just happened to get the wrong side of Tommy DeVito. a man of many wrong sides. At the moment he looks like an offal punch bag. He‘s been beaten. kicked. stamped. shot too maybe. but to give him his due he‘s still thumping away inside the trunk.
So much so. that the other three make an unscheduled pit-stop. ()ut comes the pistol. out comes a very sizeable butcher‘s knife. The end is not pretty at all. but it is underscored by the young Hill‘s words on the soundtrack: ‘Ever since I can remember. I always wanted to be a gangster.‘
The next two and a half hours are something of a return for Scorsese and De Niro to the territory of Mean Streets where the pair established their criticalcredibility back in 1973. In the section dealing with the earlier film. in Day id 'I‘hompson and Ian Christie’s worthwhile companion Scorsese on Scorsese. the director recalls his days growing up in the neighbourbood. "I‘he people who received the most respect in the area.‘ he asserts. ‘were not the working people. they were the wiseguys. the gang leaders and the priests. And that was what inclined me toward the priesthood. which was a tougher profession. I'm afraid!’ In some ways. Scorsese has fulfilled his early ambition. I Ie‘s become the American cinema‘s hoodlum priest. but he’s been able to do so only because he understands the attraction of a life outside the law.
This tension is at the heart of much of his best work. where as well as offering the technical verve of a true virtuoso. he‘s the troubled moralist in a world whose values can be summed up in a couple ofwords. ‘Fuck you‘. Sure. it's ironic. funny even. when the opening of (food Fellas counterpoints mafiosi horrors with a romantic aspiration towards the criminal way of life. but there‘s another level to it as well in which Scorsese is whispering to us. ‘You know. maybe it doesn't have to be like this.' With a magically narcotic tracking shot he can whisk us into the gangster‘s capitalist wet dream ofswanky restaurants. champagne. diamonds and furs. the lot. but as Good Fellas progresses on its darkly comic. breathlessly exciting way. there‘s a price to be paid. In the latter section of the film. as the coke and the kitsch furnishing start to pile up and the veneer ofreality starts to fade. it might seem far away from the straight (’atholic guilt of Mean Streets. but that doesn‘t let you get away without a sense ofwrong and right.
In the end. we understand what we the audience are to take from all this. but there‘s no tub-thumpingly moralising resolution for I.iotta‘s Henry Hill. There’s a yawning gap between how things are and how they could be. but in this case it‘s not Liotta's protagonist but his mentor. De Niro‘s Jimmy Conway (and to a lesser extent .Ioe Pe’sci‘s terrifying amoral gunslinger ). who explicate the distance between these two points. De Niro's two big scenes play off against each
other. In the first. he‘s pondering the aftermath of
the biggest theft in American legal history. a multi-million dollar heist he's just pulled on the German airline Lufthansa. and while he's standing at a bar the camera rests on his features to show his train ofthought. Too many people want a slice of his take. and we watch as the decision to kill emerges on his face. It's a spellbinding moment. to be followed later by another setpiece in which he receives the news that his best friend has just been ‘whacked'. Breaking down into tears. he destroys a telephone booth. but in his rage we can see that. perhaps for once. the termination of life that he’s
so casual in dealing out may have finally gained a significant meaning for him. And it is not good.
His death-haunted epiphany is. however. an isolated moment in the film. which spends the greater part of its running time in detailing the way in which the mob. the ‘good fellas'. have evolved their own set ofself-justifying values. a world view enabling them to ride roughshod over the law enforcement authorities. and the rest of society in general. As ever. Scorsese allows us a distressed admiration for these people before distancing himselfin disapproval. Still. his point. and it‘s perhaps the most consistent theme ofhis career. is to show these characters looking for a way to judgementally process their experience but. in a world where spiritual values have all but dissolved away. simply finding themselves too morally impoverished to come up with anything else.
Good l’ellas demonstrates how the mob become trapped by the self-perpetuating violence oftheir way of life. unwitting prisoners of their own ethos in a similar manner to the pattern already marked out by the previous Scorsese/De Niro collaborations. The .lohnny Boy of Mean Streets finds that his abject insouciance is to prove his downfall. while in Taxi Driver Travis Bickle’s sexual anxiety and social insecurity manifest themselves in a violent fascist rage to correct the fallen world around him by any means necessary. Raging Ball‘s notorious ‘Did you fuck my wife'." sequence. and the footage that has La Motta relentlessly pummelling fellow fighters orthe walls of a prison cell. depict a man incarcerated by the inadequate values of his own machismo. while Rupert Pupkin‘s credo in King of('omedy. that it's ‘better to be king for a day than schmuck fora lifetime~ is held up as another painfully insufficient way ofordering one‘s life. All the time. it’s as if the characters have set out to work from a misguided blueprint. with the result that the edifices they build for themselves are doomed to failure.
You could see these catalogues of human error as parables for a faithless society. Upholdinga knowing. implicit guidance to be gained from such narratives of misadventure. Drawingout this religious model behind much ofScorsese’s work is these days made much more credible with the evidence ()flilillt’ Last 'l’emptation of('l1rist to fall back on. and even there the crucial impulse is to humanise (.‘hrist. to show him facing the option of life as a man. with all the worldly trappings of sexuality. marriage and reproduction that it entails. The controversial lovemaking sequence turns out to be another Scorsese ‘narrative of misadv enture‘. but the film as a whole has allowed the director to make his most explicit declaration of faith to date. the gospel story providing the most appropriate form yet for him to get it out ofhis system.
As his career proceeds. however. it looks likely that he will continue to incorporate both personal projects and more commercial undertakings within his highly distinctive powerhouse style. It‘s worth reflecting on another statement he made in relation to Mean Streets. for the words offer a key insight to much of his output. ‘It‘s very easy to discipline yourself to go to mass on Sunday mornings. That‘s not redemption for me: it's how you live. how you deal with other people. whether it be in the streets. at home or in an office.‘
( iood Fellas ( 18) is released across (‘entral Scotland on l"ri'2() ()('t. See Film listings for details. Scorsese on Scorsese is published in halierlmck by Faber atfi 99. A
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