Cast: Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero)
Director: Martin Scorsese
My rating: 8.5 / 10
In 1955, a young Henry Hill dreams of becoming a wiseguy and living the criminal life. The Mafia presence is a major feature in Henry’s working class Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood. Henry begins working for local boss Paul “Paulie” Cicero and his associates which eventually includes James “Jimmy the Gent” Conway, an Irish gangster, and Tommy DeVito, a fellow juvenile delinquent. Henry begins as a fence for Jimmy, gradually working his way up to more serious crimes.
The three associates spend most of their nights in the 1960s at the Copacabana nightclub carousing with various women. Henry starts dating Karen Friedman, a Jewish woman after a blind setup by Tommy who needed a man for a double date. She is initially troubled by Henry’s criminal activities but is eventually seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and when he brutually attacks a neighour who had attacked Karen. She marries him, despite her parents’ disapproval and rationalises Henry’s life as someone will to go the extra mile to provide.
In 1970, Billy Batts, a made man in the Gambino crew who was recently released from prison, repeatedly insults Tommy at a nightclub owned by Henry. This provokes Tommy to brutually murder Tommy. The unsanctioned murder of a made man invites retribution; realising this after the murder, Jimmy, Henry, and Tommy cover the killing up by burying the body in Upstate New York. Six months later, however, Jimmy learns that the burial site is slated for development, prompting them to exhume and relocate the decomposing corpse.
In 1974, Karen harasses Henry’s mistress Janice and holds Henry at gunpoint after he gets the gun back he beats Karen and leaves her. Henry moves in with Janice, but Paulie insists that he should return to Karen after collecting a debt from a gambler in Tampa with Jimmy. Upon returning, Jimmy and Henry are arrested after being turned in by the gambler’s sister, an FBI typist, and they receive lengthly prison sentences. In order to support his family on the outside, Henry has drugs smuggled in by Karen and sells them to a fellow inmate from Pittsburgh. In 1978, Henry is paroled and expands this cocaine business against Paulie’s orders, soon involving Jimmy and Tommy.
Jimmy organises a crew to raid the Lufthansa vault at the JFK Airport, stealing several millions in cash and jewelry. After some members purchase expensive items against Jimmy’s orders and the getaway truck is found by police, he has most of the crew murdered. In his voiceover narration, as dead bodies are being discovered all over the city, Henry theorises that Jimmy would have killed them anyway rather than share the profits of the heist. Henry is spared by Jimmy as his only involvement was making introductions. Later Tommy is led to believe that he is to become a made man, which makes Jimmy very happy as both he and Henry as Irish men can’t become made man, but Tommy instead is shot dead on the way to the ceremony in retribution for Batts’ murder and other bad behaviour. There is nothing Jimmy or Henry can do against the made men who killed Tommy.
By 1980, Henry has become a nervous wreck from cocaine use and insomnia. He sets up a drug deal with his Pittsburgh associates, but is arrested by narcotics agents, and jailed. After bailing him out, Karen explains that she flushed $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet to prevent FBI agents from finding it during their raid, leaving them virtually penniless. Feeling betrayed by Henry’s drug dealing, Paulie gives him $3,200 and turns his back on Henry ending their association. Henry meets Jimmy at a diner and is asked to travel on a hit assignment, but the novelty of such a request makes him suspicious. Henry realises that Jimmy plans to have him and Karen killed especially after Karen almost gets killed by Jimmy. This prompts Henry’s decision to become an informant and enroll, with his family, in the witness protection program. He gives sufficient testimony to have Paulie and Jimmy arrested and convicted. Henry is grateful to be alive, but he is forced out of his gangster life and has to readjust to normal life which he really hates as he is now living like a “schnook”.
The end title cards state that Henry is still a protected witness as of 1990, but that he was arrested in 1987 in Seattle for narcotics conspiracy, receiving five years’ probation. He has been clean since then. He and Karen separated in 1989 after 25 years of marriage, while Paulie died in 1989 in Fort Worth Federal Prison at age 73 from respiratory illness. Jimmy is serving a 20 years to life sentence in a New York prison for murder, in which he will be paroled in 2004, when he will be 78 years old.
What’s to Like
The amazing acting and story, the insights into the mafia / wiseguy life, the glamour and brutal realities.
What’s not to Like
One of the great mafia movies of all time. Every actor is amazing but Joe Pesci in his academy award winning role shines as the ruthless and unstable Tommy. The narration of Henry at the start of key phases of the movie provides great insights into the mafia life. The corruption and abuse of the legal system in favour of these criminals reflects what we now know of American in the 1950s to early 1980s.
I loved this movie when I watched it as a teenage and it was aged very well watching it 30 years later.
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Joe Pesci) – winner
- Best Picture – nominee
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lorraine Bracco) – nominee
- Best Director (Martin Scorsese) – nominee
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese) – nominee
- Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) – nominee