September 24, 1990 7:53 PM EDT

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These beasts of prey wear thousand-dollar suits. In their choice of women and home furnishings, they elevate bad taste to high style. They still kill the old way, out of discipline or distemper. At their best they have a sense of honor and a fear of their bosses that would do credit to the medieval church. At their worst they play their sick whims on the weak, and when the sport grows tiresome, they rat on their friends or slit a few throats. They are gangsters, hit men, wise guys — good fellas, in the parlance of dapper don John Gotti and wizard filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

GoodFellas, the homicidally funny fresco of a Mafia family that Scorsese has made from the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy, is the centerpiece in a new rogues’ gallery. Mob movies are gathering, like capos at the Appalachia conference, from all over America. You want Italian-American hoods of the New York City stripe? We got ’em by the hundreds in GoodFellas. In My Blue Heaven, written by Pileggi’s wife Nora Ephron as a kind of comic coda to the Scorsese picture, Steve Martin plays a Mafia rat in a Witness Protection Program out West. At Christmas, Paramount has The Godfather Part III, a climax to the gangland Nibelungen Ring, starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and a cast of many Coppolas.

In the American melting pot, gangsters were the indigestible pieces of ethnic gristle; country of origin was as crucial as turf. So we need some Irish gangsters. In Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, they are based on the Westies gang, who ran the rackets in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Other Irishmen run a big-city crime factory, about 1929, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing, where, in the grand tradition, they fight the Italians and the Jews.

What’s going on here? Why is Hollywood once again married to the Mob? It’s not that the genre is especially popular these days. (The Untouchables was the only gangster blockbuster of the ’80s.) Nor is it that the Italian underworld taps a nerve in today’s body politic. Drug lords, often black or Hispanic, are the civic scourge of the moment, and they get their movie due only in Abel Ferrara’s rancid, megaviolent King of New York, in which a white man (Christopher Walken) leads a rainbow coalition of pushers. Whatever charm the Mafia boss still possesses is not contemporary but nostalgic. He is remembered or imagined as the dark padrone, courtly and caring, a big tipper to the little people.

The real reason for the spate of Mob movies is that a few powerful artists want to make them. Directors love the form because its speed and anarchy spoke to them as young moviegoers. More important, it allows them to confront, in code, the awful ethnic schisms of American life; Italian vs. Wasp stands in for black vs. white. Actors love Mob movies because, now that the western is dead, the genre gives them one last chance to strut their maleness in a traditional setting. They can act like cowboys without having to ride a horse. And, as avatars of the Method, they get to rant in words James Dean never spoke onscreen. Mandatory Mob-movie dialogue: “Shut the f up!” “No, you shut the f up!”

This sort of conversation gets a big play in State of Grace, which is so yoked to naturalism that it denies its denizens any lyric power. The Irish used to be able to talk at least. But they mostly shout and mumble in this story of a young man (Sean Penn) who returns to the Kitchen to find himself in a fatal family dispute involving his best friend (Gary Oldman), his old girlfriend (ravishing Robin Wright) and her gang-boss brother (Ed Harris). In State of Grace, the Irish are Italians without style. As one of them says, “We drink. We shoot people. We’re not tough; we’re just crazy.” The film wants to be tough too, but it more often sulks. The look is off-the-rack broody: many shots of Sean Penn smoking — and fuming — in slow motion.

Leave it to the Coen brothers — the writer-producer-director team who were the film finds of the ’80s — to discover ferocious drama in words, character, atmosphere. Their inspiration for Miller’s Crossing was a pair of Dashiell Hammett novels: Red Harvest (which provided the milieu of a corrupt city ruled by warring gangsters) and The Glass Key (which provided the plot of an aging boss and his young adviser involved with the same woman). To this blend the Coens have brought a teeming cast of sharpies, most of them spectacularly, thoughtfully venal. They speak wittily but often don’t mean quite what they say; listeners must find clues in their equally eloquent silences.

Like Red Harvest, but unlike most movies, Miller’s Crossing has a good novel’s narrative density. The film finds a dozen angles in the battle between Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney), the Irishman who has run the town for years, and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the volatile, flirtatious Italian who is itching to seize control. Their bone of contention is Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), a gambler too greedy to live long but too cunning to stay dead. His sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) has stolen Leo’s heart and is ever ready to fence it. Nice crowd. Shuttling among them, wooed and wounded by them all, is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), an existential hero with a black Irish soul. We spend most of the movie racing after Tom’s mind, trying to figure what devious plan it will spin next.

The Coens have tempered their style from the daredevil camerabatics of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona; they now seek the extra fillip of incident and character in the corner of every frame. Each of the hard gents in Miller’s Crossing finds his own space and his own reasons for pushing others out of it. Leo, for example, is given a blaze of glory as he defends his life against Caspar’s goons. To the strains of Danny Boy he strides from his home, machine gun flaring, a dinosaur who refuses to die. “The old man,” one friend says wistfully, “is still an artist with the Thompson.” The Coens are artists too, and their cool dazzler is an elegy to a day when Hollywood could locate moral gravity in a genre film for grownups.

Miller’s Crossing is about friendship, character and ethics. GoodFellas is about friends who are colorful characters but left their ethics at the baptismal font. Even as a kid, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was crazy about the gangster life. He connives in murder one, runs a cocaine cartel, robs decent folks blind — and, when he is caught, shrugs off all remorse. His patron is a stately Mafioso (Paul Sorvino) who warns him to stay out of the drug business; Henry jumps right in. His best friend is a wacko hoodlum (Joe Pesci) who gets whacked by his own family; Henry sheds no tears. His mentor is an Irishman (Robert De Niro) who cuts Henry in on the biggest hijacking in American history; Henry’s testimony sends him to jail. The lad’s only regret is for himself. At the end, he’s still alive, but “I get to live the rest of my life like a shnook.”

Most Scorsese movies are all exposition. The characters don’t grow or learn, they just get found out. Same, in spades, here. So it is Scorsese’s triumph that GoodFellas offers the fastest, sharpest 2 1/2-hr. ride in recent film history. He has said he wanted his picture to have the speed and info overload of a movie trailer. Two great labyrinthine tracking shots — at a neighborhood bar and the Copacabana — introduce, with lightning grace, about a million wise guys. Who are they? What are they doing, and who are they doing in? Just to catch all the ambient wit and bustle, you have to see GoodFellas twice — not a bad idea.

Here is Scorsese’s definition of the wise-guy philosophy: “Want. Take. Simple.” They are animals, and watching GoodFellas is like going to the Bronx Zoo. You stare at the beasts of prey and find a brute charisma in their demeanor. You wonder how you would act if you lived in their world, where aggression is rewarded and decency is crushed. Finally you walk away, tantalized by a view into the darkest part of yourself, glad that that part is still behind bars.

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