Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 1990 crime drama Goodfellas, inspired by the true story of Irish-Italian mobster-turned-state’s witness Henry Hill, is widely considered one of the best gangster movies ever made, right up there with the Godfather films at the subgenre’s zenith. It’s a high-octane tale of greed, violence, betrayal and the American dream, told with all the trademark stylistic verve—those freeze frames! Those needle drops! That fourth wall break!—of one of film’s finest directors. It’s also a who’s who of mob movie stars, including Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino and more Sopranos actors, in particular, than you can count on both brass-knuckled hands.
What it might be most of all, though, is a bounteous cornucopia of iconic quotes. Chances are, even if you’ve never seen the film, at least a few of the lines featured on the list below will be familiar to you—Goodfellas is one of those classics that has permeated pop culture to such an extent that you can hardly help but know it, if only through osmosis. Now scroll down and read these fuckin’ quotes, presented in the order they appear in the film.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” —Henry Hill
After watching Tommy DeVito (Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (De Niro) stab and shoot a bloodied Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in his trunk, Henry (Liotta) slams it shut and doesn’t even blink before being captured in a classic Scorsese freeze frame. It’s the iconic capper on a brutal, tone-setting opening sequence, establishing immediately and unforgettably that for Henry, there is no life worth living but the life of a wiseguy.
“One day, some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” —Henry Hill
The first shot of a young Henry (Christopher Serrone) we see is a closeup on his eye: He watches from his window, taking in every move the neighborhood mobsters make, yearning to become one. Before we know it, he’s born again in the flames of an explosion, intoxicated by the fearsome, world-shaping power that comes with his newfound status.
“You’re a real jerk. You wasted eight fuckin’ aprons on this guy. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you. I gotta toughen this kid up.” —Tuddy Cicero
In shepherding a young Henry into the life of a wiseguy, Tuddy Cicero (Frank DiLeo, who, fun fact, managed Michael Jackson in the ‘80s) has to tell the kid some harsh truths, namely that there’s no room for compassion or altruism when you’re in the business of being a modern-day outlaw. Even through his pangs of conscience, Henry, pressing a fistful of aprons to a stranger’s gunshot wound, starts to see things Tuddy’s way: Human suffering is the fuel that powers the mob’s machine, and it simply can’t be helped, especially if it eats into their bottom line.
“Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” —Jimmy Conway
A young Henry gets himself pinched for selling cigarettes, but Jimmy isn’t mad—rather, he’s glad for the opportunity to teach his young apprentice the cardinal rule(s) of the wiseguy. It’s the edict so nice, Jimmy says it twice: Telling on your fellow goodfellas is the single most surefire way to get yourself killed. In this world, there’s no one lower than a rat. Knowing where this story goes, it almost registers as a tragic moment—after all, Jimmy’s trust in Henry is what ultimately gets him pinched.
“I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers.” —Jimmy Two-Times
Of this film’s many montages, one of its most fun is when Henry walks us through the Instagram backdrop that is the Bamboo Lounge and introduces us to the Cicero crew, the most memorable member of whom is undoubtedly Jimmy Two-Times (Anthony Powers), who has a, uh, certain way of speaking. Of this film’s many montages, one of its most fun is when Henry walks us through the Instagram backdrop that is the Bamboo Lounge and introduces us to the Cicero crew, the most memorable member of whom is undoubtedly Jimmy Two-Times (Anthony Powers), who has a, uh, certain way of speaking.
“For us, to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, worried about their bills, were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.” —Henry Hill
Henry almost manages to make the notion that “might makes right” seem, well, right with these lines, explaining his crew’s ruthless mindset as if it’s common sense. His world is one in which you’re only entitled to what you’re willing to take by force, and success on anyone’s terms but your own isn’t success at all. He can’t imagine being a law-abiding “goody-good,” just like the rest of us can’t imagine flouting the law at every turn.
“You mean—let me understand this, ‘cause, you know, maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but I’m funny how, I mean, funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?” —Tommy DeVito
There’s no more iconic scene in Goodfellas than this one, in which Pesci’s mercurial character feigns steadily mounting rage in response to Henry casually calling him funny. The scene draws on a similar incident from Pesci’s actual youth, with the actor improvising most of his dialogue in rehearsal. It’s an indelible movie moment.
“Now the guy’s got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, he can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy’s gotta come up with Paulie’s money every week, no matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me.” —Henry Hill
Henry’s explanation of how a “bust out” works succinctly captures the Faustian bargain you make by aligning yourself with the mob. Paulie (Sorvino) couldn’t care less about the Bamboo Lounge’s success as a legitimate business—all he sees is a big, fat pocket to pick. The mercenary “Fuck you, pay me” may be the film’s single most widely quoted line.
“I like going this way. It’s better than waiting in line.” —Henry Hill
This line leads into one of Goodfellas’ most renowned sequences: the Copacabana entrance tracking shot, the technical and narrative mastery of which have been the subject of entire essays unto themselves. Henry and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enter the famed New York City nightclub through a service entrance, strolling right through and up to the front row just in time to catch the one-liner king do his one-liner thing. For Henry, the choice between waiting for a table like a normal person and doing this is no choice at all, to which his quote’s wild understatement attests.
“I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.” —Karen
Karen is as unable to resist the allure of Henry’s lifestyle as he is—in her voiceover, she clearly recognizes this moment as a crossroads, at which she chooses to aid and abet Henry, rather than condemn him. She’s attracted to his power and thereby as complicit in his act of violence as if she’d bloodied the gun herself. The ensuing smash cut from Karen hiding the pistol to wrapping a glass at her wedding to Henry says it all.
“Now go home and get your fuckin’ shinebox.” —Billy Batts
This is one of this film’s single most consequential bits of dialogue—made man Billy Batts’ condescending mockery sets off Tommy’s hair-trigger temper and gets Billy killed, an act of shocking violence that will later doom Tommy, too. One of pop culture’s most memorable acts of provocation, the insult is pure hubris—Batts thinks he’s untouchable, and believes he can’t be seen to back down from a young hothead like Tommy, even when given the chance to do so and still save face. Instead, he asserts his strength and status at the ultimate cost.
“I didn’t want to get blood on your floor.” —Tommy DeVito
This unexpected moment after the brutal beating of Billy Batts is the closest Tommy ever comes to showing genuine remorse—even Henry is taken aback by it, with Scorsese (and champion editor Thelma Schoonmaker) taking care to emphasize that reaction. It’s unlike Tommy to show any vulnerability whatsoever, but here he’s visibly upset, almost tearful. Yet it’s impossible to say whether his words are an expression of his guilt and shame over having killed Batts in cold blood, or if he just genuinely feels bad for making a mess in his friend’s establishment.
“I like this one. One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way.” —Tommy DeVito
It’s beyond jarring to hear Tommy pleasantly appraising his mother’s (Catherine Scorsese) painting, considering it occurs immediately after he’s just beaten a man to within an inch of his life. Tommy sits at the head of the table, enjoying a lovely meal with his mother and his friends—meanwhile, a severely injured Billy Batts writhes around in the trunk of Henry’s car just outside. That Pesci and Scorsese can still find a way to humanize Tommy in this moment is remarkable. He’s both a vicious killer and a caring, thoughtful son.
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself, Tommy?” —Spider
After Tommy shoots low-level wiseguy Spider (Michael Imperioli) in the foot for fetching drinks too slowly during a card game, Tommy taunts the youngster and mocks his injury, in response to which Spider delivers the kiss-off above. These bold words are his last—after all, this is Tommy we’re talking about—but in a way, Spider still gets the better of Tommy, defying him in front of his peers and earning Jimmy’s respect (“Good for you, don’t take no shit off nobody”) in the process. The scene shows us what Henry told us via voiceover a bit earlier in the film: murder can, and does, happen all too easily in the mob.
“Medium-rare … an aristocrat.” —Johnny Dio
When Henry goes to prison (the first time, that is), he and his cellmates don’t exactly have it rough: They set up shop in their own private area and cook for themselves freely, splitting up dinner duties with Paulie on prep, Vinnie (Charles Scorsese) on sauce and Johnny Dio (Frank Pellegrino) on meats. Dio’s witty response to Vinnie’s steak temperature preference is demonstrative of the balance Goodfellas strikes so well: We should be livid that these ruthless criminals are just coasting through their time, rather than facing any real comeuppance, but instead we’re charmed by their congenial camaraderie. (In these times of coronavirus, they’d clearly be a good group to quarantine with.)
“You’d be late for your own fuckin’ funeral … What the fuck you lookin’ at? Come on, make that coffee to go. Let’s go.” —Tommy DeVito
Tying up a loose end after the multi-million-dollar Lufthansa heist, Tommy delivers a cleverly stone-cold line before whacking Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson). While Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) looks on agape, holding a coffee pot, Tommy doesn’t miss a beat, jokingly telling Carbone to take his warm beverage on the road. Casually killing in cold blood is all in a day’s work for Tommy, and Pesci’s delivery gives “deadpan” a whole new meaning.
“You know, we always called each other goodfellas. Like you’d say to somebody: ‘You’re gonna like this guy, he’s all right. He’s a goodfella. He’s one of us.’ You understand? We were goodfellas, wiseguys.” —Henry Hill
During the film’s infamous “Layla” montage—sandwiched between Jimmy’s many Lufthansa loose-end killings and Tommy’s execution as revenge for Billy Batts—Henry takes a moment to explain the bond he shares with his fellow mobsters. Meanwhile, Tommy kisses his mother goodbye for the last time and goes to his death, undone rather than being made. Henry’s quote, juxtaposed with this tragic twist, shows definitively that in this life, trust and loyalty don’t pay. You’re only a goodfella until you’re a target.
“For a second, I thought I was dead, but when I heard all the noise, I knew they were cops. Only cops talk that way. If they had been wiseguys, I wouldn’t have heard a thing. I would’ve been dead.” —Henry Hill
When getting arrested by an army of police officers is, on any level, a relief, maybe it’s time to reexamine your life choices. That’s Henry’s reaction upon being held at gunpoint by the narc (Bo Dietl) who’s arresting him—after a long day of cocaine, errands, cocaine, paranoia, cocaine, meal preparation and cocaine, our strung-out protagonist is just thankful he wasn’t whacked by his own wiseguy allies. Cold comfort, for sure.
“If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you. It doesn’t happen that way. There aren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends, the people who have cared for you all of your life, and they always seem to come at a time when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.” —Henry Hill
Easily among the most chilling lines in Goodfellas, Henry’s explanation of how getting whacked actually happens is another testament to the insidious dangers of trusting your fellow mobster. There’s no room for weakness in this life, and as soon as you become a liability to your crew, they’ll take advantage of any relationship, no matter how meaningful, to get close to you and take you out of the equation. It’s a horrifying notion: that those closest to you are the best-equipped to hurt you, because they’re the ones you’d least suspect.
“That’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. I can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” —Henry Hill
Goodfellas ends with Henry griping about his boring new life, hidden away in suburban purgatory by the grace of the witness protection program. He seems entirely unaware of how lucky he is to be there, taking the fact he’s alive at all for granted, and yearning for the perks and power of the life he used to lead. We leave him in his cookie-cutter neighborhood, a far cry from the decadent trappings of his past, an average nobody with an extraordinary story to tell.
Goodfellas is Paste’s top movie on Netflix right now, but be warned: It leaves the streamer on April 30, so you might want to (re)watch it while you can. Beyond that, there’s only one thing left for us to show you:
Scott Russell is Paste’s news editor and he thinks you’re funny. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.