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 he receives overdue judgement.
Having recently watched Goodfellas again, I was wondering to myself exactly why Tommy got whacked when he did and what the justification behind it was. To get us up to speed, Ray Liotta narrates the scene: “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.”
I find Henry Hill’s description of the situation is vague for two reasons. First, it doesn’t explain why the hit took place so long after the Batts incident. Secondly, unlike nearly every other planned hit in the movie, there is no direct justification for it. 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 like myself. What were those other things Henry Hill alluded to that led to Tommy DeVito’s death? Why wasn’t Joe Pesci’s character whacked much earlier? Finally, what was the justification for the hit? I find the answers to these questions are also important for any die hard Goodfellas fan as 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?
My own speculation is that Tommy’s character simply became too much of a liability for the mob. 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, for example, the killing of the Spider character. One could also speculate that Jimmy Conway didn’t ask him to whack Maury, rather he was 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, 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. I think 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, something I’ll touch upon further.
This brings us the timing of the event. 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 I’ve covered my thoughts on the justification for Tommy’s murder, let’s address the next question. Why did it take 10 years to whack Tommy DeVito? 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 rlease: “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. Perhaps all along he 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 Queens bar. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to have spoken to those who saw the verbal spat between Tommy and Batts before he disappeared and then put the facts together. The testimony of those witnesses 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 before. It’s also worth noting that Tommy wasn’t even part of the Lufthansa heist himself although he did help in the clean up. I also believe Jimmy’s feelings about Tommy’s death were not just an act. Logically, there wouldn’t really be a reason for Jimmy to hide his feelings about Tommy’s death from Henry, especially given their long past together.
Analysis of the Goodfellas Story Arc: The Billy Batts Scene
I’d also like to briefly discuss the Billy Batts scene in more detail to provide some further analysis on the film. Although he only had a very minor role in Goodfellas, the Billy Batt’s character served as a fulcrum upon which the entire film rested, even the film title. If you recall, we hear only hear the term “goodfella” referenced a single time during the entire film and it just so happens to be directly after Tommy’s death.
The brutal opening scene also sets the stage for the film as we are initially left in the dark about the characters and their motives. After that shocking opening scene we are slowly introduced to these characters, almost hypnotized by their lifestyle so that we forget what we initially watched.
The first half of Goodfellas charms the audience by highlighting the power and wealth the mafia made for themselves in the 50s and 60s: fancy dinners, nice cars, even nicer suits, lavish homes and to top it off a total disdain for the law as well as those so called working people who chose to respect it. In my opinion this is best represented by the date scene between Henry and Karen, also one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
True, even at the start of Goodfellas there were brief stints of the ugly side of the business, such as the scene where a young Henry helps out a stranger wounded by a gun shot by covering him with some aprons from the restaurant. The owner’s comments are a whiff of what’s to come: “You’re a real jerk, you wasted 8 f***in’ aprons on this guy, I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you, gotta toughen this kid up” But as the next scene unfolds, we are yet again bamboozled by the mob lifestyle that such situations are soon forgotten as with the brutal opening scene.
This appears to be the way that Scorsese wanted the viewers to understand the slow erosion of morals that would ultimately cause these men and their complicit wives to justify their lifestyle. This is reinforced by the scene where Henry gets caught selling cigarettes by the police. Rather than being punished for getting caught, his social status is elevated for not ratting out anyone, another of the mafia’s commandments. Slowly Henry has learned to throw away the morals taught in his home, which were often delivered via beatings and to embrace a lifestyle that only made sense to young and easily influenced teenager.
The glamor and charm of the mob lifestyle culminates with the Billy Batts scene: everything after this event spirals downward for the characters. Notice that it wasn’t just Tommy but the entire trio that are complicit in the “first sin” against Paulie by participating in an unjustifiable kill. Furthermore, it’s no surprise that the aftermath of the Billy Batts hit circles us back to the opening scene of the movie, setting the stage for what’s to come.
Notice how after this scene, the charm and initial appeal of the mob lifestyle have all but vanished. We once again are exposed to materialism as Henry Hill buys the most expensive Christmas tree to furnish his gaudy, 70s decked out home or the apartment that Henry sets up for his mistress. Without reading too far into this, the materialism we are presented with is far less refined after the Batts scene. Gone are the fancy dinners, live entertainment, and casual joking, instead we are presented with far more drugs and the few scenes in which the characters are commiserating often end in violence or hint at it. There is not enough lipstick available to apply to this pig of overt materialism, it’s all very ugly.
What makes Goodfellas one of the quintessential gangster films is that we end up building a relationship with morally corrupt characters without realizing it. Of course there is also Sopranos, which shouldn’t be discounted, but that takes place over a period of many seasons. In Goodfellas the magic happens with only 2 hours and some change to spare. Scorsese is even bold enough to tell us what he’s doing when are first introduced to Jimmy Conway. If you recall, Jimmy Conway “was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guy in the movie.”
Note that in Goodfellas, it’s not just Karen that is seduced by the mob lifestyle but the audience as well. As the film progresses, outsiders are rarely seen just as Karen’s character describes her own experience. This is by design, in order for us not to fall back on our proper moral judgement which is harder to do when you are only exposed to other group members. It’s the stripping away of day to day reality from the audience that allows us cheer for the bad guys since we are only watching things unfold from their perspective.
It’s only at very end of the film that we are spun back into reality, with Henry Hill testifying against his pals. I think it was important for him to break out of the scene altogether and walk around the courtroom as he did. This final dialogue of the film, like a splash of cold water, sobers us up back into our own and Henry’s reality. We suddenly realize that these were the bad guys all along.
Despite the glorification of the mob, which could easily be taken away from a film like Goodfellas, the story itself does have a moral foundation. Bad deeds ultimately received their punishment and all of those who indulged in the lifestyle paid a heavy price for their participation, and in most cases the ultimate price. Even Henry Hill’s character is sent to a purgatory of sorts where he must live out the lifestyle he so desperately tried to escape from in order to save his own skin.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis and if you are doing a term paper for school, feel free to reference my site, it would be an honor! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.