Halfway through Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic, Goodfellas appears to run in reverse order. Contains Easter Eggs and spoilers.
Goodfellas (1990) is loaded with memorable scenes. One of most unforgettable is the discovery of the dead gangsters that Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) has bumped off after the Lufthansa heist.
Soundtracked to a spine-tingling example of needle drop, we’re shown the gruesome remains of Johnny Roastbeef, Frenchy and Joe Buddha, and even Frankie Carbone.
Their deaths are revealed in reverse order.
When Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) introduces Jimmy’s heist gang earlier in the movie, the camera pans across Tommy and Carbone, Frenchy and Joe Buddha, and Johnny Roastbeef. We’re then introduced to Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) – who is later first to be shot by Tommy.
While Morrie is next to be offed, the other deaths are shown in reverse order, even ending with Tommy’s shock execution.
Goodfellas is based on Nicolas Pileggi’s true crime book, Wiseguy. However, the plot of the film capitalises on this interesting dynamic of mirrored events and themes. In fact, Scorsese does something similar in The Departed.
How Goodfellas repeats and reverses key plot events
Henry’s voiceover tells us just how much he loves the good life – i.e., the gangster life. It makes him very, very rich, and it gives him a sense of belonging. But the film famously sets this up in the first half, only to bring it crashing down in the finale.
Here’s how the two movements in the plot play out.
Rags to riches
- After a flash forward to Billy Batts’ death, the film revisits Henry’s childhood. He explains he always wanted to be a gangster, to be a somebody. Note the big needle drop in the soundtrack at this point: Rags to Riches.
- Henry says Paulie is paranoid about telephones and won’t have one in the house.
- The police catch Henry selling knock-off cigarettes but he doesn’t rat on the mob.
- A grown-up Henry reminisces how they would try to steal every bit of cargo that came through Idlewild airport.
- We see Henry trying to offload fur coats to a restaurant owner, who tells him “we’ll hang ‘em in the freezer with the meat.” Later, Jimmy takes Frankie Carbone to task for splurging on a fur coat for his wife. And then we see Carbone’s body hanging in the freezer with the meat.
- Henry hoodwinks the restaurant owner into taking on Paulie as a business partner, even though Paulie claims to know nothing about the restaurant business.
- Henry falls for Karen after she stands up to him. Later her neighbour harasses her and Henry immediately collects her in the car. He beats the neighbour, and tells a stunned Karen to hide the gun.
- Henry and Karen marry. Karen remarks that Henry’s life is so strange yet exciting. It’s almost like he has two families. Not long after this, she learns what kind of family they really are. Police raids are routine, but Karen stays calm
- Billy Batts insults Tommy. Tommy, Jimmy and Henry kill Batts and drive his body to a remote spot to dump it (the flash forward of the film’s opening scene).
Losing it all
If the first half of the film shows Henry’s almost effortless rise to power, the second half shows how easily it all slips through his fingers.
- Henry really does have two families, but the second consists of the house he keeps for him and his girlfriend, Janice. Later Sandy takes over as his second ‘wife’. She even comes to visit him in jail.
- Henry, Jimmy and Tommy dig up Billy Batts. Things are starting to get out of hand.
- Sick of his cheating, Karen pulls a gun on Henry. No longer impressed by her standing up to him, he beats her up.
- Henry goes to jail. He lives the high life on the inside, but is no longer so loyal to Paulie. After his release, Paulie warns him off drugs and disobedience. Henry gets further into drug running via his Pittsburgh contacts.
- Jimmy puts together the Lufthansa heist at JFK airport. Whereas Henry grew up around airports and cargo robberies, now it’s Jimmy’s scene.
- Henry carries on with his drug smuggling. He ropes in a babysitter, who ferries the drugs around for him. The first time we see Lois, Henry grabs her hat … her lucky hat.
- Henry struggles to keep his ‘crew’ in order. He tells Sandy to use the dishwasher he bought for her, but she refuses.
- Jimmy pulls off the Lufthansa heist. At the time, it’s the largest cash robbery on American soil. Shortly afterwards, he bumps off the other gang members to protect himself.
- Tommy gets made, but not in the way they’re all expecting. He’s shot in the face.
- Henry is increasingly frantic about moving drugs and guns around the city. He tells Lois not to use the phones (just like Paulie). She ignores him and winds him up even more by saying she won’t fly without her lucky hat.
- The police raid the Hill’s house. This time Karen is anything but calm. She flushes the drugs down the toilet, and stashes the gun in her underpants. At the police station, the cops find Sandy’s unwashed, cocaine-laced dishes.
- A desperate Henry visits Paulie in his restaurant (where he now appears to be quite at home). Paulie gives him cash, but then turns his back on him.
- Jimmy starts acting creepily towards Karen. She drives herself home crying but, this time, Henry can’t do anything to avenge her honour.
- Jimmy warns Henry about not ratting on your friends. But it’s too late. Henry agrees to enter the witness protection programme in return for naming Jimmy and even Paulie.
- The film ends with Henry as an anonymous witness. “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
What’s the big idea?
Scorsese has form with mirroring, yet some of the above may be coincidental (especially given the true life events the film was based on).
Still, the mirrored plot is remarkably common in film and literature. It’s a narrative device that helps to drive the action and gives the main characters a journey (often a journey of discovery).
It’s pretty fitting for a story about goodfellas and wiseguys, though. Crime doesn’t pay – and some learn that the hard way. For Henry Hill, it’s a real rags to riches to rags story.
Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese
Picture credit: Maxim Potkin