Close Readings: Robert De Niro in Goodfellas

The last flawlessly great film of Robert de Niro’s career.

Jimmy Conway, the tough Irish hood, the murderer and hijacker and all round nice guy. Everyone likes Jimmy. Everyone wants to be around Jimmy. He gives the doorman a hundred just for opening the door. “He was locked up at eleven and doing hits for mob bosses when he was 16. You see hits never bothered Jimmy – it was business.”

Jimmy is thoroughly crooked. Like Tommy (“the psycho”), Jimmy has no qualms about murder. His entire life, his character, has grown around acts of violence, so even the murder of Billy Batts isn’t a profound interruption of his ordinary life – standing at a bar, chatting, drinking – murder happens, casually and without too much fuss. These homicidal moments easily co-exist with the rest of Jimmy’s life, with mercenary calculation, chit chat, humour. With any other, less evil, man, murder would take some emotional effort, it would leave the killer rattled and grim or hysterical, it would represent a significant interruption of the ordinary life. But for Jimmy, murder is nothing, it doesn’t interrupt anything but the victim. He can indulge in his black levity, kill, then make one of his jokes, without fuss. It’s just business; but what kind of business is this?  What does it mean to be a gangster, a tough guy?

The criminal world is not all one might expect. Most of the money is wasted on garish suits. A gangster’s natural predator is every other gangster. So here, after the Lufthansa job, where Jimmy’s gang walked away with six million dollars, Jimmy is already sensing danger, weak links in the chain – starting with the comical Morry, a wig salesman and part-time gangster/loan shark. Morry won’t shut up. Morry is a gregarious drunk and bigmouth, exactly the kind of person to tell a crowded bar about all the money he and his friends took at the famous Lufthansa heist.

So here, Jimmy contemplates matters. Morry is singing cheerfully to himself. We can see Jimmy is annoyed by the set of his jaw; it is close to the de Niro killing mask he wears when stomping Billy Batts to death. He gazes down the bar at Morry, a long cool look, then knocks the ash off his cigarette, and his face has a look of something like resignation, as if to say “sometimes you have to get rid of people”; he looks down, then up with a sudden, diabolical mirth in his eyes, one corner of his mouth turned up in a strange kind of smile. He draws himself up and here we can see he has made his mind up – sometime in the last three seconds, he has decided that Morry will die.

He nods to himself.

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6 thoughts on “Close Readings: Robert De Niro in Goodfellas

    September 16, 2010 at 13:20


    September 16, 2010 at 16:58

    Were I Mark Kermode I would now be seriously concerned, Elberry, unshackled from his ghost and in movie critic mode, and, we can now rest easy in the knowledge that we have a reliable reserve on the bench.

    Pity about the movie, a tad boring.

  3. Worm
    September 16, 2010 at 19:29

    great film, makes me want to watch it again as I haven’t seen it in years! Do you think that these days he personally can’t pick a good film, or that there’s no good films to pick???

    September 16, 2010 at 19:41

    I suspect the reason De Niro’s been in so many poor films since the Goodfellas, Heat, Casino days is all about the money. In the old days he’d put on 5 stone or train as a boxer or a saxophonist and end up getting paid not a lot, these days he can sleepwalk through any number of crappy cop films or psychological thrillers, doesn’t even need to change his clothes and still gets paid more than he did for any of his great roles.

    It’s a bit like Sid James if you think about it a bit too hard, I’m sure he went through the late 60’s and early 70’s wearing the same cardigan in every Carry On film.

    September 17, 2010 at 11:33

    Sid James.

    Now there’s an actor of quality. How many others of the supposed greats could be remembered for one detail, his laugh? Jack Nicholson’s double eyebrow raise. Roger Moore’s single. Sidney Greenstreet’s “sir”. Peter Lorre’s eye pop and Humphrey Bogart’s lip curl. But can any of them match Sid’s leering, lustful and life affirming snicker?

    September 17, 2010 at 12:54

    The bit where he sends Henry’s wife into an alley is one of the scariest moments in modern film. ‘Yeah, down there …. yeah, go on, down there’ (hand gesture with fingers suggesting a left turn at some point.) It’s a good game, ‘Great Movie Gestures’.

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