"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
Martin Scorsese'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 shnook".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 in 2000.Goodfellas 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, cynical character- though, it should be noted, both guys he played really existed, and he played them pretty faithfully).
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.
Most of the mob is like this when Henry is barely a teenager. Everyone from Paulie and Jimmy on down are all smiles and sunshine. But then the body count grows and the broken deals start piling up...
Towards the end, Karen perceives the Faux Affably Evil vibes from Jimmy, who is up to no good with the Hills by then.
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.
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.
Jimmy, as well, in a more downplayed or by-proxy way.
Bad Ass=/=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 one generic mobster is unafraid to call it out: "How could you miss at this distance?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butt Monkey: Spider gets casually mistreated by Tommy in his two brief scenes.
The Cameo: Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Mcdonald, As Himself; the prosecutor who handled Henry Hill and sponsored him into witness protection.
Cerebus Syndrome: An odd example. The film often has enough Black Comedy at the beginning, but after the death of Tommy, the film loses completely its comedic beats and is very focused on the drama and seriousness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 putting up with. It is still loved by gangsters and wannabe gangsters.
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."
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 some gal rejects him because he is Italian.
Tommy : 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
Tommy 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 over here.
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.
Specially relevant in the "I'm funny how?" one; Pesci and Liotta were instructed to improvise, other actors didn't know what was going to happen so their surprised-to-panicked reactions and puzzled faces are genuine. The scene mirrors what happened to Pesci in Real life; he told a mobster in a restaurant that he was funny and the mobster got angry. Scorsese implemented it once he learnt about it, as it wasn't in the book.
Scorsese also had all the actors involved in the kitchen scene (while Billy Batts was still in the trunk) simply improvise their dialogue for that sequence. The final scene with Spider was also ad-libbed, with the only scripted line being "Why don't you go fuck yourself?"
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.
Henry's a jerk and lifelong criminal, but draws the line at murder. Even he's visibly disturbed when Tommy and Jimmy brutally beat up Billy Batts.
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.
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.
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.
Gallows Humor: Quite a bit, most notably the grave digging scene.
Genre Savvy: Paulie is very aware that drugs can bring the whole thing down. He also has an aversion to telephones and personal meetings, hinting he knows about wiretapping and criminal conspiracy cases.
Henry pointing how Jimmy instructs him to be discreet with a heist money. Cuts Henry entering his house with a huge 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.
Hair-Trigger Temper: Tommy is the king of this trope. He was the trope namer as "The Pesci" for a while.
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?"
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), 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.
Honorary Uncle: Paulie gives and receives an avuncular treatment by the offspring of the wiseguys.
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 strangles him with a wire in the very next scene.
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).
Henry's father as well. While he beat his son in a supposed noble cause, he's still an absolutely despicable person for his treatment.
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 made him cover it up so she wouldn'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
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. Which actually has the nickname of "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 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.
Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters: The gangsters in the beginning that a young Henry hangs out with 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 has Henry destroy a few cars for them.
Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: His bosses want to put a hit on Henry at the end because they are worried he'll squeal to the cops. It's the realization that he has a hit on him that makes Henry squeal.
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".
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.
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."
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.
Jimmy's softer side is shown as he cries when his best friend Tommy is murdered.
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.
Rags to Riches: Henry and Tommy, former shoe shinner. The actual Tonny 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 à 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 $60 000 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.
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.
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.
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.