Some scenes in movies can make your heart stop, caught in the moment that is unfurling in front of you, alongside the cast, you too are encapsulated by the fear of the sliding doors of fate. During the 1990 gangster epic The Goodfellas. there are plenty of these scenes, turning points in the narrative where a good or bad option presents itself and, as an audience, you are never quite sure which way it will go.
The movie is rich in cast and storyline. Boasting the triumvirate of gangster stalwarts, Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and the inimitable Joe Pesci as the leading men of the screenplay adapted from the Nicholas Pileggi novel Wiseguy, the film is a bonafide classic. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it perfectly encapsulates the life of Henry Hill (played by Liotta), a man desperately trying to make something of himself within the confines of the criminal underworld, navigating pitfalls and pistols at every turn. Perhaps the most iconic moment of the entire film is the “funny how?” scene.
If you’ve seen the film before, then the mere mention of the two words “funny how?” should be enough to spark your memory of Joe Pesci’s violent eyes as Tommy DeVito burn with the blood of Hill. While it is arguably Pesci’s finest moment on screen, as he effortlessly toys with Hill in front of a table of chortling gangsters, he was able to rely on the true origins of the scene to bolster his performance.
The moment arises as Hill, who at this point is still an up and coming member of the mob, calls DeVito “funny” after the latter tells a humorous story. DeVito ends storytime as he confronts Hill with the infamous line “funny how?” provoking Hill into a stumbling backpedal. Seeing the anger in DeVito’s eyes, he is sure that things are about to turn ugly. DeVito goes one step further and asks if Hill thinks he is a “clown” and continues by saying “do I amuse you?”. It is clear that Hill is about to face one of those sliding doors moments.
It’s the perfect combination of fear and frivolity that brings a real sense of menace to proceedings and underpins DeVito’s character. Things cool off after a moment of silence as DeVito reveals he’s only messing around with Hill and he “nearly had him”. It’s an expert piece of cinema.
The reality of the scene, and how perfectly Pesci plays the role of DeVito, comes from the actor himself and his time working at a restaurant. During his adolescence, Pesci worked as a waiter that welcomed some less-than-reputable characters including one mobster that Pesci tried to compliment by saying he was “funny”. The mobster’s reaction was enough to frighten the future actor and imprint the anecdote in his mind forevermore. When he shared the story with Scorsese, they formed a plan.
While Scorsese loved the tale, he wasn’t sure how it would play out with the other actors. Instead of including the scene in the script, Scorsese only informed Pesci and Liotta of what was about to happen, meaning the reactions of the actors at the tables surrounding Hill and DeVito are genuine — they all had no idea what was going on and the explosive argument quickly became the most recognisable scene in the entire film.