Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy (1985) and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)
“If you read the script, and you read my book, it’s just three sentences. That’s the idiot I am. I missed it, he knew exactly what to do with it.”
That’s author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, talking about a scene that would become one of the most famous and celebrated shots in cinematic history. Here are the three sentences from the book—see if you can guess the shot: “We always sat up close to the stage, and one night Sammy Davis Jr. sent us champagne. On crowded nights, when people were lined up outside and couldn’t get in, the doormen used to let Henry and our party in through the kitchens, which was filled with Chinese cooks, and we’d go upstairs and sit down immediately. There was nothing like it.”
The moment, of course, is the Steadicam sequence in Goodfellas that tracks low-level mobster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) as he woos and wows his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) by glad-handing his way to a prime spot at the Copacabana. The thing is, Pileggi’s not an idiot. Within the context of Wiseguy, the non-fiction book he wrote that served as the basis for Goodfellas (which he co-wrote with director Martin Scorsese, and which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week), there’s nothing about that passage that distinguishes it as a major emotional or narrative beat in the story. Tell a thousand directors to adapt the book, and it’s likely 999 of them wouldn’t create anything memorable with that passage, outside of maybe an awkward Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation. That’s assuming they deemed it important enough to include at all.
It was that one out of the thousand who made the film, and Pileggi’s right: “he” knew exactly what to do with it. Here’s the scene in the film, which was so influential that homages and parodies have popped up in such diverse titles as Swingers and The Daily Show.
A film director does a lot of things, from managing the flow of a story to coaxing the right performance out of actors, but perhaps the most important thing—and it’s something that isn’t discussed enough or well understood by most audiences—is using the camera to augment the story being told. Goodfellas illustrates this principle about as well as any film you can name, a major reason it was The A.V. Club’s number one pick for best films of the 1990s. The film is like the cinematic version of a Ferrari: so fun to ride along with that you barely think about the sophisticated workings under the hood. In the above clip, audiences may not have consciously realized the entire thing was filmed in one take, but they absolutely would have registered the additional information created by that directorial choice. You can feel how the world bends under Hill’s influence, and how seductive that is for Karen. Traditional coverage, with multiple camera setups and edits, would not have illustrated anything beyond the fact that he has backstage access; that would’ve been as memorable as the initial prose.
Or take this scene, where Hill confronts a longtime friend who, he’s realizing, is planning to have him killed. Notice the way Scorsese employs a fairly subtle and extended “Vertigo shot” as the characters get seated. It’s doubtful that people who aren’t well versed in cinema would notice the maneuver or understand what they were looking at if they did—a “Vertigo shot” is when perspective is shifted by a camera being physically pulled back while simultaneously zooming in, or vice versa—but the disorientation feeds into the sense of anxiety Hill is feeling, and that sense is unmissable.
In the book, Hill’s account of this event gets the same points across in a markedly less effective way. He describes how jumpy Jimmy (Robert De Niro’s character) is being and how their conversation was coded: “I knew that the thing we were really discussing was me. I knew I was hot. I was dangerous. I knew that I could give Jimmy up and cut myself a deal with the government.”
This isn’t bad writing, exactly, but it doesn’t make you queasy the way Goodfellas’ camerawork does, and that queasiness goes a long way to understanding the decision Hill is about to make to turn informant. Just as To Kill A Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan captured Harper Lee’s story with filmmaking choices that conveyed the same emotions she described in her book, Scorsese found the emotion hidden in this more pedestrian prose and intensified it with his camera. The whole film has that level of technique, and while Wiseguy—or as the paperback styles the title, Wi$eguy—is a very entertaining read, it suffers massively in comparison to Goodfellas. The contrast recalls Plato’s allegory of the cave, where people watching shadows don’t realize there’s a far more vivid story just outside their view. Experiencing Wiseguy instead of Goodfellas is like being stuck in the cave. Even setting aside the multi-layered effect of Scorsese’s use of color, editing, and music, a phrase on the page like, “I had never seen him so angry” fails to match the visceral impact of Joe Pesci at peak intensity.
It’s not surprising that the film has overshadowed its source, but the degree to which it has is notable. More of my friends cite Goodfellas as their favorite movie than any other title, but none of those super-fans have read Wiseguy, and most were unaware of its existence. I struck out at three bookstores before I even found a copy.
This is both unfair and understandable. Understandable because Goodfellas is better in every conceivable way—both as a general work of art as well as a version of this specific story—but unfair because Goodfellas does follow Wiseguy’s lead most of the time. The film’s structure is lifted almost wholesale from the book, and while Scorsese’s background made him singularly suited to this material, the appeal of the gangster lifestyle—and the principal theme of Hill’s nostalgia for it—all come from Pileggi’s reporting. That shouldn’t be forgotten, even if the book’s presentation is less dramatic.
Wiseguy is an unusual hybrid of straight reporting and long-form interviews. Much of the early going, as Hill describes his first steps into the criminal world—“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”—takes the form of direct quotes. Pileggi starts a chapter with a couple paragraphs of background, and then Hill takes over in what are evidently uninterrupted and unedited monologues. One of these lasts a whopping 23 pages, each paragraph opening with a quotation mark that won’t get closed for ages. It looks odd on a structural level, and there are confusing moments when the prose suddenly shifts from first-person to third, Hill’s latest soliloquy ending without even the fanfare of a paragraph break.
The first act of the book is probably 75 percent Hill, but once Karen enters the picture Pileggi alternates between each person’s take on the moment in question. (Hill’s mistress Linda chimes in once, when his infidelities are discussed.) There’s some sly humor in these sections, reminiscent of the dual-therapy scene in Annie Hall as the two recount things differently. (Karen has Henry hide his cross necklace from her mother; he insists it was tiny while she says it was huge: “It went from his neck to his rib cage.”)
Both have great stories and eyes for detail (the same could be said of Jordan Belfort, whose underwhelming prose in The Wolf Of Wall Street was punched up by Scorsese’s force of direction). Their voices are what make the book work, and pretty much all of Goodfellas’ copious voice-over is taken verbatim from their transcripts, from the “fuck you, pay me” speech to the brilliant little line about a bartender getting tipped “for keeping the ice cubes cold.”
Here’s Pileggi again, talking about the film’s voice-over: “Often it’s used for, if you have a complicated plot and you haven’t figured out the plot, you have a voice-over explaining it to people. That isn’t what we have here. What we have here is really the essence of the story… Let [Hill] tell his own story.”
He’s right. When Hill is sent to a cushy jail where he and other wise guys have the freedom to cook elaborate dinners every night, it’s an enormously revealing detail that he would mention the sauce having too much onion in it. The personality that would remember this years later, and still be so annoyed about it as to bring it up in an interview, is at the heart of what attracted Scorsese to this material in the first place.
But no matter how compelling Hill is as a narrator, his stories come off far more vividly in the film. Because there’s no traditional dialogue in the book to give them their own voices, supporting characters become more or less interchangeable, defined more by their actions than their personalities. Wiseguy gives the history of mobsters Tommy DeSimone—a psychopath whose brother was a rat, a shame that fueled his violence—and Jimmy Burke—who was abused as a child before becoming such a consummate thief that rival mob families negotiated a way to share his services—but that background can only illuminate so much when they’re essentially experienced secondhand. The two are played with great charisma by Pesci and De Niro in Goodfellas, but even if you didn’t have actors of their caliber, the characters would still pop more on screen because they can actually be experienced as people. The scene below was improvised by Pesci (who based it on a bit he saw a real mobster do) but it perfectly showcases the character’s volatility. For all the fearsome descriptions in the book, nothing like this comes off the page.
Goodfellas is faithful to Wiseguy, but there are a couple of changes between the two. First, the film characters are Tommy DeVito and Jimmy Conway; the DeVito name is apparently a reference to a childhood friend of Pesci, who went on to sing in The Four Seasons. DeSimone was in his 20s during the events depicted, 20-odd years younger than Pesci when he played him. Finally, Burke was as much of a hothead as DeSimone, in contrast to the relative restraint of De Niro’s Conway; Pileggi tells harrowing stories about his casual murders, including one where he chopped his girlfriend’s ex into a dozen pieces.
The book is best when it goes into stuff the film doesn’t cover, since those sections don’t suffer from being the weak side of a comparison. In particular, there’s a college basketball point-shaving scheme and a funny story about an uptight and lonely security guard who made one robbery especially difficult; Hill ended up hiring a prostitute to seduce him while he had the man’s keys copied, and then again during the heist itself. This is one of the few times Hill’s narration goes into extended detail about a specific event—famous Goodfellas scenes are often expanded from single sentences—and it’s such a terrific story, with tasks finished at the last possible moment before detection, that it could serve as the basis for a crime movie all on its own.
Wiseguy also gets deep into the nitty-gritty of how the mob functions, something Scorsese would explore more in Casino, his next collaboration with Pileggi. The book explains exactly what was involved in the Lufthansa heist, a sequence Goodfellas avoids depicting, probably because Hill didn’t witness it directly. It also offers up such tidbits as the hijackers who were on salary, making “a couple of grand just for sticking a gun in the driver’s face, whether it was a good score or lousy, whether the truck was full or empty.” During Hill’s imprisonment, he learns how to game the system for reduced time: “One month I managed to string together so many furloughs, days off, and religious holidays that the joint wound up owing me a day.” In an anecdote that becomes more potent the more you think about it, Hill’s crew steals bearer bonds for finance guys, who use them as collateral in deals Hill can’t begin to understand. “The bankers took us to the cleaners,” he told Pileggi after realizing the value of what they had stolen. “We got pennies for the dollar.”
This is Wiseguy at its best. Not coincidentally, it’s stuff that makes more sense in prose than visuals. Meanwhile, the post-Lufthansa deaths (the “Layla” montage in the film) and the day when a drug-addled Hill is trailed by a helicopter are faint echoes of what they would become onscreen, even with the latter recounted in minute detail (yes, down to those beautiful veal cutlets and the need to stir the sauce).
Any changes from the book come because Scorsese favors the story while Pileggi the author was bound to journalistic accuracy. Both feature jubilance after young Hill “pops his cherry” by getting arrested for the first time, but the film invents a line for De Niro (“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”) that makes the themes explicit. Later, there’s a scene when Burke/Conway encourages Karen to enter a store and take some dresses he’s stolen; she doesn’t, believing she’ll get whacked if she goes inside. In the book, Karen recalls seeing one of Burke’s men in the store, a detail Scorsese muddles because the ambiguity over Conway’s intentions fuels the paranoia.
When Goodfellas’ Hill is exiled after he destroys his career in organized crime with drugs, ringleader Paulie Vario (surname Cicero in the film; he’s played by Paul Sorvino) gives him money and turns his back for good. In the book, the message is the same, but it’s delivered to Karen, which is less emotionally potent.
There are tweaks to structure, too. Both have prologues set at key moments of Hill’s life; Goodfellas begins in the middle of the murder that would signal the end to the good times while Wiseguy starts with Hill’s decision to enter the Witness Protection Program, a great narrative hook that nonetheless leaches the power of his eventual betrayal. Wiseguy starts the helicopter sequence by announcing it as the day Hill was ultimately pinched, and that waiting-for-the-shoe-to-drop suspense is a lesser beast than the free-fall Scorsese portrays (in perhaps the most sustained stretch of brilliance in his career).
You can see how minor that inventory of changes is, but the cumulative impact is tremendous. Scorsese never stayed far from his source, but the mark he left was indelible. As Pileggi said, he just knew what to do with it.
Start with: Wiseguy is strictly for the curious.