The Great Scenes: “Funny How?” from GOODFELLAS

Movie: Goodfellas (1990)

Spoiler Level: Low for the movie, High for the scene itself

The Setup: It’s an average night out at the favorite local hangout of low level mobsters Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). With a crowd of friends and fellow mobsters gathered around, the big-mouthed Tommy is holding court, telling tales of his toughness and getting plenty of laughs from the group. When Henry tails out of one of his laughs with a muttered “Really funny…really funny.” Tommy appears to misinterpret Henry’s comment and the tone of the room quickly shifts.

Why It’s Great: It’s one of those scenes that has become so familiar, so oft-parodied in pop culture (particularly Saturday Night Live‘s “Joe Pesci Show” sketches) that it has almost lost its meaning but it’s important to remember what it felt like to watch this scene for the first time. Right around the 1:12 mark, the tone of the scene takes such a remarkable and tense turn that only a film about extremely violent men could take. It’s easy to be lulled into finding these guys likable. Tommy might be a bit of a bully, we tell ourselves, but he’s overflowing with charisma, impossible not to be charmed by.

At the end of the day, as Martin Scorsese and company so clearly point out to us in this scene, these aren’t guys you want to hang around with on a Saturday night. They are killers, sociopaths who are capable of absolutely anything at any given moment. The six seconds of silence we experience along with Henry before the tension is ultimately very cautiously broken are terrifying precisely because despite the fact that Tommy is joking around, anyone who has spent any amount of time around him (including us as the audience) knows that he’s entirely capable of turning an innocent comment into a violent encounter. Even after the laughter returns to the table, we’re briefly thrown into a moment of tension again as Tommy playfully pulls out his very real gun to mock-threaten Henry.

The scene so perfectly articulates the dichotomy Scorsese seemed so interested in exploring with Goodfellas, the idea that these men could be both functional members of their community and savage murderers, it’s almost hard to believe that the scene wasn’t originally in the screenplay when Scorsese signed on to direct the film. According to a recently published Q&A in GQ magazine, the scene was one of a handful in the movie that actually came from some in-character improvisation sessions that Scorsese conducted with his actors. Pesci created the basic dialog of the scene based around an actual encounter he had with a wiseguy that took a similar uncomfortable turn.

It’s only fitting that Pesci himself wrote the scene because as rich and interesting a film as Goodfellas is, Pesci’s Oscar-winning performance will forever stand out as the single-most memorable feature of the film. He’s been more outrageous in other roles (Casino) and funnier in other roles (My Cousin Vinny) but in Tommy, Pesci creates a truly layered and complex character that takes what could have been a very good movie about mobsters and turns it into something special.