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“It Had Nothing to Do With Me”: The Moral Sloth of Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Raging Bull. This week, we’re looking at Goodfellas. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic.

There is a long-running debate concerning the films of Martin Scorsese, one that arose most recently around The Wolf of Wall Street.

To his critics, Scorsese is seen as a director who glorifies and venerates a certain form of toxic masculinity. There’s a certain logic to this argument. After all, whatever Scorsese’s intentions may be, there is no denying that his films attract a certain unironic fandom that gets swept up in these stories of tough men who do terrible things. This is reflected in everything from the ubiquity of Goodfellas as a “dorm room poster” to celebrations of its depiction of masculinity to the fact that real-life gangsters reportedly love it.

This criticism largely derives from the fact that Scorsese effectively surrenders control of the film’s narrative to his central characters. His movies are often literally narrated by their central characters: Henry and Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in Casino and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. These characters are given ample room to espouse their worldview and their philosophy, to craft the story that they want to tell.

Scorsese undoubtedly pushes back against his characters in interesting ways – often ironically juxtaposing their conceited monologues with brutal imagery to underscore the dissonance between their narrative of events with the reality of the situation. However, Scorsese largely avoids overtly moralising. He avoids the easy route of having external characters comment too obliquely or too loudly on the moral decadence at play. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Karen Hill is her own complicity in Henry’s immorality rather than any condemnation of it.

To be fair, there’s a lot to recommend this approach. American cinema has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the Breen Office, and there is a lot to be said for the importance of treating an audience as mature enough to grapple with complicated ideas or giving them room to reach conclusions on their own terms. Psycho is a classic piece of American cinema, but it suffers greatly from a closing scene where a new character shows up to lecture the cast (and implicitly the audience) on the film that they just watched.

Indeed, this is ultimately the beauty of Scorsese’s approach to these characters. Scorsese gives them all the room that they need, and they still manage to incriminate themselves. Their robust attempts to glorify and mythologise themselves inevitably backfire. Like a good detective or lawyer, Scorsese shrewdly just allows characters like Henry Hill to talk and talk and talk, knowing that they have been given enough rope with which they might hang themselves.

Much of Scorsese’s cinema is inherently subjective. It’s no coincidence that the director is preoccupied with eyes and watching. A Scorsese movie will often focus on its protagonist’s eyes, watching them take in the world around them; consider the shots of Travis Bickle’s eyes in the rearview mirror in Taxi Driver or the shot of Tommy’s car streaking across the desert in Casino. It’s notable that so many of Scorsese’s movies open with shots of a character’s eye as they awaken: The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Gangs of New York.

Characters in Scorsese films often inhabit worlds that exist at an abstract level, to heighten the idea that the audience has been thrown into the universe as seen by the eyes of these strangers. New York is presented as an urban wasteland in a strange twilight state between waking and dreaming in films like Taxi Driver and After Hours, while the sharp black-and-white cinematography and even warped dimensions of the boxing ring in Raging Bull place the audience inside the mind of Jake LaMotta.

Scorsese movies are often actively about the act of watching. Scorsese himself has talked about how much of his childhood was shaped by watching life outside through a window, and the image of a character watching the outside world at a remove permeates his films. The audience is introduced to Henry Hill as a child with a shot of him staring out the window and watching the local gangster congregate and celebrate. There is a similar sequence in Kundun, with the young Dalai Lama using a telescope to peer into the world outside the keep that has become his home.

As such, it makes sense that Scorsese movies are inherent self-aware. Many of Scorsese’s cameos in his own films nod towards his role as a director, whether literally controlling Travis’ gaze in Taxi Driver, playing an actual director in The King of Comedy, taking pictures in Age of Innocence and Hugo, or directing the ambulance crews in Bringing Out the Dead. Scrosese’s films are often designed with a certain level or audience awareness and understanding in mind, a consciousness that the world they are watching has been constructed or staged.

With this in mind, the audience becomes an active part of a Scorsese movie – rather than simply a passive observer. This is reflected in tricks as simple as having the characters directly address the audience via voiceover or even speaking to the camera, through a variety of point-of-view shots and through the complex understanding of the audience’s relationship to the text as something organic and developed rather than something simply consumed.

As such, Goodfellas is not simply about Henry Hill standing on a soapbox and delivering his sermon on the mount. It is about what the audience chooses to make of Henry’s statements, and whether they choose to trust him at all. Goodfellas is built around the simple idea that Henry Hill is a fundamentally unreliable narrator and that the audience should not take him at his word. This is his side of the story, but it is not entirely convincing as an objective statement of the facts.

This is the testimony for the defense. Although Henry spends the entire movie narrating to the audience, it is notable that the film’s big fourth-wall-breaking moment arrives when Henry is put on the witness stand. In a courtroom, identifying his associates, Henry turns to the camera. The scene pauses. He even walks out from behind the stand, underscoring the idea that this is all an elaborate and staged charade.

Still, the choice of setting is revealing. Henry’s entire narration is an effort at self-justification in order to win over the audience watching the film. This is his day in court. This is his attempt to convince the jury that he is an innocent man and that everything he did was defensible and understandable. Goodfellas understands this, and it knows that there is perhaps nothing more damaging to Henry than simply letting him talk. Rather than trying to condemn Henry on its own terms, the film chooses to let him repeatedly incriminate himself.

To be fair, Goodfellas allows Henry to present the most flattering version of the mob. “That’s what the FBI can never understand, that what Paulie and the organization offer is protection for the kinds of guys who can’t go to the cops,” Henry assures the audience early on. “They’re like the police department for wiseguys.” It’s a very flattering portrayal of organised crime, but one that makes sense in terms of a marginalised community looking to find its place in the world.

After all, Goodfellas makes a pretty convincing case that being a gangster is fun. The film’s famous long take, as Henry guides Karen into the Copacabana, is largely about underscoring the sort of glitz and glamour that was available to working class kids like Henry through the mob – and in understanding why that would be appealing. Henry seduces Karen, but he also seduces the audience. Karen is perhaps the audience identification character, who goes from being horrified by Henry to being won over by his lifestyle to being actively complicit.

As such, it’s understandable that so many viewers – especially so many young men – should be won over by Henry’s lifestyle choices, why they might identify him as the hero of this story. After all, these are the stories that Henry tells himself to make his choices seem defensible and justifiable. Goodfellas simply would not work if it tried to insist otherwise, if it tried to sternly lecture the audience that there was nothing appealing about crime. Unfortunately, crime does pay – and it pays well. However, Goodfellas argues that the accounts don’t add up in the end.

Scorsese underscores this idea in a number of ways. Most obviously, it is notable that all his films like Goodfellas, Casino and even The Wolf of Wall Street are essentially the stories of men who build paradises on earth – places and spaces where they can indulge their impulses unchecked – and who are ultimately cast out. Scorsese tends to avoid trite “good wins out” endings, with Henry surviving Goodfellas, Ace ending up back where he started in Casino and Jordan scamming people again in The Wolf of Wall Street.

At the same time, there is something vaguely Catholic in the idea that to have tasted heaven and to have been thrown out of paradise is its own form of eternal torment, an eternity consigned to a state of purgatory. Henry is truly pitiable figure at the end of Goodfellas, consigned to a life of suburban anonymity that stings all the more because he was once important. Ace has lost the woman and the empire that he loved in Casino. Jordan is no longer living the unchecked lifestyle that he enjoyed in The Wolf of Wall Street.

These are not the stark endings of the moralistic crime films produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood, reassuring audiences that the good will triumph and the wicked will suffer. However, there is something faintly religious in there, recalling Vince Gilligan’s wry observation, “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” Like most good Catholics, Scorsese knows what it is to both doubt the existence of the divine but also need to believe in some ordering principle.

Similarly, the action on screen frequently contradicts what Henry is saying, juxtaposing his self-rationalisations with grim reality. Early on, recounting his adventures as a teenager, Henry tries to explain why he was drawn to this life. He makes it sound almost wholesome. “One day the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home,” he explains. “You know why? It was out of respect.” The film pauses for emphasis. This is understandable. Who wouldn’t want their mother to be respected?

However, it’s very revealing that this heartwarming voiceover is juxtaposed with images of what Henry Hill was actually doing as a teenager, blowing up taxi ranks in order to further the mob’s influence. (In a nice example of how Scorsese leans on intertextuality and audience familiarity, this sequence is replicated with Frank Sheehan in The Irishman.) Henry’s meditation on the importance of his family’s status freezes on a gigantic explosion. The contrast between the story that Henry is telling and the reality of the events that unfolded is just too much.

In this context, it’s worth noting that a lot of Scorsese’s later gangster movies that feel indebted to Goodfellas also feel like a response to it. Most obviously, Scorsese is a lot less ambiguous about the lifestyles of characters in Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. Those movies all give less space to the rationalisations of their protagonists, and downplay the sense in which these characters excuse their actions. Jordan Belfort comes close to making these sorts of justifications in The Wolf of Wall Street, but the film gives over less space to them.

It is also notable that the films that followed Goodfellas are careful to be less glamourous. Goodfellas is a fun movie – there’s truth in the old adage that it is a difficult movie to turn off, because it just lures the viewer in. In contrast, the world of Casino is a lot colder and more mechanical than Goodfellas, while The Wolf of Wall Street treats its glamour as inherently tacky and overwhelming. Even Frank Sheehan in The Irishman is designed to be less magnetic and compelling than Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Scorsese never gives quite as much space to the romance of crime again.

Much of Goodfellas is told from Henry’s point of view. A lot of the film is anchored in his perspective. Outside of a few scenes that shift focus to Karen, the bulk of Goodfellas stays with Henry. Ray Liotta is in almost every scene, even the ones that focus on Jimmy Conway or Tommy DeVito. After all, this is Henry’s account of events. Although Scorsese is a religious director, and there are points in films like Casino or Kundun where his camerawork invites the audience to imagine some divine authority looking down on the world, here the camera is not omniscient.

This is most obvious with how Goodfellas treats the Lufthansa heist. The Lufthansa heist is a big deal, both in the film and outside it. It is one of the few events within the film’s narrative that likely resonated with contemporary viewers, given that it was (at the time) the largest cash robbery on American soil. It is part of the historical texture of Goodfellas. In the context of the film’s narrative, that heist becomes a key motivating factor in the film’s second half as Jimmy goes about tidying up loose ends by increasingly brutal means.

However, despite this, the action takes place entirely on screen. Instead of depicting the heist itself, Goodfellas focuses on Henry’s enthusiastic reaction to the heist as he hears about it in the shower at home. The reason for this is obvious: Henry was not part of the Lufthansa heist. It was an event that happened outside of his field of vision. The audience hears about it as he does, placed squarely in his shows. This fits neatly within the logic of the film, and demonstrates the extent to which Goodfellas is a subjective film.

With that in mind, several later choices become striking. Goodfellas repeatedly has Henry excuse himself from the more severe acts of violence. At one point, Henry and Jimmy take a trip to Florida to extort money, threatening to feed a debtor to some lions in the local zoo. The man promises to find the money, causing Henry to confess, “They must really feed each other to the lions down there.” The implication is that Henry would never feed another human being to the lions.

Henry is brutal and thuggish at various points in Goodfellas, but there appears to be a line. Karen recounts how much it “turned [her] on” to watch Henry beat the man who tried to sexually assault her. Later on, Henry beats up the boss who complained about the hours that his mistress was keeping, albeit with the assistance of both Jimmy and Tommy. (“Janice can do whatever she wants to do! Got it?”) He also commits some arson with Tommy, but this is presented as just part of the job. Those scenes are built around Henry and Tommy just talking at work.

Henry often goes out of his way to present himself in the best possible light. As a child, when a stranger wanders into the shop after being shot, Henry reacts quickly and compassionately, offering the man an apron to stop the bleeding. Later on, when Tommy shoots Spider in the foot, it is Henry who rushes to the aid of the young man, as if to emphasise that Henry is still a sensitive soul capable of showing empathy to other human beings.

During the big moment when everything goes wrong for the leading trio – the murder of Billy Batts – Henry is careful to write himself into the story as a passenger. He drives the car and helps to dig the grave, like a good friend, but he is careful not to implicate himself in the murder. He locks the door as Jimmy and Tommy beat Billy Batts to death in the bar. Later, when Tommy stabs Billy in the trunk and Jimmy fires repeatedly, Henry is an idle bystander. He is just a witness. He is not a participant.

Of course, an savvy audience member would have reason to be skeptical of these scenes. How Henry behaves in these sequences is subtly out of step with the rest of the film around him. Indeed, given how paranoid both Tommy and Jimmy are, it seems highly unlikely that Henry could be that passive without being accused of being a rat. However, this is the beauty of Goodfellas. As much as the film is designed to guide the audience to question Henry’s account of events, even if Henry is taken at his word, his passivity is itself is enough to condemn him to any viewer.

To be fair, this is very consistent with how Henry is portrayed throughout the film. He is a character without a particularly strong sense of personhood. Instead, Henry is capable of being whatever the other people in the room (or presumably the audience) want him to be in a given moment. This is obvious in any number of sequences within the film, from the way that his wedding completely erases his Catholic faith to better integrate with Karen’s Jewish family through to the cringe-inducing sequences of Henry force-laughing along with Tommy’s jokes.

There is a compelling dissonance here between the man that Henry believes himself to be and the one that the audience sees. Henry seems to consciously present himself as the most sensitive and considerate of the leading trio – notably, Tommy’s mother notes that he is very withdrawn during the late-night dinner as Billy Batts lays in his trunk. Instead, Henry comes across as a man without anything resembling a spine or a distinct identity outside of what others expect him to be.

This makes the film’s treatment of Morrie Kessler particularly interesting. Morrie is a deeply annoying character, but he is largely presented as pathetic. In contrast to many of the supporting characters in Goodfellas, there is no sense that Morrie has directly harmed anybody. He has schemed and gambled, and is complicit in the heist. However, he spends a lot of the movie complaining to Jimmy and Henry about when he is going to get the money that he is owed. In the grand scheme of Goodfellas, Morrie has a fairly reasonable grievance.

Henry makes a great deal of his affection for Morrie and his attempts to protect Morrie. Henry seems to work hard to keep Morrie away from Jimmy, aware of the fact that Jimmy is ruthlessly cutting any connection between himself and the job. Again, by the standards of Goodfellas, Henry’s concern for Morrie frames him as almost selfless. Henry is genuinely worried that Jimmy is going to kill Morrie and seems genuinely relieved when Jimmy tells him that they will not be murdering Morrie that evening.

Of course, this is all a ruse. Henry goes home. Jimmy and Tommy lure Morrie out to a car, where Tommy murders him from the back seat. This sequence is striking, because the murder is actually depicted on screen. With the notable exception of Stacks Edwards, most of the murders following the Lufthansa heist occur off-screen. Instead, the aftermath of the murders of characters like Frankie Carbone is depicted in a montage with a casual dismissal of the violence from Henry. “Jimmy was cutting every link between himself and the robbery, but it had nothing to do with me.”

That in mind, that Goodfellas focuses on Jimmy and Tommy murdering Morrie raises a number of interesting questions. After all, this is Henry’s account of events. How could he relate that murder if he wasn’t present for it? It seems pretty convenient that he knows all of the details despite being absent. The structuring of the story seems intended to demonstrate that Henry is innocent, that he tried to protect Morrie. However, his conspicuous absence from such a key scene feels like a conscious omission – a sharp reminder of who exactly is controlling the telling of this story.

Even in this account of story – even in the narrative over which Henry has complete control – he still ultimately indicts himself. The film’s third act tragedy is neatly foreshadowed in Henry’s memories of life in the neighbourhood under Paulie. He tells the audience that Paulie never had a phone, because even back then he was aware of the danger that a phone could pose to his operation. This led to a rather elaborate mechanism for passing information up and down lines of communication.

“He got all his calls second hand,” Henry explains. “Then you’d have to call the people back. There were guys, that’s all they did all day, was take care of Paulie’s calls. For a guy who moved all day long, Paulie didn’t talk to six people. With union problems or a beef in the numbers, only the top guys spoke with Paulie about the problem. Everything was one-on-one. Paulie hated conferences. He didn’t want anyone hearing what he said or anyone listening to what he was being told.”

Henry treats this as just another colourful detail in the portrait that he is painting of neighbourhood life – an example of Paulie’s eccentricities. It would be easy enough to cut the sequence from the film, in terms of the basic flow of that first stretch. However, it imparts an important lesson. Paulie largely managed to keep himself out of trouble by being careful. Of course, Paulie is still a gangster. He is more than likely a deeply unpleasant person. However, to Henry, Paulie is an aspirational figure – a nostalgic, romantic embodiment of what the mob can or should be.

So it’s no surprise when – in the third act – Henry is undermined by his failure to be as careful as Paulie had been. By the end of the film, fueled by a cocaine dependency and incessant greed, Henry Hill is a mess of a human being. His skin is pasty, his temper is short. He is making careless mistakes, and those mistakes have consequences. He is guilt of something approaching sloth, of laziness, of failure to maintain any moral hygiene.

This is most obvious with his mistress Sandy, who cuts the cocaine for him. He freely acknowledges that Sandy is “snorting more than she mixed.” The once lavish apartment is a mess of unwashed mixing bowls and scattered white powder. Aware of the very real threat that this literal mess represents, Henry buys her a dishwasher. Naturally, Sandy refuses to use it. Instead, the place becomes filthy. It’s a metaphor for the kind of decay and entropy that kicks in during the third act, as things fall apart and Henry fails to maintain the sort of standards that might protect him.

As one might expect, given that Henry Hill is the one telling the story, nothing that happens in the final stretch of Goodfellas is really Henry’s fault. Henry insists that his problems all came from other people – Jimmy refusing to accept the guns that he bought, the babysitter making the call from the home phone despite being literally told not to do that, the fear that Jimmy might murder both him and Karen prompting him to turn himself into the authorities.

However, even allowing for all that justification and that effort to blame other people, Goodfellas is very clear that Henry is to blame for most of the problems befalling him. He is a shell of the man by the end of the film. In that final stretch, a lot of Henry’s lies and delusions have slipped away, even as he obsesses over the pasta sauce being cooked by his younger brother Michael – another earnest and wholesome image that exists in sharp contrast to the reality of the situation around him.

Goodfellas is built on the assumption that audiences are smart enough and sophisticated enough to see through Henry Hill, and to recognise that even the best defense that he can mount of himself is at best ineffective and at worst only condemns him further. Does Goodfellas show the audience the murder of Morrie in order to demonstrate how facile Henry’s efforts to protect the old man were? Or does Goodfellas depict the murder of Morrie in order to imply that Henry himself was present? Either possibility is damning.

Scorsese’s films largely trust their audiences to reach conclusions about their core characters, whether the attempt to understand Travis Bickle without tolerating him in Taxi Driver or pushing the boundaries of cinema as an empathy machine in Raging Bull. As such, Goodfellas offers a slightly different take on this core approach, an approach that Scorsese would emulate in Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. It is an approach that presents its characters on their own terms, and argues that given enough narrative space, they will ultimately condemn themselves.

Of course, the real tension with these films concerns the audience. Can they see through these paper men? Or are they ultimately lured into the fantasy? In its own way, while Henry Hill mounts his own defense in Goodfellas, the film threatens to pass judgment on the viewer at home.

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