One of the strongest and strangest moments in David Lynch’s unsettling TV serial Twin Peaks, part of the dream of wholesome investigating agent Dale Cooper, comes when he is kissed full on the mouth by the figure of Laura Palmer, who was a ‘wild girl’ but is now dead and whose murderer he has come to town to detect. The story exerts its spell over television viewers through a combination of gruesome invention, deadpan quirkiness and hyperbolic intensity characteristic of Lynch (in Eraserhead, for instance, and this year’s Wild at Heart): but also through the tracing of sinister secret networks within the placid small-town community, the revelation not just of illicit sex but of drug-dealing and ritual murder underlying the ordinary goodness of pie and coffee. The deathly kiss Cooper receives in his nightmare from a girl ‘filled with secrets’ could stand for the ghoulishly thrilling intercourse between the lawful and the wild, for the impulse to get down to human nature’s bottom line.

In Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1985), the clean-cut but obsessive hero Jeffrey (played like Cooper by the wonderful Kyle McLachlan), hooked by the snipped-off human ear he finds in a field, exemplifies this curiosity which, in fiction, so often impels the innocent to look into the criminal underworld. His nice blonde girlfriend Sandy wishes he wouldn’t, but, as he says, ‘I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery.’

In Blue Velvet, the desire to penetrate the hidden specially connects with the adolescent’s need to get beyond the cosy but cramping fictions of childhood to the realities of the grown-up world. Jeffrey is stirred into inquisitive action by the life-threatening illness of his father, which challenges him to grow up by initiating himself in the mysteries of his home town. He spies on the troubled chanteuse Dorothy as she is sexually abused by a terrifying visitor with a mother complex; he then himself gets disturbingly caught up with her (she makes him hit her during sex); and he falls into the hands of the swaggering evil abuser Frank, whose punchline, before Jeffrey is horribly beaten, is: ‘You’re like me.’ That Jeffrey has struck Dorothy makes this plausible: we see him later weep with remorse at the memory, and it gives him something to expiate at the climax, in which he measures up to Frank.

Blue Velvet is gothic, then, the film noir kind of gothic: the watcher of criminal mysteries, as in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, has to become involved and to undergo an ordeal before the crime can be detected and punished. The protagonist’s prurient-looking interest brings with it a shadow of guilty identification – but is also instrumental in detecting evil deeds and ensuring justice is done. In these films the neighbourhood watcher is warned and justified. Sandy tells Jeffrey, ‘I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert’: there is a serious ambiguity to be unpicked. Early in the action the agonised Jeffrey asks, in Lynch’s favourite kitschy tone: ‘Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?’ The answers come partly from within, from a recognition and rejection of human alikeness between watcher and villain.

Martin Scorsese’s brutal, dazzling film about everyday life in the lower ranks of the Mafia, GoodFellas, plays with this gothic scheme of the watcher drawn into the criminal underworld, but with an irony that partly accounts for the work’s shocking impact. We do indeed start with an intent adolescent watcher of a Mafia hangout, a young Irish-Italian named Henry Hill, and his fascination does lead him to a compromising involvement in illegality and a witnessing of horrific violence. He undergoes something of an ordeal and he too ends by extricating himself from the guilt of his actions and co-operating with the Police in procuring the punishment of wrongdoers. It’s just that in the 25 years between 1955 and his entering the Federal Witness Programme in 1980, Henry, whose character is based on a real person of the same name, is a brilliant and active career criminal.

What’s more, he doesn’t leave the Mafia and testify against his old friends in order to gain or regain the moral high ground; he pragmatically calculates he’s in an impossible corner and they’ll kill him if he stays. As Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese, says in his hideously informative Wiseguy,* the documentary book on which the film is based: ‘He willingly turned on the world he knew and the men with whom he had been raised with the same nonchalance he had used in setting up a bookie joint or slipping a tail.’ Self-interest is his motive for leaving as for joining the Mob.

The difficulty of our taking Henry as a hero in the approved pattern makes for a queasy unfamiliarity in the film’s stance, and reaction to GoodFellas has betrayed confusion and resentment on this score. We have to keep our moral distance from Henry, more than we do from Lynch’s fresh-faced Jeffrey, and those for whom this analytic effort cancels the film’s entertainment value have gone so far, perhaps exhausted by its demands, as to call it tired. Others, either carried along by Henry’s gusto for crime or assuming the mass audience will be, have denounced it as sympathetic to the Mafia.

It is not new for Scorsese to provoke moral disquiet: his intense engagement with the unstable heroes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and King of Comedy, and his passion about The Last Temptation of Christ, have had controversial effects. This is a slightly different case, though: Henry is the protagonist of the film, not because his story is the register of an exceptional sensibility, but because he provides access to a world in which no exceptional sensibility could survive. As Hill says in the book, ‘you got out of line, you got whacked.’ ‘Whacked’ means ‘killed’, and without someone like Henry, a canny survivor, the accurate story of how wiseguys live and kill (without warning – in mid-joke) could never have been told: neither as a book (Hill sold his account to Simon and Schuster to pay his legal bills), nor as a film.

It is, moreover, a story worth telling, one which goes some way towards answering, at the non-theological level, Jeffrey’s wonder ‘Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?’ Scorsese has commented that GoodFellas reflects on our interest in the life of crime: ‘It’s not a good way to live. What I’m interested in is our attraction to it.’ It is a political film in that it locates the ‘attraction’ in the routines of authority and respect which surround the wiseguys, the princes of their world, in the Italian-American community. The behavioural difference Scorsese notices makes the life of crime even sensuously appealing: ‘I saw people who were so powerful it radiated from them. People walking by would walk differently in front of them. I really learned how people behave around power, how people with power use it.’ Pileggi has an incisive description of the basis of the wiseguy’s privileged position:

Violence was natural to them. It fuelled them ... It was routine. A familiar exercise. Their eagerness to attack and the fact that people were aware of their strutting brutality were the key to their power; the common knowledge that they would unquestionably take a life ironically gave them life. It distinguished them from everyone else. They would do it.

GoodFellas fully realises Pileggi’s observation and its ramifications. Henry notes, in the voiceover narration which recurs throughout the film, that this distinction is what makes wiseguys into somebodies, and into dream consumers, contemptuous of those who work for a living:

For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us those goody-goody 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. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.

The sticks and carrots of violence and bribes ensure the smooth running of Mafia operations, which are seen by the wiseguys as a perfect system (‘It’s beautiful,’ they keep gloating). The Police, painfully for us, are partners rather than antagonists: as Hill says in Wiseguy, ‘the cops didn’t want to put us out of business any more than they wanted to shoot the golden goose.’

The film also shows the narrow world of the wiseguys as ideologically sealed, with a specially adapted morality to fit its practices. The wives share the prevailing self-righteousness: Karen Hill’s voiceover insists that ‘none of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising ... while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for hand-outs.’ Scorsese’s advance description of the film as ‘a very hard, very violent, very ironic vision of the American Dream’ makes clear the bearing of the moment, after the massive Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport (the centre of business for Hill’s gang), when Henry comes home with a huge plastic Christmas tree, ‘the most expensive tree they had’. The camera moons in on its garish hangings while Henry’s voice-over regretfully recalls that ‘Lufthansa should have been our ultimate score. The heist of a lifetime. Six million in cash. More than enough to go round.’

‘Should have been’ warns us of the horrifying slaughter to come, in which Henry’s friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro), who has masterminded the robbery, and his mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), whack all their associates in the crime except Henry (who’s crucial to a drug operation they profit by). Hill’s narration, during a sequence in which the camera discovers one of his colleagues hanging frozen among the carcasses in a meat truck, comments with ugly indifference on Jimmy’s crude motives: ‘It made him sick to have to turn the money over to the guys who stole it. He’d rather whack ’em. Anyway, what did I care?’ The bustling glamour of the Copacabana and the Bamboo Lounge, which dominates the first part of the film and conveys the appeal of joining the gang, increasingly gives way to the horror of systematic murder, of spattered blood, red fog and ice picks, a demonstration of how little it really means to belong. We see the swaggering, easy charm of the wiseguys – which captivates working-class youths like the young Scorsese – before we fully discover how cruelly they live: ‘knowing these people first as people, and only later finding out what they did.’

Here, then, Scorsese’s moral line is visible: Henry’s ‘what did I care?’ is rebuked by his later panic and sense of betrayal when he realises that his old friend Jimmy now wants him out of the way. It seems Scorsese has deliberately steered the film’s idiom away from the moral-psychological – where Henry would agonise over moral dilemmas, or be plagued with guilt – because of his sympathy with the experience of the sort of people who might join the Mafia, the sort of people, that is, not to be worried by the thought that their sensibilities might be coarsened. Everyone respects a bullet in the back of the head, and few of those in GoodFellas would weep like Jeffrey at having struck a woman – certainly not Henry. The film is a savage farce, like Hawks’s Scarface of 1932, and issues its main warning against the attractive world of crime by showing how wiseguys get whacked by their friends.

De Niro has pointed out one apparent moral drawback: ‘They always like it when you do movies about them.’ Al Capone liked Scarface so much he watched it half a dozen times and visited Hawks in Hollywood. Jimmy the Gent Burke, on whom De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway is based, was according to Hill in Wiseguy ‘the kind of guy who cheered for the crooks in the movies’; his sons were named Jesse James Burke and Frank James Burke. Outlaws can be local celebrities, and the appeal of ‘the life’, as Hill sees it after entering the Witness Programme, is that ‘we were treated like movie stars with muscle.’

Movies play a formative part in the world of Henry’s other buddy in the film, Tommy DeVito (based on Tommy DeSimone, who was ‘wired very tight’). The screenplay carefully distinguishes Tommy’s lust for violence from the businesslike readiness to whack of the equally chilling Jimmy. (It is hard not to wonder, given Henry Hill’s closeness to these two, whether he really never whacked anyone himself.) In GoodFellas Tommy is deprived of a wife (he has instead a string of girlfriends about whom he is homicidally jealous) and is given a mother (played, in fact, by Scorsese’s own). He is the film’s equivalent of Blue Velvet’s deadly motherfucker Frank; and Joe Pesci inhabits him magnificently, as a no-holds-barred extension of the foul-mouthed, corrupt brother Joey he played in Raging Bull.

Like the infantile gangsters in Scarface, who Hawks said were ‘just like kids’, Tommy is childishly murderous, a small boy with a big gun. Hijacking a truck, he calls the driver ‘you fucking varmint’, and, as Henry drives off, yells ‘I’m riding shotgun’ and ‘Yee ha’, shooting his firearm in the air. He savagely kills the wiseguy Batts for teasing him about his childhood job shining shoes, and, for cheek, the bartender Spider (whom he has first shot in the foot, hamming Bogart in The Oklahoma Kid); the scenes haunt everyone who sees the film. The latter killing has been provoked by the taunts of the malign Jimmy, urging him to take offence at Spider’s minor defiance; when he draws and blows Spider away Jimmy chides him with indulgent mock-outrage for overreacting: ‘What the fuck are you doing? Are you a fucking sick maniac?’ Tommy responds like a sulky child who knows he’s made a mess and has to clean up, muttering ‘Who the fuck cares? I’ll dig the fuckin’ hole ... Where are the shovels?’

The film ends with a title telling us that though Henry Hill was given five years on probation in 1987 for narcotics conspiracy: ‘Since 1987 he has been clean.’ There had better be irony here. As in the best film noir, our exposure to the complexities of the criminal world prevents our feeling at the end that any legal process of detection and conviction can cancel out the evil we have witnessed, or clean away the blood that has been spilt.

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