Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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Remembering Michael Cimino’s Masterpiece, ‘The Deer Hunter’

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Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoyesque American movie ever made.

The Deer Hunter was a novel on the screen, with plotting, tonal shifts, character studies, and a conclusion that, while equally rushed in its way—including the unforgivable kitsch of the crew singing “God Bless America” at the finalé, which is like being bludgeoned with a star-spangled sledgehammer—tries to tell it straight, illustrating not only the senselessness of what went on over there, but the horror of what happened to the people “lucky” enough to make it back here.

Certainly, Coming Home (also from 1978) had similar designs and was also a necessary turd in the punch bowl for anyone opining that we all needed to just move on. But compared to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was a novella, or a short story; its scope was narrow and effective for keeping things focused, even if it gets a little fluffy toward the end.

It’s also interesting to consider how the respective films reflect the director’s drug of choice: Coming Home, by the time it’s over, is like taking a steam bath in an opium den; Apocalypse Now rips out of the gate on a cocaine rush, settles into an uneasy acid trip and, by the end, is a whole cocktail of uppers, downers, hash and whiskey—the pharmacological equivalent of whatever was happening, in real time, inside Dennis Hopper’s head.

The Deer Hunter, by contrast, is from an older school: its shot-and-a-beer sensibility is ideally suited for the steel town locale. It’s even old fashioned in its way: the aftermath (a separate war unto itself) was one long hangover, filled with regret, recrimination, and self-loathing. Redemption, too. It also, at times, suffers from the weird mix of self-consciousness (that wedding scene could easily have been cut in half and, with a lesser director calling the shots, it should have been) and shed inhibitions. Was it too many Rolling Rocks that convinced Cimino the aforementioned “God Bless America” singalong was not only a wise, but necessary, decision?

So if The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as most folks in 1978 would have anticipated, its fatal flaw was being, for both better and worse, as perfect as it could have been at the time. There probably wasn’t an American film with such recalcitrant confidence and stunning results, however indulgent, made until There Will Be Blood (2007). Both films have the modest aim of explaining everything, and using one event (Vietnam, the oil industry) to elucidate the tragedies inherent in America’s tendency to overreach, due to greed and inexorable recklessness.

Of course, The Deer Hunter must be celebrated for what it got so right, and while even the best scenes in Apocalypse Now have that quirky genius of lightning captured in a bottle of “33”—kind of like Hunter S. Thompson at the top of his game—Cimino’s masterpiece has a formal elegance, its ambition never overshadowed by its pretensions or showboating. For a study in contrast, consider Platoon (1986) which, while incredible and important for its time, can hardly be watched today without sensing Oliver Stone’s sweaty, self-satisfied mug in every other frame.

It’s regrettable that the movie is best or most often remembered for the gruesome Russian roulette scenes. Those moments were perhaps necessary for anyone delusional enough to think this, or any war, is a reductive contest of good guys shooting bad guys and vice versa (itself a horrific enough scenario to warrant unlimited empathy and funds to assist veterans of these affairs). Even as metaphor, the idea of brothers in arms holding guns to their heads is as eloquent in its insanity as, say, the surreal depravity of a white Alpha male blasting Wagner as he blithely massacres a village of men, women and children: all before breaking out the surfboards.

Again, The Deer Hunter does get war, including the lead up and load out, definitively in its sights, but it manages to also nail the beautiful, if banal simplicity of working class existence: the honesty of that industrious lifestyle, sculpted and fueled by sweat and pitchers of beer.

It takes only one succinct, devastating scene to demonstrate a screenplay worth of suffering in the relationship between Meryl Streep and her used-up and spit out old man. It skillfully captures the way men bond (shooting pool, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and fight (“This is This!”). It subtly conveys how alcohol enables dudes to express vulnerability (“I love this fuckin’ place!”).

There’s comic relief, with the immigrant mother browbeating (and beating) her son on the afternoon of his wedding. There are layers of meaning within the insinuation that the bride’s growing belly might not be courtesy of her husband. Then there’s everything about Stan (Jon Cazale): his character, the type of complicated coward everyone has met, and everything about Jon Cazale, whom everyone on set knew was dying while they filmed.

As a movie rightly celebrated for its epic scale and achievement, The Deer Hunter boasts a series of immaculate scenes which, when isolated, deftly encapsulate the whole in miniature, while standing on their own as iconic moments in cinema.

Certainly it’s a tad heavy-handed, but the agitated vet stumbling into the wedding reception foreshadows much that the giddy groomsmen don’t understand, but will. “Fuck it,” he repeats, unwilling to shake hands or even look at the young men he knows (and we know) are about to grow up in an abrupt and ugly fashion.

Flash forward to the first post-war reunion between Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage). Michael, full of obligatory bravado and reassurance, smiles at his wheelchair-bound friend and says “We made it”, then leans in for the hug as the smile—and façade—disappears and he repeats, a forceful whisper, “We made it.” Or, the close-up on Michael who, after skipping his homecoming party, paces in a hotel room, doing everything he can to keep himself intact.

Yet, while certain scenes from the wedding, Vietnam, and in the woods will endure as classics, it’s one of the quieter sequences that packs, quite possibly, the most concentrated punch. Back from a successful hunt, the men have squeezed every morsel of joy out of their final hours before shipping off. Finally, more beers are opened, and a friend not headed to Vietnam (George Dzundza) sits down at the piano. As the others gradually recognize the tune being played (Chopin’s Nocturne #6 in G Minor), the merriment ceases and they pause, reflecting.

In a book, there’d be little choice but to tell; Cimino and the actors are able to show, without words, things both obvious and implied. They stare at each other lovingly, appreciating all that’s brought them to this moment but no longer able to ignore the ways so much is soon to change, and none of it for the better. The scene’s already indelible, but the way Dzundza looks at Cazale (who was about to succumb to cancer in real life) after the last note is played is the kind of perfection that can’t be planned; it’s the rarest instance of life and art imitating each other in the service of reconciliation.

In the end it’s this, along with several other subdued moments, that illustrate innocence not merely lost, but obliterated. It’s ultimately the story of decent men from an increasingly forgotten time and environment, and they, of course, represent the many thousands of men from similar places. They all went off to represent a cause they couldn’t fathom, and those that came back faced a different world that in turn couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand them.

It’s for telling their story, and putting names and faces on uncomfortable statistics (the dead, the crippled, the suicides) that make The Deer Hunter a different, and better, kind of Vietnam movie. It’s a war story, but it’s also a human story. The Deer Hunter is the type of film that, once seen, is capable of creating the right kind of change. It’s for this, above all, that Cimino should be remembered and celebrated.

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Farewell to a Goodfella: Henry Hill, R.I.P.

Well, it finally happened, albeit a lot later than many of his enemies would have liked.

The world’s most famous –and recalcitrant– bad-guy-turned-FBI-informant, Henry Hill, has passed away at age 69. Details here.

His remarkable transition from relatively unpromising punk (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) to up-and-coming wise guy (“Oh! You broke your cherry!”), to rat (“Mr. Hill, you know everything about being a rat”) to exiled, very unpromising yuppie (“I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”) is, of course, immortalized in Goodfellas, an instant-classic that, in 2010, I opined was the most definitive American movie of the previous two decades. That tribute is below. What do you think? Favorite moments from the movie? Other gangster movies that can hold a candle to the life story of Henry Hill? Let’s hear it.

 

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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