Favorite Backstories: Goodfellas (A Series)

Let’s talk backstories! In my last article I said that I wasn't going to make a TOP 10 BACKSTORIES out of principle just because I have wasted so many hours falling for clickbait that I never agree with. Instead, I’m just going to share my favorites (in no particular order)! But before I get to the first one I wanted to write about, let’s talk about the idea of backstories and the role they play in movies.


When creative direction takes this step of “we need a backstory,” it makes an attempt to tell the audience exactly what they need to know about a character’s past in hope to link the audience to the role it will play in that character’s future (but this can also be done with governments, countries, rebellions and any number of things).


While this step is necessary, there is definitely an art to making a backstory serve its purpose. Because every minute you spend on a backstory - can rob the audience of the actual story you came to tell. And with movies, there is definitely a time crunch to keep the run time a certain length. But there are many films that strike this balance perfectly and this is one of my favorites!


I have covered Braveheart and now I want to dive into another classic...


Goodfellas

So this is a big one for me, because of the Martin Scorsese films... this one is actually not that high on my list. And that has more to do with personal preference than a movie critique, and lets be honest.. there are SO MANY good films on his resume to pick from.


But while this movie is not that that high on my list, this backstory is pure gold!


With this crime genre, there is classic story telling pattern of the good old days, the rise to power, and then the collapse of an empire. With the opening scene - the audience gets thrown right in the middle!


To start, we see Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro driving in the dead of night when they casually pull over to investigate a sound coming from the the trunk of the Pontiac.


What stands out to me in this scene, as the star studded cast stares at the movement coming from the trunk, is that each character has his role: you have Joe Pesci with a knife, De Niro with a Gun, and Liotta with the keys to the trunk, all the while being engulfed in a villainous red coming off the Pontiac tail lights. Each knows their part and executes what they believe needs to happen. Ray Liotta casually opens the trunk with the keys once his partners give him the go ahead followed by a "double tap" of stabs from Pesci and gun shots from De Niro. Once the trio complete "their jobs," Ray Liotta closes the trunk AND the scene with the infamous line:


"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."


So now this leads us from the where we know this story is going, to more of its humble beginnings, when Henry (Ray Liotta) was a kid in Brooklyn. We first see Henry on the outside of the gangster paradise looking out his window wanting to be like Pauli and Tuddi because they were respected, they could double park, and play cards without getting in trouble. And through the eyes of a kid, these men seemed larger than life both physically and societally. This is brilliantly illustrated in the mere stature of these kinds of men, and how the car struts flexed as one of these figures got out of the car. Then this is also narrated perfectly when Ray Liotta said:


"Pauli might have moved slow... but that was just because Pauli didn't have to move for anybody."


What I find fascinating about this character study of Henry Hill, is that he always knew that his trajectory of moving up in the world would be capped in this life (as he was not full Sicilian). But he simply started from the bottom and wanted to move up as far as he could. Simply, he just wanted to be a part of their world.


So from there we see him meeting the big players in the crime ring, parking Cadillac's, following Tuddi with an umbrella to make his home visits to Pauli to deliver messages. And he learned "to score a dollar here, a dollar there." And as he became addicted to the hustle, his parents found out he was skipping school to hustle even more - which lead Tuddi and his gang to stop all post office deliveries to the Hill Household. And that, in turn, was what Henry always wanted... respect and the security to do whatever he wanted. In that scene where Tuddi and the "Organization" threaten to shove the mailman's head in the oven, Henry also received the validation that he was a valued member of the crew.


And now that Henry is in, we dive into the study of Pauli and why he is so important to this community. Pauli provided protection for the wise guys that could not go to the police. And Pauli held all of his meetings one on one so that people could not hear what he was actually saying. And this harks back to another Sicilian Crime Lord... Don Corleone. When he most famously said to Santino... "Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking again." - Same Mindset.


At thirteen years old, Henry didn't have to wait in lines at the bakery and was making more money than most grownups in his neighborhood. He had it all... or at least he thought he did... until he met Jimmy Conway (De Niro).


A legend in his late 20s after all the crimes he pulled off as a teenager, Jimmy tipped everyone he met $100 when walking into the bar. And for guy who was also part Irish, he couldn't climb the FULL ladder (you needed to be 100% Italian to be "made")... Henry saw the new status threshold he wanted to hit.


And another thing on Jimmy Conway... He also wore a bright blue suit which stands out from the black, brown and grey oxfords that the family wears. Which makes him seem like an outsider, but also an outsider that Henry wants to become.


So, Pauli made the introduction... Jimmy slipped him a couple $20s and Henry became part of his crew. And this is where he also met Tommy (Joe Pesci), who was in a lot of ways the heir to the empire (100% Italian and could be traced back to the old country)... but starting from the bottom, he worked for Jimmy. And alongside Henry, they hustled cigarettes from stolen truckloads of none other than Jimmy, and on one of those jobs... Henry got pinched. Which at the time seemed like a bad thing, but in a lot of ways made him an unofficial part of the family.


When he left the courtroom Jimmy put his arm around him and said:

Jimmy Conway: "Congratulations. And here's your graduation present (slips him a couple $100s this time, as opposed to the $20s before)

Henry Hill: "What For? I got Pinched?"

Jimmy Conway" "Everyone Gets Pinched, but you did it right. You told them nothing and they got nothing."

Henry Hill: "I thought you'd be mad?!"

Jimmy Conway: "Mad? I'm not mad, I'm proud of you! You took your first pinch like a man, and you learned the two greatest things in life: Never Rat On Your Friends... And Always Keep Your Mouth Shut."


And as Jimmy Conway walks Henry out of the courtroom, he is greeted by the whole family with hugs and applause and embraced as one of their own.


And then comes one of the most iconic pan shots! We see a pan shot of Henry fully grown into the role (as we briefly glimpsed in the opening scene). We see brown loafers pan up to his fitted suit and Ray Liotta taking a drag on a cigarette in the airport about to make a Jimmy Conway type Hustle with his partner in crime... Tommy.



And that's the opener! It is packed with how the family operates, why they respect Henry as an "outsider," and the infamous line from Robert De Niro, "Never rat on your friends... and always keep your mouth shut." And while this code keeps everyone together for a while... these stories always take a fall when someone wants to make their empire just a little bigger and will cross any line to make it so....


Love this backstory and is such a critical part of the movie setup. And I will be the first to say that my personal rating of this movie drops during the crumble of the empire. I know that is part of the story, but there is a large part of me that wants a few more minutes in the sun. And that is what this intro provides.


- Joey Almars


To see where Goodfellas ranks on my top 100 greatest movies of all time... follow the link!