Lufthansa, ‘Layla,’ and Beautiful Ugliness

Such a pretty car. So much ugliness inside
• January 23, 2014 2:34 pm


News came down today that the FBI arrested a mob figure with ties to the Lufthansa Heist:

Law enforcement sources told CBS News that five alleged members of the Bonanno organized crime family have been arrested Thursday, including one in connection with the 1978 Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Sources also told senior investigative producer Pat Milton that the other four are to be charged with a variety of violent crimes, including murder and extortion. …

Milton reports that one of the five arrested today, Vincent Asaro, is suspected of being the lookout for the heist, according to the source. Asaro is also believed to have helped the crew get away, the source said.

This is of interest, of course, because Martin Scorsese helped immortalize the Lufthansa Heist by making it a prominent subplot in Goodfellas. That subplot closes out with a montage set to the instrumental at the end of Eric Clapton's "Layla," which we will now watch:

This is one of my favorite sequences in Scorsese's entire filmography. It is the perfect contrast of beauty and horror, the frisson of which makes the montage one of the most memorable* in the history of cinema. Blood spatters cross the screen as piano chords begin banging away; human bodies tumble out of dumpsters, little more than rotting meat, as the tempo picks up; and a crane shot slowly pushes into the back of a meat truck, a frozen body strung up like a side of beef, the frost on his face commingling with the slowing song.

The very power of this sequence is problematic for some people. When Goodfellas was released it was accused of glorifying the mob, of beautifying their ugly enterprise. We see wealth and power and horror and there's not enough judgment for some people. Henry Hill gets to live his life out in the burbs with the rest of us. Where's the punishment? Why isn't he getting his comeuppance?

In time, most people came to realize that Scorsese wasn't luxuriating in the mob's lifestyle. He wasn't even training an uncritical eye. Goodfellas is a deeply judgmental film, one that damns the lifestyle of these horrible men and their horrible wives even simply by showing them to us. I guess it's not surprising that people have forgotten that lesson during the recent contretemps over Wolf of Wall Street, which many are decrying as glorifying the corrupt stockbrokers it portrays. But it's still annoying that we never seem to remember that depiction does not equal endorsement.

*Literally as I was writing this piece my lovely wife sent me a message saying that she had been listening to "Layla" nonstop because one of our mutual friends had referenced the song on social media after hearing about the Lufthansa arrest. For those who have seen Goodfellas, the heist and the murders and the movie and the song are inextricably linked. Now that's a powerful piece of filmmaking.