds for protection, eventually having to "live the rest of [his] life like a schnook".
The movie became famous for several reasons, including a long tracking shot through the kitchen of the Copacabana; the montage near the end showing Henry's increasing drug-induced paranoia as he tries to run some guns, get a drug shipment off to Pittsburgh, and make dinner for his family
; and Tommy's profanity-laden dialogue
and Hair-Trigger Temper
, which threatened to make Joe Pesci typecast for some time — and won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The movie itself ended up losing Best Picture to Dances with Wolves
. The movie was selected for the National Film Registry
was followed by Casino
, based on the book of the same name (also by Nicholas Pileggi), which also featured De Niro (who 'fagocitated' Liotta's role in becoming the centre of the movie's romantic subplot) and Pesci (still the same sort of vicious character- though with more sympathetic qualities, it should also be noted that both guys he played really existed).
Provides Examples Of:
- Adaptation Distillation: Joe Pesci's character, Tommy DeVito, is based on two real-life people: Tommy DeSimone, a violent member of the Vario organization, and Paul Vario Jr., Paulie's son. Specifically Tommy stands in for Paul Jr. when Henry meets him as a child, and during the double date with Karen. Practically everything else Tommy does is based on DeSimone.
- Adaptation Name Change: Every major character but Henry had their last name changed.
- Tommy, as noted above, since he's a composite of two real people.
- Jimmy was Jimmy Burke in real life. The filmmakers decided to use his mother's maiden name of Conway, which he sometimes used as an alias, after his sister threatened to sue them.
- Paul Vario became Paul Cicero.
- Affably Evil:
- Age Lift: Joe Pesci was 46 at the time of filming. Thomas DeSimone, who Tommy DeVito is based on, was in his teens and twenties at the time of the events in the movie, being murdered in 1979 at age 28.
- Alas, Poor Villain:
- Billy Batts. At least he gets one of the most famous mob deaths in history.
- Tommy, when he realizes too late he's gotta answer for what he did to Billy Batts...
- Alliterative Name: Henry Hill. Jimmy "the Gent."
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Henry pistol-whips the guy who gropes Karen, then gives her the gun to hide, and she confesses in voiceover "I gotta admit - It turned me on."
- And Now for Someone Completely Different: For a few minutes, the film gives Karen narration duties.
- Asshole Victim: Henry narrates that murder is just commonplace among mobsters and that some conditions should be met before a guy is considered expendable. The death of generic mobsters is not a big deal. Tommy and Billy Batts may qualify from an out-universe point of view. In-universe, not so much.
- Tommy, which was basically Truth in Television.
- Jimmy, as well, in a more downplayed or by-proxy way.
- Badass/Badass in a Nice Suit: The three main characters; Henry, Jimmy and Tommy. A semi-expository scene has Henry suiting up, which is warily received by his mother: "You look like a gangster!"
- Badass Boast: After killing Spider, Tommy tries to use the line "I'm a good shot" as one. It doesn't fly, as there is nothing badass to brag about. Even a lowly mobster like Frankie Carbone is unafraid to call it out: "How could you miss at this distance?"
- Bad-Guy Bar:
- The Bella Vista Pizzeria, ran by Tuddy Cicero, brother of the big man.
- The wiseguys hang around Henry's restaurant, The Suite Lounge. It's reputable enough in the underworld to hold the homecoming party of Billy Batts, a veteran made man.
- Being Evil Sucks: A complex example as the film delivers mixed messages despite showing the misery of a criminal life; notably in-universe Henry argues for the opposite in his final lines, an inviting gateway to misaimed fandom, he infers that getting caught is the only thing he regrets about being a gangster. See Do Not Do This Cool Thing below.
- Berserk Button:
- Bringing up Tommy De Vito's humiliating past as a shoe-shine boy. He doesn't need much of an excuse to go berserk, but this is one easy way to do it. Telling him to go fuck himself is another, as Spider found out.
- Hurting Karen is a guaranteed way to catch a beatdown from Henry; when he pistol whips Karen's neighbor for getting fresh with her and shoving her out of a car when she resisted is one of the few times he gets violent in the film.
- Big Applesauce: All of the movie was shot in (and takes place in) New York City and environs. In a twist, we barely see the stereotypical Manhattan sights as most of the movie's action happens in Queens near JFK Airport.
- Big Bad Duumvirate/Big Bad Friends: Jimmy and Tommy are personally responsible for much of the conflict here.
- Bigger Bad: Paul Cicero. The Lucchese Family in the original book.
- Black Dude Dies First: Parnell "Stacks" Edwards (played by Samuel L. Jackson) participates in the Lufthansa heist as a designated driver. He screws it up and is the first of many to get whacked in order to keep the matter safe and quiet.
- Black Comedy
- Blatant Lies: When Karen asks Henry what he does for a living, he replies "I'm in construction". Karen feels his soft hands and points out that they don't look like the hands of a constructor, so he elaborates and tells that he's a union delegate. Karen, obviously enchanted by the lavish lifestyle, doesn't press the matter.
- Blood Knight: To Jimmy and Tommy, a risky and bloody criminal life is not a hazard but quite the opposite.
- Boom, Headshot:
- Tommy, to Stacks: "You're always fuckin' late. You'll be late for your own fuckin' funeral."
- Then, later, Tommy at the end.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: At the end during the trial, Henry Hill begins speaking to the camera, lamenting not only betraying his mentors but lamenting the end of his mafia lifestyle.
Henry: Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. (gets up from the witness stand) Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it's all over...
- Broken Pedestal: While Henry doesn't expect much help from Paulie, he still bitterly laments the meager 'severance pay' he is given after a lifetime of service and tutelage.
- Brooklyn Rage: Especially Tommy.
- Bullet Dancing: Tommy vs Spider. Subverted.
- Bullying a Dragon: Jimmy knows well that antagonizing Billy Batts -a made man who is protected by default- is not a brilliant idea and tries to defuse the situation. The guy is killed anyway, but the gang is very aware that his death should remain a secret.
- Morrie spends the entire movie pestering Jimmy and getting away with it. His luck runs out after fifteen years or so.
- Butt Monkey:
- Spider gets casually mistreated by Tommy in his two brief scenes.
- Frankie Carbone is bossed around by Tommy and Jimmy and treated with little respect. On top of it, after he's finally murdered, his corpse is found frozen inside a truck hanging from a hook, like some dead livestock.
- The Cameo: Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Mcdonald, As Himself; the prosecutor who handled Henry Hill and sponsored him into witness protection.
- Click Hello: Happens to Henry inside of his car. He immediately realizes he's been halted by the police instead of being dealt with by the wiseguys because the latter don't do this kind of courtesy and kill quietly on the spot. "If they'd been wiseguys, I wouldn't have heard a thing."
- Cluster F-Bomb: Tommy, in what became a career-defining role (to some people) for Joe Pesci. Henry's narration is also filled with plenty of F-bombs; this is Truth in Television as the real Henry Hill swears casually and frequently in the documentary The Real Goodfella.
- Also how Henry realizes the plainclothes cops are actually cops. Mafia goons wouldn't say a word if they were ordered to do a hit, he states.
- Comedic Sociopathy:
- In-universe Henry laughs loudly while Tommy or Jimmy are mistreating other guys. Debatably out-universe, Henry's narration sets the mood and the Played for Drama angle only shows up in the last segment of the movie.
- Tommy Devito is, at least In-Universe, a Comedic Sociopath.
- Conspicuous Consumption / Suspicious Spending: After a big heist Jimmy is appalled when some of his accomplices show up with incredibly expensive purchases that would logically suggest newly acquired wealth. Jimmy had explicitly warned them to lay low to avoid the implication and the trope.
- Contrived Coincidence: The goodfellas get pinched after strong-arming a man whose sister happens to work as a typist for the FBI. Lampshaded by the narration. Truth in Television as this is how Henry and Jimmy ended up in jail for assaulting a guy in Florida who owed money to the mob and wouldn't pay up.
- Conveniently Cellmates: Henry shares the same prison accommodation as his gangster pals. This is Truth in Television for them and many other organized crime figures at the time, usually achieved through corrupt prison staff. Averted with Jimmy, who serves his term in Atlanta.
- Cool Car: Henry buys one every few years, starting with a 1966 Chrysler Newport convertible, then a 1968 Pontiac Grand Prix, and finally a 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille Phaeton Special Edition in saddle red. The guy that gropes his girlfriend owned a 1966 Corvette as well.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Tommy is seen telling his girlfriend not to talk to any men while he goes to the other side of the room, and she comments that he gets so jealous he would kill her for looking at anyone else.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster : The film pulls no punches at showing the dizzying highs as well as the horrible lows of the gangster lifestyle.
- Deadpan Snarker: Tommy.
- Deal with the Devil: A restaurant owner partners up with Paulie, in order to get protection from Tommy who attacks him after refusing to pay his bar tab. The wiseguys rob the man blind then, when he's no longer of any use to them, burn the restaurant down for the insurance money.
- Deconstruction: Of the gangster film genre. Specifically as showing gangsters not as urban lowlifes in ghettoes but living middle-class lives in Stepford Suburbia which in turns inspired The Sopranos years later. Much of the action takes place in broad daylight with gangster activity more or less an everyday affair.
- Henry Hill's final narration was intended by Scorsese as a Take That to the idea of Do Not Do This Cool Thing or at least the idea that Hill squealing on his buddies to get out of prison implies that he's The Atoner when all he regrets is getting caught. Indeed the song that plays over the end, the Sid Vicious cover of My Way implies that for him the entire life was Worth It.
- Dirty Cop: The regular police are casually bribed to look the other way.
- Disposing of a Body:
- Straight hole in the ground and lime method. Billy Batts is disposed twice, the original burial site is going to be constructed upon so the package has to be moved.
- One of the main issues after a gratuitous murder is having to dig a hole and do the whole thing.
- One vicitm is left hanging on a hook inside a refrigerator truck.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Tommy has a knack for answering with deadly force any sign of disrespect.
- Dodgy Toupee: Morrie sells wigs for a living and praises their reliability in a commercial shown on TV. Seconds later his own wig can't endure the beating delivered by Jimmy, though.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Despite the fact that the movie deconstructs many standard gangster film tropes and has something of a Downer Ending, it's still considered one of the coolest depictions of the Mafia ever put on film - by members of the Mafia themselves, even. The gangster that DeNiro's character was based on was reportedly thrilled such a great actor was portraying him, and kept trying to get in touch with DeNiro from prison to give him pointers. Similarly, the real Henry Hill wrecked his witness protection because he couldn't resist bragging about the movie. (Not that anyone cared to kill him at that point.) Yet by the end of the movie almost the entire extended cast is either in prison, witness protection, or dead- almost universally via brutal murder, to say nothing of all the domestic abuse, paranoia, treachery, drug addiction, police investigations and violence that the characters end up going through. It is still loved by gangsters and wannabe gangsters.
- Which might not be a bad thing since it's one of the few movies that shows gangsters from their perspective rather than that of Moral Guardians and shows them Warts and All. Word of God admits that he dislikes movies telling audiences what to feel or think or telling them what's cool or not, when its up to each viewer to decide for themselves.
- The Don: Paul Cicero is the top-ranking mafioso of the movie, so powerful that he's a Don in all but name, with hundreds of people depending on him. Despite the perspective and scope, technically he's just a captain for the Lucchese family.
- Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off: Henry's father when he finds out the young Henry has been playing hookie to do mob errands. Dad's is only seen again in the movie -and with a long face- during his son's wedding, as Henry basically places himself in a new "family."
- Door Closes Ending: The film fades to black after Henry Hill closes the door of his new witness protection house.
- Double Standard: Or triple... Tommy who is disgusted by the notion that a woman could be attracted to a black man -Sammy Davis Jr- laments that a Jewish girl he's got the hots for rejects him because he is Italian.
: In this day and age, what the fuck is this world coming to? I can't believe this, prejudice against - a Jew broad
- prejudice against Italians
Unbelievable. [Girl: You could see how a white girl could fall for him]. [...] So you condone that stuff?. I don't want to be kissing Nat King Cole
- Downer Ending: On the one hand, most of the main characters end up dead or in prison. On the other hand, they were almost all murderers.
- The Dreaded: Tommy.
- Drugs Are Bad: Henry would probably still be rolling in cash and in the good graces of Paulie and Jimmy had he stuck to theft and stayed out of the drug trade... and not got hooked on coke. Paulie warns Jimmy and Henry not to get involved with drugs because of the increased attention it brings from the feds- it does, and all three end up facing prison (cept Hill, who ends up in witness protection, fearful of the mob and bored out of his mind.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: Averted. Despite being almost entirely set in New York City, there are no sightings of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers etc.
- Establishing Character Moment: Three guys are on the road in the middle of the night, there seems to be a problem with the car so they pull up. It turns out they have a live package in the trunk. When Henry opens it, Tommy stabs a man eight times and Jimmy shoots him four times. They are annoyed by the package's resilience but at the same time they enjoy finishing the task. Henry doesn't join in and just watches them doing their thing with a slightly concerned look before locking his trunk. He's an accomplice but he is not as hardened as they are. Cue the title screen. Doubles as establishing movie moment.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Tommy De Vito.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Jimmy cries when his best friend Tommy is murdered.
- Even Evil Has Standards:
- Henry's a jerk and lifelong criminal, but draws the line at murder. Even he is visibly disturbed when Tommy and Jimmy brutally beat up Billy Batts.
- As he says in narration, the unwritten rules of the mob were what kept you from getting whacked.
- Jimmy gives Tommy a serious rebuke after the gratuitous shooting of Spider. Played with in that Jimmy provokes Tommy by busting his balls and then one of the main objections raised by Jimmy is having to bury the body, a burdensome task.
- Paulie has shades of a Family Values Villain and puts an end to Henry's semi-bigamous life, although it's implied that Paulie makes Henry return to Karen because a Woman Scorned is bad for business.
- Subverted, however, by his dictum to Henry not to deal drugs once he's out of prison. Some viewers took that as Paulie having moral objections to drug dealing, as indeed some Mafia bosses did. However, the book makes it pretty clear that those objections are purely pragmatic—first, it was too easy to get convicted (a friend of Vario's had gone down on a major trafficking rap just because he nodded to someone across a room) and more importantly, once violators were convicted the long sentences they faced put a great deal of pressure on them to cooperate with authorities in bringing down their associates (as indeed the Hills did).
- In her narration, Karen contrasts her own politeness to the police whenever they come and search the house with Jimmy's wife Mickey, who spits and swears at them.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: Young Henry breaks the rear windows of some parked cars, pours in some gasoline and adds a match. All of the cars go KABOOM at once.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Henry and his fellows have no idea why anyone would want to make an honest living.
Henry: For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls.
- Fatal Flaw: Tommy's Hair-Trigger Temper. Killing a made man without permission is the chief reason he gets whacked.
- Fate Worse Than Death: Henry Hill himself, who has to live the rest of his life as both "a rat" and "a schnook".
- Fed to the Beast: One of the creative threats the wiseguys use to enforce their demands.
- Five-Bad Band
- Food Porn: Well-cooked, glamorous food is a recurring motif in the movie, as a symbol of the perks of Mafia lifestyle. It gets to the point where Henry's narration stops discussing what's going on in the scene in a few places to instead focus on what meal is being currently prepared. Everywhere he goes, Henry is well-fed as a gangster, and even when he's in prison eats like a king with well-cooked gourmet meals. When Paulie turns his back on him, Paulie is cooking sausages on a grill while Henry looks on hungrily. Then once in the witness protection program, Henry laments how he no longer has access to good food; to him the most definite symbol of his fall from grace.
- "Nigger stickup men get caught because they fall asleep in the getaway car," which should give you a hint about Stacks' murder
- Paulie's educated concerns about drug traffic and his reluctance to use telephones, indicating that he knows the consequences of such and also knows about RICO conspiracy charges and wiretaps.
- "You may fold under questioning!"
- For the Evulz/Psycho for Hire: Jimmy is into crime not out of greed but for the mere thrill of it all. More explicit in the book
Jimmy loved to steal so much that if you offered him $1,000,000.00 not to steal anymore he'd turn it down and try to figure out how to steal it from you.
- Four-Temperament Ensemble: Henry is phlegmatic/sanguine, Tommy is sanguine/choleric, Jimmy is choleric/melancholic, and Paulie is melancholic/phlegmatic.
- Freudian Trio: Tommy is the Id, Henry is the Ego and Jimmy is the Superego.
- Funny Background Event: When Tommy drives Karen to the cab stand to confront Henry a few of the wiseguys look pissed off at this asshole who nearly ran them over. As Karen starts yelling at Henry the wiseguys look into the car, see who's driving, realize what the situation is and start pointing and laughing at Henry.
- Gallows Humor: Quite a bit, most notably the grave digging scene.
- Genre Savvy:
- Gilligan Cut:
- Henry pointing how Jimmy instructs him to be discreet with a heist money. Cut to Henry entering his house with a huge aluminum Christmas tree and shouting to his family, "I got the most expensive tree they had!"
- This one, during one of Karen's monologues:
Karen Hill: After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while all the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren't brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money - real extra money - was to go out and cut a few corners.
[Cuts to Henry and Tommy hijacking a truck]
- When Paulie warns him to stay away from drugs after getting him out of jail, it cuts to Henry and Sandy lording over a pile of cocaine.
- Glory Days: How Henry looks at his old life.
- Guns Akimbo: Tommy "Two Guns" DeVito/DeSimone.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Tommy has a vicious temper borne from a need to prove he's the world's biggest badass, and can snap at the slightest provocation. His usual recourse against an insult to his person is to murder the offender, regardless of whether they are a lowly busboy or a mob captain. His instability ultimately causes problems for him later in his career. Interestingly, DeVito is very aware of his reputation, in one scene, he feigns offense at a harmless compliment to toy with his friends. The hardened gangsters not only believe that his rage is real, they're also terrified of him.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: Henry recognises immediately that Jimmy has decided kill Morrie instead of paying him off for helping out in a heist when Jimmy asks him: "Think Morrie tells his wife everything?". It comes back later when Jimmy asks Henry's wife Karen an innocent question about Henry and the cops: "Do you know what kind of questions they've been asking him?"
Jimmy: (to Henry) You think Morrie tells his wife everything?
Henry: (Narrating) That's when I know Jimmy was gonna kill Morrie.
- Hero Antagonist: The police and the law, literally.
- Historical Villain Downgrade:
- Paulie Cicero is depicted as Affably Evil and a likable capo. Henry Hill explains him away as "protection for wiseguys among themselves". Mobster Paul Vario - his Real Life counterpart - had more direct involvement in the nastier (and bloodier) crimes committed by his crew. In Wiseguy (the book the film was based on), Hill recalled seeing Vario attack a barmaid with a baseball bat after she informed his wife they were having an affair. Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi writes, "He abhorred unnecessary violence (the kind he hadn't ordered), mainly because it was bad for business."
- DeVito's real life counterpart, Tommy De Simone, was even nastier than he's portrayed. The final straw that led to his murder was trying to rape Karen Hill while her husband was in prison.
- The movie leaves out the tiny fact that in real life Jimmy liked to shake down people by locking their kids in the fridge, or other stuff like cutting his wife's annoying ex-boyfriend into pieces, as well as numerous other murders. He and Paulie also ripped off the robbers and other guys involved in the Lufthansa heist- nobody got more than a $50,000 cut and most got less (out of a $6 million robbery). They still got murdered for the connection.
- In the film, Hill says that Jimmy had never asked him to kill anybody. Though Hill is an accomplice after the fact on several murders, he never personally kills anyone. In Real Life, Henry Hill did personally kill at least three people, so this crosses over with Unreliable Narrator.
- The film also relegates Henry and Jimmy's involvement in the Boston College point shaving scnadal to one throwaway line. Likewise it completely leaves out Henry's pioneering role in credit card theft and fraud, the source of most of his earnings prior to his federal prison time (and what eventually got him kicked out of the Witness Protection Program in real life).
- Honorary Uncle: 'Uncle' Paulie and the offspring of the wiseguys have a very avuncular relationship.
- Hookers and Blow
- Hope Spot: Henry feels relieved when Jimmy says to forget about the plans to whack Morrie, and notes Morrie is sitting there with them not knowing how close he was to being killed. Tommy then stabs him in the back of the neck in the very next scene.note
- How We Got Here: The film starts with Jimmy, Henry and Tommy driving on a dark country road in the middle of the night. They hear a noise coming from the trunk, so they stop and take a look. Turns out their package in the trunk is the bloodied Billy Batts, who is still alive. Henry pops the trunk. Tommy stabs the man eight times and Jimmy shoots him four times. Then we flash back to Henry's childhood and the first half of the movie documents the events leading up to Batts's death.
- I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Played straight by Tommy, then subverted when he intentionally kills Spider.
- I Just Want to Be Badass: Henry's iconic narration:
Henry: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.
- In Medias Res: The story starts in the middle of the Billy Batts situation, then it jumps to Henry's origins and continues chronologically from there.
- Tommy DeVito to the point of being a sociopath. Jimmy and Henry (although less so) are not far behind either. Zigzagged with Jimmy "the Gent", who is polite and tries to talk down Tommy's impulsive tendencies several times, notably with Billy Batts (at first).
- Jewish Mother: Karen's mother. When she first meet Henry, the first thing she says to him is "Karen tells me you're only half-Jewish." Henry is half-Italian, half-Irish, and was wearing a cross before Karen hurriedly makes him cover it up so she won't see it. She later berates Henry quite justifiably for staying out too late, but her daughter is an enabler and gets angry for it.
- Jump Cut: Used prominently during the last part of the movie to emphasize Henry's agitated state.
- Karma Houdini: Subverted Trope- Henry Hill avoids prosecution and mob retribution, but he will spend the rest of his life Brought Down To Normal, forever pining for the Glory Days. In real life, Hill's life was a mess for many years before going into rehab.
- Jimmy is sent to jail due to an unrelated charge (presumably the point shaving done at Boston College). He never pays for killing a made man alongside Tommy. (The real life Burke died of cancer in prison in 1996.)
- Kick the Dog: Tommy's treatment of Spider.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch:
- Henry beats a neighbour who groped Karen and then pushed her out of a car when she hit him back. The guy is probably one of the few non-mobster characters that deserved this.
- Tommy. According to Henry, he got shot in the face so his mother couldn't have an open casket funeral.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Morrie. Unavoidable; "I thought he'd never shut the fuck up. What a pain in the ass."
- Kill 'em All: Jimmy eventually wants to cut every link between himself and the heist.
- Kitschy Local Commercial: Morrie's.
- Laser-Guided Karma:
- Tommy's death.
- Henry's fate. He always wanted to be a big man - he moans he's a nobody, a schnook at the end who can't even get good pasta anymore.
- Laughably Evil: Tommy really is a funny guy, just don't say it to his face or he'll feign his murderous rage very convincingly.
- A Lighter Shade of Black: In a movie about hardcore gangsters, Henry is the least callous and abominable of the lot.
- Little "No": Tommy, as he realizes he's about to get whacked. He doesn't even finish saying it. Spoken with the volume of a Little "No" but with the emotion of a Big "NO!".
- Luxury Prison Suite: Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, or as most people call it, "Mafia Manor."
- The Mafia: Ironically, none of the main trio ever get "made" and become official members of the Mafia. Henry and Jimmy both have non-Italian heritage (they're half-Irish), so they're never even eligible, and Tommy, who has Sicilian parents, seems like he's about to be made but is whacked for his murder of Billy Batts instead.
- Manly Tears: Jimmy after he finds out that Tommy was killed.
- Mighty Glacier: "Paulie might have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody."
- The Millstone:
- Most of the trouble the main characters get into is because Tommy would shoot anybody for so much as looking at him funny.
- Lois the babysitter. Henry repeatedly tells her to make a drug call outside of the house. She ignores him, and singlehandedly ends up getting his drug operation busted.
- A Minor Kidroduction: The film starts showing how Henry Hill enters the wiseguy's world during his childhood. After a few minutes it AgeCuts to Ray Liotta.
- The Mistress: Janice Rossi and later Sandy hook up with Henry. The other main characters don't seem to have one -Tommy is unmarried- but a goomah apparently comes with the job description.
Henry: Saturday night was for wives... but Friday night at the Copa was for the girlfriends.
- Montage: The whole film is basically this. Scorsese said he was trying to make "The first film ever made that was a long trailer."
- Mugging the Monster:
- Karen is assaulted by her neighbour, prompting a violent retaliation from Henry.
- An inversion is alluded at the wedding; Karen is concerned about a bag of money-gifts but Henry is amused and confident that nobody is going to rob a mob party.
- The wiseguys get thrown in jail when they attempt to extort a man whose sister happens to work as a typist for the FBI.
- Mythology Gag: Joe Pesci beating Frank Vincent like in Raging Bull (Vincent's character surname was Batts too). Scorsese would deliver the punchline to the joke in Casino... somehow.
- The Napoleon: Tommy, by default due to Pesci's actual stature. The real-life inspiration was a large, beefy guy.
- Narrators : Henry. Karen occasionally.
- Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters: The gangsters in the beginning who nurture the young Henry are portrayed in a positive light (which makes sense once you think of the point of view it is from), but they are definitely not good guys, as they beat a mailman because he delivered a report card to Henry's house, and have Henry destroy a few cars for them.
- Nice to the Waiter:
- Subverted with Jimmy, who is shown handing out $100 bills like confetti to waiters, bartenders, and doormen, but he's still a completely ruthless psychopath who kills people at the drop of a hat.
- Henry provices a straight example at the Copacabana, handing out $20 bills and being friendly with the service.
- The evil side of the trope is played straight by Tommy, who physically assaults them and boasts about it. Deadly with Spider, a young bartender with an entry-level job echoing Henry's past.
- No Honor Among Thieves: Besides their conspicuous profligacy with the proceeds, Jimmy has almost everyone else involved in the Lufthansa heist killed because it netted more money than they expected and he doesn't want to share the extra cash.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The beating of Billy Batts. So intense that Jimmy dents his shoes.
- Non-Indicative Name: The wiseguys aren't wise, good or even fellas.
- Noodle Incident: The reaction of the Florida man by threatening to toss him to the lions for a midnight snack makes Henry ponder if that hasn't happened a few times before. Made funnier by the lions seeming to have a look of "Ooh, dinner time again".
- Not Using the Z Word: A la The Godfather, the word "Mafia" is rarely, if at all used.
- Offing the Mouth: Tommy beats Billy Batts to death because Billy "breaks his balls" over being a former shoeshine boy.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The execution of the Air Fance and Lufthansa huge heists is not explicitly shown. There's some planning and location shots, but most of the information is given via exposition.
- Offscreen Villainy: It's mentioned in passing that Paulie was sent to jail on a charge of contempt. Given his line of business, it may double as Justice by Other Legal Means, but at that point he's only serving a year.
- Oh, Crap: Tommy gets just enough time for one before being shot in the back of the head.
- The Oner:
- The famous Epic Tracking Shot that starts as Henry leaves his car with the valet and follows he and Karen as they enter the Copacabana through a rear entrance, down a corridor, through the kitchen and into the nightclub as their table is set up and comedian Henny Youngman starts his act. It lasts three minutes. Watch it here.
- A lesser one of seventy seconds happens when the secondary wiseguys are introduced at the Bamboo Lounge.
- One Steve Limit: Averted during the wedding scene. "Seems like all of them were named Peter or Paul, and they were all married to a Marie."
- Parking Problems: Henry cites being able to double park in front of fire hydrants as one of the cool things gangsters could do. Also, after he begins working with the gang, he mentions that neighbors no longer parked in their driveway, even though they didn't have a car.
- Pet the Dog:
- During his teenage segment, Henry helps a random guy who shows up with a bullet wound. He provides some aprons for the bandages and tellingly, he's called out by his boss: "You wasted eight fucking aprons on this guy."
- Tommy shows at least a trace of humanity thanks to his relationship with his mother.
- Henry is genuinely worried about Morrie and does his best to calm him down, because Henry knows that Jimmy -at the very least- is going to beat the guy senseless if he keeps complaining. Played with in that Henry enjoys watching Jimmy kicking Morrie afterwards.
- Pistol-Whipping: Done by Henry on the guy who assaults his wife.
- Pragmatic Villainy:
- The mob bosses frown on drug dealing, but mainly because it'll bring the full wrath of the federal government on them.
- After Tommy murders Billy Batts and the trio begin getting ready to dispose of the body, he turns to Henry and says, sincerely, "I didn't mean to get blood on your floor."
- Pretty in Mink:
- Some of the wives wear fur, although the fact that they were either stolen or bought with stolen money makes this overlap with Fur and Loathing
- One of the gangsters buys his girl a fur coat with his cut of the Lufthansa cash. Jimmy flips out over it because he told everybody not to buy anything big that attracts attention. This is implied to be one of the reasons why Jimmy becomes paranoid and starts killing the accomplices.
- Pretty Little Headshots: Averted with Tommy's murder. Henry even notes that they shot him in the head so that his mother couldn't give him an open casket at the funeral. Overlaps with Not in the Face!.
- Properly Paranoid: While being hooked on drugs makes him overly manic, a lot of Henry's paranoia towards Jimmy and the Cops turns out to be valid.
- Rage Breaking Point: After watching Morrie's wigs commercial, Jimmy feels like he's been patient long enough and viciously demands his money from Morrie.
- Rags to Riches: Henry and Tommy, former shoe shinner. The actual Tony Bennett song of the same name is the soundtrack during the initial narration.
- Real Men Cook: The wiseguys take cooking very seriously during their incarceration.
- Rite of Passage: Getting pinched for the first time is a cornerstone for any mafioso. When Henry "pops his cherry" (gets arrested and judged) he's greeted with joy by the wiseguys in the aftermath, as he has kept his mouth shut, proved to be reliable and thus entered a new level.
- Roman ŕ Clef: Somewhere between this and Very Loosely Based on a True Story.
- Rooting for the Empire: In-universe: "Jimmy was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies"
- Sanity Slippage:
- Jimmy takes a level in sociopathy. This is what leads him to eliminate any links between Luftansa and himself.
- Henry's coke-fueled paranoia later in the film.
- Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: In a Shout-Out to The Great Train Robbery
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: When Henry is busted for drug dealing, his mob friends begin to cut ties with him in fear that he's going to rat them out to the police. Feeling cornered and fearing that his former friends will try to have him killed, Henry has no choice but to join the federal Witness Protection Program.
- Sequel Hook: In a bit of closure, the FBI has arrested Bannano mob boss Vincent Asaro for his involvement in the Lufthansa heist. An attorney stated they were sending the script over to Scorsese for Goodfellas 2.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Happens between Henry and Linda after driving her home to her apartment. We then see the still shot of the apartment building minutes until the scenery changes to morning light.
- The Seventies: The part of the movie where everything goes wrong for Henry Hill and the mob as a whole.
- Shoe Shine, Mister?: The film features a scene in which Tommy brutally beats and knifes Billy Batts to death for insulting him about being a shoeshine boy in Tommy's younger days.
- Shoot the Messenger: The wiseguys are about to lose the young Henry as an associate due to his truancy issues, so they solve the problem by roughing up the mailman who delivers the troublesome non-attendance school letters to Henry's house and father.
- Surveillance as the Plot Demands: Justified. The regular police are easily bribed to look the other way, but when drug traffic comes into play, the Narcotics detectives, wiretapping and helicopter surveillance cannot be shaken off.
- The Sixties: The part of the movie where Henry works his way into a comfortable position in the mob and times are good.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: A number of songs, including "Frosty the Snowman."
- Spiritual Successor:
- Casino is sometimes summed up as Goodfellas in Las Vegas!.
- The Sopranos isn't subtle in its attempts to pick up where Goodfellas leaves off in its demythologising of the Mafia. A truly impressive amount of the cast of that show had parts of varying significance in this film. In case it wasn't obvious enough, their first choice to play Tony Soprano was Ray Liotta.
- Scorsese noted that The Wolf of Wall Street does for white-collar crime what Goodfellas and Casino do for organized crime.
- A Storm Is Coming: The fact that Henry becoming a drug dealer and an addict is the spiral that eventually makes him fall from grace, flip and collapse the main Paulie's organization is very subtly hinted via the usage of the song ''Gimme Shelter'' when his new activities are being introduced.
- Surrounded by Idiots:
- Paulie's organization goes down because Henry disregards his explicit and learned command about ignoring drugs, and in turn Henry is caught because his incredibly dumb mule drops the ball by making a drug related call from inside Henry's house, after being repeatedly instructed against this. Scorsese discusssed that this series of mistakes is seen as unlikely by a portion of viewers, hurting the "crime does not pay" aesop of the story.
- Played with after the heist. Jimmy is appalled by the Suspicious Spending of his gang and realizes that idiocy runs rampart below him, so he begins to severe his links, for reassurance. But it's also made clear Jimmy is pretty paranoid and was likely to kill his subordinates anyway.
- It's implied this is a major reason Tommy is such a problem in the organization; even for a group of murderers and hard-core criminals, Tommy is such a trigger-happy sociopath he ultimately causes more problems than he solves. Unlike most examples, Paulie recognizes that Tommy is a danger to the operation, and after Tommy goes too far and kills the wrong man, Paulie has him executed.
- Tension-Cutting Laughter: Done famously after a prolonged scene where Tommy appears to be offended at being called "funny" by Henry. Finally Henry realizes that it's a joke and bursts into laughter, breaking all the tension.
- There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Billy Batts is bleeding in the trunk, but he's still alive. So Tommy stabs him eight times. Then Jimmy goes ahead and shoots him four times. And then the title screen comes in.
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: In a movie about gangsters, the main character Henry does not kill anyone. Not a soul. He buries bodies, steals things, beats people to a pulp, but he doesn't kill anyone. Justified in that, not being Italian on his father's side, he had no chance of becoming a "made man," and thus was more useful without having committed murders. In reality Henry did commit three murders for the mob.
- Title Drop: Henry explains that "good fella" is code for mobsters referring to fellow members. The title of the original book, Wiseguy, is also dropped.
- Too Dumb to Live: No, Tommy, you don't kill a made man without the go-ahead from the boss. Sorry.
- Took a Level in Badass: Henry starts doing petty errands for the Mafia as a teenager. Some time afterwards, he's setting cars on fire. A criminal escalation which doubles as Took a Level in Jerkass.
- Troll: Tommy's iconic "Funny how?" rant where everybody fears for Hill's life is really him just screwing around with Henry. Tommy would be The Gadfly if only he wasn't a reputed sociopath who enjoys terrorizing people.
- Trouser Space: When the police are breaking down the door at Henry's house, we briefly see Lorraine Bracco's belly, as she hides a gun in her panties.
- True Companions: Who have no problem killing each other to save their hides. What else do you expect from mobsters?
- Trunk Shot: When Henry, Tommy and Jimmy realize that Batts is still alive in the trunk and they pop it open.
- Truth in Television: The dialogue between Henry and Karen Hill and Ed McDonald is directly lifted from their real-life conversation.
- Übermensch: The wiseguys are above the local laws and look down on the average Joe, who is viewed as a chump, what with having to do honest hard work for a living.
- Verbal Tic: "And then there was Jimmy Two-Times, who got that nickname because he said everything twice, like 'I'm gonna go get the papers, get the papers.'"
- Vertigo Effect: During the last, tense meeting between Jimmy and Henry in the diner.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is based on Henry Hill's memoir Wiseguy. However, Scorsese takes a lot of liberties to tell a good story. Henry Hill still said it's 95-99% accurate at almost any given time. It's more like Roman ŕ Clef. Particular deviations include:
- Angelo Sepe is portrayed as murdered and found hanging in a meat truck freezer for his involvement in the Lufthansa Heist. In Real Life, this is how Richard Eaton was murdered (after being personally tortured by Jimmy) for stealing $250,000 and skimming even more being laundered (he had no involvement with the heist), while Angelo Sepe was both not a victim of the Lufthansa Heist and was actually the one carrying out all the murders (he was murdered later on by a hit squad for robbing a Lucchese-affiliated drug trafficer).
- Louis Cafora and his wife are shown to be found dead in the Pepto Bismal-pink 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille by kids playing in a parking lot. In actuality, their bodies were never found, and the the car was a Fleetwood (it really was pink, though, and he actually drove it to a meeting near an FBI investigation).
- Villainous Breakdown: The scene after he gets busted when Henry finds out that Karen flushed cocaine worth $60 000 down the toilet so the cops wouldn't have found it. This breakdown in particular happened in 2 stages: he was first angry at her for throwing it away, then he breaks down crying realizing that his life as a mobster is over.
- Villain Protagonist: Henry Hill
- What an Idiot: Henry's mule/babysitter is insistently told to leave the house in order to make a drug related phone call. And what does she do? She phones from the house. The police are wiretapping everything. Bitterly lampshaded in-universe by Henry.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The end titles relate the fate of the characters as of 1990. It's accompanied by the half-ironic, half-unapologetic Sid Vicious' version of "My Way".
- Who Watches the Watchmen?: Frenchy, the brains behind the Air France robbery, is amused when he's asked about the security of the airport. He is the security, the midnight-to-eight man.
- Witness Protection: Where Henry ends up. The real Henry Hill left witness protection some time after the film was released. He says that everyone who would want him dead is long gone, and now gangsters who do contact him want him to read their screenplays. Hill died in June 2012 from heart-related health issues.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Jimmy does this to everyone involved in the Lufthansa heist except Henry and Tommy.
- Your Cheating Heart: Henry Hill abandons his family and moves with his mistress for a while. Paulie mildly calls him out on it. Henry's infidelity is a Berserk Button for Karen, at first.
- You Remind Me of X: When the three protagonists stop at Tommy's mother's place intending to get a shovel, only to end up staying for dinner, a painting there joyfully reminds them of Billy Batts, who at that moment is lying in the trunk of their car, half-dead.