This was written by Neil Steinberg, April 4th, for the Chicago Sun-Times discussing the life of fellow Sun-Times colleague, Roger Ebert, who sadly passed away at the age of 70. He was someone whose film reviews I enjoyed reading for many, many years. It is going to be very strange to never again be able to read a new Ebert review. May he rest in peace and be up in that great movie stand in the sky watching a classic film with Gene Siskel…
Roger Ebert loved movies.
Except for those he hated.
For a film with a daring director, a talented cast, a captivating plot or, ideally, all three, there could be no better advocate than Roger Ebert, who passionately celebrated and promoted excellence in film while deflating the awful, the derivative, or the merely mediocre with an observant eye, a sharp wit and a depth of knowledge that delighted his millions of readers and viewers.
“No good film is too long,” he once wrote, a sentiment he felt strongly enough about to have engraved on pens. “No bad movie is short enough.”
Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.
He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ebert blogged that he had suffered a recurrence of cancer following a hip fracture suffered in December, and would be taking “a leave of presence.” In the blog essay, marking his 46th anniversary of becoming the Sun-Times film critic, Ebert wrote “I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers hand-picked and greatly admired by me.”
Always technically savvy — he was an early investor in Google — Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His rogerebert.com had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 “Person of the Year” from the Webby Awards, which noted that “his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.” His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers. Read the rest of this entry »
Controversial director Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 western, featuring James Coburn and Bob Dylan (who did the soundtrack). This review comes courtesy of Roger Ebert in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, May 23, 1973. Clearly, Ebert was not impressed about anything concerning this movie, including Dylan’s performance and music…
Sam Peckinpah attempted to have his name removed from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I sympathized with him. If this wasn’t entirely his work, he shouldn’t have had to take the blame. And even if it was, the less said the better. It’s a movie that exists almost entirely on one note — a low, melancholy one — and achieves what I thought would have been impossible for him Peckinpah: he’s boring.
The movie tells a simple story, simple-mindedly. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, good and true friends from way back, find themselves on opposite sides of the law when Garrett becomes sheriff. He locks Billy up for an old murder, and Billy is scheduled to hang in three days. Billy blasts his way out of jail, goes on the run, and sets up a chase through the West that lasts for the final hour of the movie. Read the rest of this entry »
In honor of the passing of an acting legend this week comes an Oct. 17, 1967 Chicago Sun-Times review by Roger Ebert of this strange but affecting film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, now both sadly gone…
It seemed fishy to begin with that Reflections in a Golden Eye crept into town so silently. Here was a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, no less, and the director was that great man himself, John Huston. So shouldn’t we have read millions of words about it by now? Every time Liz blows her nose, she makes the cover of Look. But not this time. Why not? Was the movie so wretchedly bad that Warner Bros. decided to keep it a secret?
Or could it be, perhaps, that it was too good? Perhaps it could. To begin with, somebody slipped up and did an honest screen play based on the novel by Carson McCullers. And then Huston and his cast journeyed bravely into the dark, twisted world of the McCullers characters, and nobody told them they were supposed to snicker. So they didn’t.
The story is set on an Army base in the South. Brando plays a major who gives disjointed lectures about leadership and courage as his repressed homosexuality begins to emerge. Miss Taylor, as his wife, plays a Read the rest of this entry »
A good article written by movie critic Roger Ebert about the new airport security measures; taken from the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 25th…
It appears that not a single TSA agent has declined to perform a full-body pat down of airline passengers. That includes patting down small children. They’re not patted down on a routine basis, but on some occasions they can be and they are. A child under 12, sometimes way under 12, may be required to remove outer clothing and be touched on such areas as the genitals.
Would you take this job? I don’t believe I would. But it’s worth reflecting that employment as a TSA agent is a good job in these hard times of high unemployment. The starting pay is $12.85 an hour, better than Wendy’s for an employee who doesn’t need a high school diploma. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the very first movie reviews Roger Ebert ever wrote, this comes from his college newspaper, The Daily Illini, Oct. 4, 1961. He admitted that later on he changed his mind about Fellini’s classic film…
There is in La Dolce Vita a great deal to be puzzled about, and a great deal to be impressed by, and perhaps a great deal which we as Americans will never completely understand. Yet it is a fine motion picture. And we have the feeling that even those students who sat through its three hours with a measure of boredom came away convinced that something was there. It is this something, this undefined feeling being hammered at beneath the surface of the film, which gives it power and illumination. And it is this hidden message which contains the deep and moral indictment of the depravity which La Dolce Vita documents.
In technical excellence, the film surpasses every production this reviewer has seen, except a few of the Ingmar Bergman classics. Photography and the musical score are together almost as important as the dialogue in conveying the unmistakable attack on “the sweet life.”
This attack is also made clear in frequent symbolism, although sometimes the symbolism becomes too obvious to fit into the effortless flow of the total production. For example, in the final scene where merrymakers gather around the grotesque sea monster which represents their way of living, and then the protagonist is called by the “good” girl but cannot understand her, the symbolism is very near the surface. Yet this tangible use of symbols might account in part for La Dolce Vita‘s fantastic success. Too often the “new wave” falls through symbolism that is simply too subtle for most movie-goers.
The acting itself is startling realistic, and for a very good reason: too many of the players are portraying themselves. The greatest surprise — and one of the greatest successes — in the film is the Swedish sex goddess Anita Ekberg, cast as a “typical” American motion picture star. She plays the part with a wild, unthinking abandon which far surpasses her previous roles in “B” pictures designed primarily to exploit her impressive physical attributes.
But there can be no real award for best actor or actress in the film just as in a sense it does not seem to be a film so much as a simple record of “the sweet life.” The characters, in their midnight parody of happiness, are all strangely anonymous. Only their life, their society, comes through – with a sad, burnt-out vividness that sputters briefly through a long night and then dies in the morning on the beach, dies with the sea monster who has blank, uncomprehending eyes.
In the film, the wild but bored house party comes just before the dawn. It is this party, in all its depravity, which has become one of the most widely known segments of the film. Yet it is probably the one area of “the sweet life” which misses the mark for many American audiences. The scene is meant to show a last, desperate attempt to find something beneath the whirlpool of animalism which finally engulfs them all. Yet as the girl lies still beneath the mink stole, bored and restless eyes look away — still looking.
We are afraid that too many Americans might consider this scene as a sharp, immediate event. Its message, of complete and final meaninglessness, might not come through to an audience which may not find such things particularly everyday. And so, despite the almost extreme good taste with which the scene was filmed, we are afraid that many of the thousands who queued up before the theatre had rather elementary motives.
This is excusable. We wonder how many years it has been since a film as intellectual and meaningful — and as basically moral — as La Dolce Vita has attracted such crowds here. We suspect it has been a very long time. The greeting it is getting is a tribute to one of the finest motion pictures of our time.
This recent blog (Oct. 1, 2009) comes from movie critic Roger Ebert’s website (link – http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/10/the_anger_of_the_festering_fri.html). He makes a good point about how common sense has evaporated in this country and how a growing number of people have become paranoid about everyone and everything and believe every conspiracy theory – especially when it comes to our leaders. Some of the garbage being spewed on the internet about what Obama is REALLY trying to accomplish with his proposed health care bill is staggering in its ridiculousness and outright lunacy & stupidity. Not to mention the endless talk of Obama being racist, socialist, Muslim, etc.
Then again, there were a lot of wackjobs on the left who pretty much had us believe that Bush was the anti-Christ, Hitler, he caused 9/11, etc. So both sides are to blame for this extreme kind of thinking. So I don’t think this merely began with Obama. I think it has been brewing for some time now, thanks to all the wacko talking heads on TV (conservatives AND liberals) and of course, the internet – a breeding ground for stupidity.
I hope Mr. Ebert doesn’t mind me reposting his blog here. I just thought more people should read it. He makes some good common-sense points…
I’ve had these thoughts for some time, but have been reluctant to express them. Now so many others have voiced them that it’s pointless to remain silent. I am frightened by the climate of insane anti-Obama hatred in this country. I’m not referring to traditional conservatives or Republicans. They’re part of the process. I’m speaking of the lunatic fringe, the frothers, the extremist rabble who are sweeping up the ignorant and credulous into a bewildering and fearsome tide of reckless rhetoric.
There have always been nuts. Remember when the John Birch society thought Kennedy was a communist? In those innocent days most of the American people were reasonable. They’d shake their heads in wonder at such a weird notion. Kennedy might be one of those liberals, but he wasn’t a commie. And when people said Johnson murdered Kennedy? Also ridiculous. But slowly, ominously, things began to change. After his death, it was said that Edward Kennedy was a Soviet agent. These theories have rabid subscribers.
Obama is a Muslim. Obama was born in Kenya. Obama was a terrorist. Obama will destroy Medicare. Obama will kill your grandmother. Obama is a racist. Obama wants atheism taught in the schools. Obama wants us to pay for the health care of illegal immigrants.
These beliefs are held by various segments of our population. They are absurd. Any intelligent person can see they are absurd. It is not my purpose here to debate them, because such debates are futile. With the zealous True Believers there is no debating. They feed upon loops within loops of paranoid surmises, inventions which are passed along as fact. Sometimes those citing them don’t even seem to care if you believe them. Sometimes they may not believe them themselves. The purpose is to fan irrational hatred against our president.
What are we to make of the recent suggestion on the “respected” right-wing site NewsMax, later withdrawn, that “it might not be such a bad thing” if the U. S. military rose up and overthrew Obama in a coup? That sort of talk belongs on a password-protected neo-Nazi or Klan site, not in a place where ostensibly intelligent people look for information. Where were the editors? What did they think? If they’re “conservatives,” do they support the overthrow of our government by a coup?
I don’t really think so. But I believe they will stoop to almost anything to fan the flames of their cause. And they have created a timidity in the mainstream Republican party, afraid to alienate a “base” it should be ashamed of. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he is said to have observed that with one signature he had lost his Democrats the South. It took moral courage to sign that bill. He did indeed lose the Southern racists, who were to its shame embraced by the GOP – a poisoned pill, it is becoming obvious.
Now I believe the Republicans are on the wrong side of another issue, health care. Just as they opposed Social Security and Medicare, they are against universal health care, even though it would be of great value to its increasingly older, blue collar, less affluent, more unemployed, less educated base.
Why did health care become a rigidly partisan issue? The watered-down current proposal would essentially extend Medicare to everyone. Is there a Republican who supports Medicare? Who is happy his parents have it – or that he does? Then let that lawmaker take a careful look at universal health care. There must be more than one Senator (Olympia Snowe) on her side of the aisle with the guts to vote independently of the pack. Nor would I object if a Democrat voted against it; I remember a time before party-line thinking.
But never mind health care. What about the entire climate of paranoia and hate? Have these people always been there? Are they only now becoming more visible because of the internet, cable news and talk radio? They’re way, way beyond the pale. I believe they feed more on each other than on what they learn from the media. It’s too easy to blame them on Fox News. Somewhere there must be internet sites paranoid even about Fox. Some of these people are uninterested in anyone who doesn’t buy into their fantasy. Name a subject, and they know the real story that’s being covered up.
Poor Fox is being left behind. It’s not extreme enough. After my blog entry on Bill O’Reilly, I’ve continued to watch him, and while I still deplore his tendency to interrupt people and shout them down, I agree with something many of his defenders say: He isn’t crazy, he can change his mind, and he inhabits the same world most of us do. It is permitted for him to be partisan. Rush Limbaugh is another matter, but even he has cut off callers he finds appalling. Glenn Beck remains beyond the pale. He isn’t right-wing so much as rabid. His real subject is indiscriminate outrage about whatever comes into his mind.
How much of the anti-Obama outrage is racist? Some is. Many of these angry people (I believe, but cannot prove) are made deeply unhappy by the reality of an African-American in the White House. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Perform this mind experiment. If Obama had declared war in Iraq and was caught lying about weapons of mass destruction, what would the right have had to say?
Racism plays a role, but conspiracy theories themselves have an addictive quality. They appeal to a personality type. Many of those who take nourishment from them have, I suspect, a bitter resentment against authority. They don’t want anyone telling them what to do. They’re defiant. Some of them may have been the victims of child abuse. Anyone who is in power is lying to them for evil motives. Nothing they learn from the mainstream media can be trusted. Some people may think they’re so smart – but hese conspiracy insiders know the real story. They learn it from each other, they embellish it, they pass it around, they “document” it with invented connections, they bond among themselves, and they live in a closed system that seems to validate them.
They lack common sense. Their conspiracy theories cannot tolerate it. Most reasonable people, when they heard Obama wanted to kill their grandmother, simply smiled, because – well, because they knew he didn’t. But the conspiracy people Know Better. That’s the whole point. That’s where the fun comes in. They have a peculiar intensity in their circular reasoning. They cite facts that are not facts, supported by authorities who are not authorities. As my grandmother freely said of perhaps too many people, “They don’t have the sense God gave them.”
Some of this may be connected to the weakness of American education. Yes, I know that there are splendid schools and brilliant, dedicated teachers. See my recent review of such a school. But many good teachers will be the first to tell you that they despair of some of the students sent to them from lower grades. They cannot read, write, spell, speak or think on a competent level. They aren’t necessarily stupid. The schools, their parents and society have failed them. The words “no child left behind” are a joke.
Among the things the schools often don’t instill is a sense of curiosity. Too many kids have tuned out. They nurture a dull resentment against those who know more. Feeling disenfranchised, they blame those who seem to have more information and more words. Some of these victims may in fact be quite intelligent. Some of them may grow up to become fringers. Read the web sites of conspiracy zealots and you will find articulate people who can write well. Their handicap is that they missed the boat when it sailed toward intellectual maturity, and now they’re rowing furiously in pursuit, waving a pirate flag. Their screeds are a facsimile of reasoned, sensical arguments. They don’t know the words, but hum a few bars and they’ll fake it.
All of this disquiet is festering. What will it come to? That’s what I’m afraid of. American common sense is drowned out in some precincts by the ravings of the lost and resentful. They feel excluded. They are ripe for demagogues. They have suffered more than their share in the economic crisis, but cannot see why. They are told to oppose, even hate, those who might be trying to help them. Leaving all ideology aside, who in his right mind doesn’t want an affordable health insurance plan for his family and his loved ones? Who doesn’t believe religion, any religion, does not belong in the schools? Who really thinks the census, which is a vital tool of democracy, represents some kind of occult threat? If census figures had been frozen 50 years ago, most of these people would be disenfranchised today. Who can seriously compare an American president to Hitler? Who believes a man who attends church more regularly than any president since Carter is an atheist?
What is the benefit of this hate? What good can come of it? Where might it lead us?
Roger Ebert’s review from the Chicago Sun-Times, July 12, 1989…
When Harry Met Sally . . . is a love story with a form as old as the movies and dialogue as new as this month’s issue of Vanity Fair.
It’s about two people who could be characters in a Woody Allen movie, if they weren’t so sunny, and about how it takes them 12 years to fall in love. We’re with them, or maybe a little ahead of them, every step of the way.
Harry meets Sally for the first time at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1977, when they team up to share the driving for a trip to New York. Both plan to start their careers in the city – she as a journalist, he as a political consultant. Presumably they are both successful, because they live in those apartments that only people in the movies can afford, but their professional lives are entirely off-screen. We see them only at those intervals when they see each other.
They meet, for example, several years later, at LaGuardia.
She’s with a new boyfriend. They meet again after that, when they’re both in relationships, and after that, when her boyfriend has left and his wife wants a divorce. They keep on meeting until they realize that they like one another, and they become friends – even though on their very first cross-country trip, Harry warned Sally that true friendship is impossible between a man and a woman, because the issue of sex always gets in the way.
The movie apparently believes that – and it also suggests that the best way to get rid of sex as an issue is to get married, since married people always seem too tired for sex. That and other theories about sex and relationships are tested as if Harry and Sally were proving grounds for Cosmopolitan, until finally, tired of fighting, they admit that they do love one another after all.
The movie was written by Nora Ephron, and could be a prequel to her novel and screenplay Heartburn, which starred Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the story of a marriage and divorce. But this marriage seems headed for happier times, maybe because most of the big fights are out of the way before love is even declared.
Harry is played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan is Sally, and they make a good movie couple because both actors are able to suggest genuine warmth and tenderness. This isn’t a romance of passion, although passion is present, but one that becomes possible only because the two people have grown up together, have matured until they can finally see clearly what they really want in a partner.
Ephron’s dialogue represents the way people would like to be able to talk. It’s witty and epigrammatic, and there are lots of lines to quote when you’re telling friends about the movie. The dialogue would defeat many actors, but Crystal and Ryan help it to work; their characters seem smart and quick enough to almost be this witty. It’s only occasionally that the humor is paid for at the expense of credibility – as in a hilarious but unconvincing scene where Sally sits in a crowded restaurant and demonstrates how to fake an orgasm. I laughed, but somehow I didn’t think Sally, or any woman, would really do that.
When Harry Met Sally . . . was directed by Rob Reiner, the onetime Meathead of “All in the Family,” whose credits now qualify him as one of Hollywood’s very best directors of comedy. Reiner’s films include The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride. Each film is completely different from the others, and each one is successful on its own terms.
This film is probably his most conventional, in terms of structure and the way it fulfills our expectations. But what makes it special, apart from the Ephron screenplay, is the chemistry between Crystal and Ryan.
She is an open-faced, bright-eyed blond; he’s a gentle, skinny man with a lot of smart one-liners. What they both have (to repeat) is warmth.
Crystal demonstrated that quality in his previous film, the underrated “Memories of Me,” and it’s here again this time, in scenes when he visibly softens when he sees that he has hurt her. He is one of the rare actors who can make an apology on the screen, and convince us he means it.
Ryan (from Innerspace, The Presidio and D.O.A.) has a difficult assignment – she spends most of the movie convincing Harry, and herself, that there’s nothing between them – and she has to let us see that there is something, after all.
Harry and Sally are aided, and sometimes hindered, in their romance by the efforts of their best friends (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby), who meet on a blind date arranged by Harry and Sally, to provide a possible partner for Sally and Harry. They’re the kind of people who don’t make it hard for themselves, who realize they like each other, and accept that fact, and act on it.
Harry and Sally are tougher customers. They fight happiness every step of the way, until it finally wears them down.
I remember seeing this movie back in 1997 when it was re-released in the “Director’s Cut” version. I was amazed at what a brilliant film it was and how you actually felt sorry for the German crew members (though, one of the reasons for that is because most of the members are very critical of the Nazi party).
This is considered one of the greatest war movies ever made and one of the most realistic. Director Wolfgang Petersen wanted to reflect how horrendous war truly is. He succeeded brilliantly.
This review comes from famed Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, April 4, 1997…
The interior dimensions of the German U-boat in Das Boot are 10 feet by 150 feet. The officers’ mess is so cramped that when a crew member wants to move from the front to the back, he asks “permission to pass,” and an officer stands up to let him squeeze by. War is hell. Being trapped in a disabled submarine is worse.
Das Boot is not about claustrophobia, however, because the crew members have come to terms with that. It is about the desperate, dangerous and exacting job of manning a submarine. In a way we can focus on that better because it is a German submarine. If it were an American sub, we would assume the film ends in victory, identify with the crew, and cheer them on. By making it a German boat, the filmmakers neatly remove the patriotic element and increase the suspense. We identify not with the mission, but with the job.
When Das Boot was first released in the United States, it ran 145 minutes and won huge audiences and no less than six Oscar nominations–unheard of for a foreign film. This 1997 release of Wolfgang Petersen’s director’s cut, is not a minor readjustment but a substantially longer film, running 210 minutes.
The film is like a documentary in its impact. Although we become familiar with several of the characters, it is not their story, really, but the story of a single U-boat mission, from beginning to end. There is a brief opening sequence in which the boat puts out to sea from a French base, and a refueling sequence near the end, but all the other scenes are shot inside the cramped sub, or on the bridge.
And it’s not shot in tidy setups, either; the cinematographer, Jost Vacano, hurtles his camera through the boat from one end to the other, plunging through cramped openings, hurdling obstacles on the deck, ducking under hammocks and swinging light fixtures. There are long sequences here–especially when the boat is sinking out of control–when we feel trapped in the same time and space as the desperate crew.
The boat’s captain (Jurgen Prochnow) is the rock the others depend on. Experienced, steady, he’s capable of shouting “I demand proper reports!” even as the boat seems to be breaking up. He is not a Nazi, and the movie makes that clear in an early scene where he ridicules Goering and other leaders for their “brilliant strategy.” For this mission (an assignment to torpedo Allied shipping in the North Atlantic), a journalist has been assigned to join the crew. Played by Herbert Groenemeyer, he probably represents Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, whose novel was based on these wartime events. The addition of this character is useful, because it gives the captain a reason to explain things that might otherwise go unsaid.
The centerpiece of the film is an attack on an Allied convoy; the U-boat torpedoes three ships. We share the experience of the hunt; they drift below the surface, waiting for the explosions that signal hits. And then they endure a long and thorough counterattack, during which destroyers criss-cross the area, dropping depth charges. The chase is conducted by sound, the crew whispering beneath the deadly hunters above.
Then comes the episode that was endlessly discussed when the film came out in 1981. Having finally outlasted the destroyers, the sub surfaces to administer a coup de grace–a final torpedo to a burning tanker. As the ship explodes, the captain is startled to see men leaping from its deck: “What are they doing still on board?” he shouts. “Why haven’t they been rescued?” Drowning sailors can clearly be seen in the flames from the tanker. They swim toward the U-boat, their pitiful cries for help carrying clearly across the water. The captain orders his boat to reverse at half speed, to keep it away from them. What does he think of having let the victims drown? He does not say. Only one sentence in the ship’s log (“assumed no men were on board”) gives a hint. It is against the instinct of every sailor to let another sailor drown in the sea. But in war, it is certainly not practical for a submarine to take prisoners. Somehow it is easier when the targets are seen through periscope sights, and the cries of victims cannot be heard.
That scene supplies another example of why it is effective that Das Boot is a German sub. One cannot easily imagine a Hollywood film in which American submariners are shown allowing drowning men to die. The German filmmakers regard their subject dispassionately; it is a record of the way things were.
Wolfgang Petersen’s direction is an exercise in pure craftsmanship. The film is constructed mostly out of closeups and cramped two- and three-shots. All of the light sources are made to seem visible (when the lights fail, flashlight beams dance in the darkness). Long, involved shots are constructed with meticulous detail; when a sailor races toward the torpedo room, the reactions from the other men seem exactly right.
The sound adds another dimension. During the destroyer attacks, the boat rocks with explosions and reverberates with desperate cries and commands. During the cat-and-mouse chases, we can hear the sonar pings bouncing off the U-boat’s hull. When the boat dives below its rated depth, rivets come loose like rifle bullets. When it appears the boat may be trapped at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar, the sailors lie on their hammocks, gasping oxygen like dying men.
Francois Truffaut said it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting. In general, Truffaut was right. But his theory doesn’t extend to Das Boot.
Roger Ebert’s review from the Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 2, 1990…
For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese‘s new film, GoodFellas, the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn’t be missed, but were.
Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.
GoodFellas, scheduled to open Sept. 21 in Chicago, is a memoir of life in the Mafia, narrated in the first person by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Italian kid whose only ambition, from his earliest teens, was to be a “wise guy,” a Mafioso. There is also narration by Karen, the Jewish girl (Lorraine Bracco) who married him, and who discovered that her entire social life was suddenly inside the Mafia; mob wives never went anywhere or talked to anyone who was not part of that world, and eventually, she says, the values of the Mafia came to seem like normal values. She was even proud of her husband for not lying around the house all day, for having the energy and daring to go out and steal for a living.
There is a real Henry Hill, who disappeared into the anonymity of the federal government’s witness protection program, and who over a period of four years told everything he knew about the mob to the reporter Nicholas Pileggi, whose “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” was a best-seller. The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese distills those memories into a fiction that sometimes plays like a documentary, that contains so much information and feeling about the Mafia that finally it creates the same claustrophobic feeling Hill’s wife talks about: The feeling that the mob world is the real world.
Scorsese is the right director – the only director – for this material. He knows it inside out. The great formative experience of his life was growing up in New York’s Little Italy as an outsider who observed everything – an asthmatic kid who couldn’t play sports, whose health was too bad to allow him to lead a normal childhood, who was often overlooked, but never missed a thing.
There is a passage early in the film in which young Henry Hill looks out the window of his family’s apartment and observes with awe and envy the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street, impressed by the fact that they got girls, drove hot cars, had money, that the cops never gave them tickets, that even when their loud parties lasted all night, nobody ever called the police.
That was the life he wanted to lead, the narrator tells us. The memory may come from Hill and may be in Pileggi’s book, but the memory also is Scorsese’s, and in the 23 years I have known him, we have never had a conversation that did not touch at some point on that central image in his vision of himself – of the kid in the window, watching the neighborhood gangsters.
Like The Godfather, Scorsese’s GoodFellas is a long movie, with the space and leisure to expand and explore its themes. It isn’t about any particular plot; it’s about what it felt like to be in the Mafia – the good times and the bad times. At first, they were mostly good times, and there is an astonishing camera movement in which the point of view follows Henry and Karen on one of their first dates, to the Copacabana nightclub. There are people waiting in line at the door, but Henry takes her in through the service entrance, past the security guards and the off-duty waiters, down a corridor, through the kitchen, through the service area and out into the front of the club, where a table is literally lifted into the air and placed in front of all the others so that the young couple can be in the first row for the floor show. This is power.
Karen doesn’t know yet exactly what Henry does. She finds out.
The method of the movie is a slow expansion through levels of the Mafia, with characters introduced casually and some of them not really developed until later in the story. We meet the don Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and Jim (Jimmy the Gent) Conway (Robert De Niro), a man who steals for the sheer love of stealing, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a likable guy except that his fearsome temper can explode in a second, with fatal consequences. We follow them through 30 years; at first, through years of unchallenged power, then through years of decline (but they have their own kitchen in prison, and boxes of thick steaks and crates of wine), and then into betrayal and decay.
At some point, the whole wonderful romance of the Mafia goes sour for Henry Hill, and that moment is when he and Jimmy and Tommy have to bury a man whom Tommy kicked almost to death in a fit of pointless rage. First, they have to finish killing him (they stop at Tommy’s mother’s house to borrow a knife, and she feeds them dinner), then they bury him, then later they have to dig him up again. The worst part is, their victim was a “made” guy, a Mafioso who is supposed to be immune. So they are in deep, deep trouble, and this is not how Henry Hill thought it was going to be when he started out on his life’s journey.
From the first shot of his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Scorsese has loved to use popular music as a counterpoint to the dramatic moments in his films. He doesn’t simply compile a soundtrack of golden oldies; he finds the precise sound to underline every moment, and in GoodFellas, the popular music helps to explain the transition from the early days when Henry sells stolen cigarettes to guys at a factory gate, through to the frenetic later days when he’s selling cocaine in disobedience of Paul Cicero’s orders, and using so much of it himself that life has become a paranoid labyrinth.
In all of his work, which has included arguably the best film of the 1970s (Taxi Driver) and of the 1980s (Raging Bull), Scorsese has never done a more compelling job of getting inside someone’s head as he does in one of the concluding passages of GoodFellas, in which he follows one day in the life of Henry Hill, as he tries to do a cocaine deal, cook dinner for his family, placate his mistress and deal with the suspicion that he’s being followed.
This is the sequence that imprinted me so deeply with the mood of the film. It’s not a straightforward narrative passage, and it has little to do with plot; it’s about the feeling of walls closing in, and the guilty feeling that the walls are deserved. The counterpoint is a sense of duty, of compulsion; the drug deal must be made, but the kid brother also must be picked up, and the sauce must be stirred, and meanwhile, Henry’s life is careening wildly out of control.
Actors have a way of doing their best work – the work that lets us see them clearly – in a Scorsese film. Robert De Niro emerged as the best actor of his generation in Taxi Driver. Joe Pesci, playing De Niro’s brother in Raging Bull, created a performance of comparable complexity. Both De Niro and Pesci are here in GoodFellas, essentially playing major and very challenging supporting roles to Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, who establish themselves here as clearly two of our best new movie actors. Liotta was Melanie Griffith’s late-arriving, disturbingly dangerous husband in Something Wild, and here he creates the emotional center for a movie that is not about the experience of being a Mafioso, but about the feeling. Bracco was the cop’s wife from out in the suburbs in Someone to Watch Over Me, a film in which her scenes were so effective that it was with a real sense of loss that we returned to the main story. The sense of their marriage is at the heart of this film, especially in a shot where he clings to her, exhausted. They have made their lifetime commitment, and it was to the wrong life.
Many of Scorsese’s best films have been poems about guilt.
Think of Mean Streets, with the Harvey Keitel character tortured by his sexual longings, or After Hours, with the Griffin Dunne character involved in an accidental death and finally hunted down in the streets by a misinformed mob, or think of The Last Temptation of Christ, in which even Christ is permitted to doubt.
GoodFellas is about guilt more than anything else. But it is not a straightforward morality play, in which good is established and guilt is the appropriate reaction toward evil. No, the hero of this film feels guilty for not upholding the Mafia code – guilty of the sin of betrayal. And his punishment is banishment, into the witness protection program, where nobody has a name and the headwaiter certainly doesn’t know it.
What finally got to me after seeing this film – what makes it a great film – is that I understood Henry Hill’s feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it’s an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt – the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately – is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again.