I’ve come across a small plot hole in Goodfellas, namely the explanation, or reasoning behind Tommy DeVito’s murder. Even if you haven’t watched Goodfellas in awhile, you’ll most likely recall the scene where a surprised Joe Pesci realizes he will not be a “made man” after all, only having a couple seconds to react before receiving overdue judgement.
Having watched Goodfellas for perhaps the 10th time by now, I was wondering why Tommy got whacked when he did and what the justification behind it was.
In case you haven’t seen the movie in a while, I’ll get you up to speed. Ray Liotta narrates the aftermath of pivotal scene for the audience: “It was revenge for Billy Batts and alot of other things. And there was nothing we could do about it.” Note that during the narration we see Joe Pesci’s character bleeding out with one of the mob bosses repeating “and that’s that.” Liotta continues: “Batts was a made man and Tommy wasn’t, and we had to sit still and take it. It was among the Italians, it was real greaseball shit.”
The small plothole I’ve recognized focuses on Henry Hill’s description of the situation. It’s simply too vague, leading to plenty of speculation by the viewer. First, his narration does little to explain why the hit took place so long after the Batts incident. Secondly, unlike every other planned hit in the movie, there is no direct justification for this one. Although it’s very clear to the audience, the mob bosses can only assume what we know to be true about the Billy Batts incident.
This rather vague explanation leaves many unanswered questions for fans of Goodfellas like myself. What were those “other things” Henry Hill alluded to that ultimately led to Tommy DeVito’s death? Why wasn’t Joe Pesci’s character whacked much earlier? Finally, what was the justification for the hit on Tommy? I find the answers to these questions are also important for any die hard Goodfellas fan. In my view, the Billy Batts scene represents the fulcrum of the movie, something I’ll elaborate upon in a little bit.
Why Was Joe Pesci’s Character Whacked in Goodfellas?
My speculation is that Tommy Devito simply became too much of a liability for the mob, which is why he had to go. During the first burial scene of Billy Batts, we are even offered some foreshadowing from Henry Hill’: “For most of the guys killing got to be accepted, murder was the only way that everyone stayed in line: You got out line you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules.”
If you pay close attention you’ll also notice that Tommy’s character is the only one that both executes hits but also participates in unjustified killings. Consider, the murder of the Spider character as an example. Furthermore, one could reasonably speculate that Jimmy Conway didn’t ask Tommy to whack Maury, rather he was simply tired of his constant nagging about his cut for engineering the Lufthansa heist. Finally, the restaurant owner in the beginning of the film even vents to Paulie about Tommy’s recklessness, another example of the film’s foreshadowing.
From the perspective of the audience, it was clear that Tommy DeVito violated the rules that Henry Hill outlined during the first burial scene, making his death long overdue and justified. This could be a fitting explanation as to why the hit’s justification was vague, it’s a film after all, not real life, so the only witness to these crimes would be the audience who also happen to be the jury.
This approach makes sense since the mafia, after all, operates outside of the law. Tommy’s murder is a reminder that trials do not exist in the realm of the mob, which goes against our natural assumption that ample proof is needed to justify a murder. This fact is a reminder to the audience that the glorification of the mob lifestyle in the first half of the film comes at a very high price. In essence, I find Tommy DeVito’s hit to be a wake up call, or a sobering up of the initial charm of the mob lifestyle, that even when you operate outside of the law, your actions still have consequences.
Why Was Tommy Devito Whacked at the End of Goodfellas?
Now that I’ve covered my thoughts on the justification for Tommy’s murder, let’s address the next question. Why did the mob wait so long to whack Joe Pesci’s character? For reference purposes, the Billy Batts murder takes place at an unnamed bar in Queens on June 11th, 1970. Shortly thereafter Henry Hill goes to jail for 4 years and slightly after Tommy’s murder he is caught with drugs, which is around 1980. We do not get a specific time point for Tommy’s murder but we can assume it’s at or around 1980 based on how the characters have been aged and the sequence of events in the film.
Now that we have the timeline fresh in our minds, my guess is that Tommy’s character simply became too reckless as time went on. After the jail scene we can get hints of this from Paulie when he lectures Henry shortly after his prison release: “Tommy, he’s a good kid too but he’s crazy, he’s a cowboy. He’s got too much to prove. You gotta watch out for kids like this.”
Obviously, Paulie was well aware of Tommy’s reckless behavior, as he alludes to, yet the verbal warning in this scene shows that it was now on his mind. Maybe he got word about what happened to Spider, which was a pointless killing. Although Henry notes that killings are common, they do end up being liabilities. Another thought is that perhaps all along Paulie sensed that Jimmy and Henry knew about Batts but were covering for Tommy. Going out on a few limbs of speculation, if you recall, there were other characters in the opening of Queens bar scene. It wouldn’t be such a stretch for Paulie to have spoken to those who were also there. After all, when Paulie first confronts Henry about the incident, he mentioned that people were asking about Batts. Those who were asking may very well have been the other bar patrons who saw the verbal spat between Tommy and Batts. The testimony of those witnesses along with Tommy Devito’s increasing violent and unpredictable behavior, those “other things” would be more than enough evidence to justify a hit.
Was Jimmy Conway In On Tommy DeVito’s Murder?
A theory I’ve seen on some message boards and forums is that Jimmy Conway wanted Tommy dead and tipped off the mob about Billy Batts. Based on the evidence we see in the movie, I don’t think Jimmy Conway tipped off the mob about Tommy in order to silence him about the Lufthansa heist. As Henry points out, Tommy was the closest they would ever get to being made men themselves, offering them even more protection than they had before. I also believe Jimmy’s reaction to Tommy’s was genuine and not some act put on to just to convince Henry. Logically, there wouldn’t really be a reason for Jimmy to feign despair over Tommy’s death from Henry, especially given their long past together.
As a major fan of Scorsese during what I consider his peak, I find no issue picking apart his films to such degree since they are more or less the modern day masterpieces of contemporary society. In many ways such criticism pays my compliments to the film, after all, only a masochist would devote such time analyzing a crappy movie.
As a final takeaway, my original post was actually much longer. I had gone down a bit of a rabbit hole analyzing the infamous Billy Batts scene so if you enjoyed this analysis, check out my post on what I consider the story arc of Goodfellas which is best exemplified in the Billy Batts scene.