by Daniel Suddes
Goodfellas (1990) – Director: Martin Scorsese Screenplay: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi Starring: Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci Oscar Count (1) – Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci.
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”
This is the opening line of narration, the film sets up the traditional Hollywood view of gangster life – one of glamor and wealth. This is immediately subverted by the fact that, immediately preceding this, a scene of drastic violence and desperate violence was shown.
So defines Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film that utterly destroys the classic gangster film and rebuilds it from the ground up. Every single crime film that came after (including Tarantino’s oeuvre) owes a deep debt to this film. Goodfellas was Scorsese not only trying to come to terms with the depiction of crime on film (which, at the time, had quite abandoned its Hays Code descriptions but had come very close to doing so) but with his own career. After Raging Bull, Scorsese struggled artistically to rediscover his muse. In doing so, he directed some excellent films (including The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ) but nothing that had the raw energy of his earlier works. With Goodfellas, he returned to his roots (the underbelly of city life) and revitalised himself artistically. The film was as much as Scorsese trying to save himself as it was about Henry destroying his.
Certainly, such a personal film that was made with the studio system is an extraordinary accomplishment.
You probably alreadyknow the film. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, who has never been able to surpass this role) becomes a gangster as a teenager. He befriends a variety of people in his profession, including Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the fowl tempered Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). At first, life is good. Hill even manages to find a wife inKaren (Lorraine Bracco) and raise children. But his life comes crashing around him when he becomes involved in the drug business. It ends when Hill, broken, having to say goodbye to his life that would have killed him. Yet he still longs for the days when he was somebody.
There are many different ideals to talk about in the film. Obviously, most remember the performances, particularly Pesci’s. This is understandable. I have always enjoyed the one by Lorraine Bracco. She plays the only character who is really an outsider in this world.
There is a constant state of desperation throughout the film. Everything (from the camera to the editing to the performances) is quick and direct. There are so many tracking shots (including a famous one of Hill being led through the back door of a nightclub) to show Hill’s sense of the world. Due to his position, he could have anything he wanted. There were no barriers in this world.
Except, of course, for the ones that Hill creates himself. The final act of the film no longer possesses that open view. It is stilted, fragmented, and shows Henry’s train of thought. This is actually some of the most creative uses of editing and cinemtography since the French New Wave – and no one ever seems to notice. Maybe because people are too focused on the things that this work conveys – it still affects him.
This is all exemplified in the classic “Do I amuse you” scene. Everyone knows it – it is when Tommy supposedly threatens Henry after Henry refers to him ad a funny guy. Yet it is not the dialogue that that makes the scene. It is what remains unsaid. The camera rapidly cuts from the crowd, to Tommy, and back. Suddenly, everything goes quiet – the calm before the storm. The payoff, of course, is that nothing happens. But that sense of danger is what makes Henry Hill’s life. There are moments of glory, and moments of fear and dread. After a while not even Henry could tell the difference.
People all seem to emphathise with the plight of Henry Hill. It is not that everyone knows this lifestyle. It is that everyone goes through the stages of life that Goodfellas depicts. The vigor of youth gives way to the exhaustion of middle age. This is the power of the film. It is not just a gangster film (although it does embrace the violent aesthetic), it is a film about life and work. These are, after all, just “blue collar guys”.
I have explained why the film is great, but why is it among the greatest films of all time?
Because it is one of the greatest filmmakers in history being honest to his audience for the first time in a long time. Filmmakers are at their peak whenever they look inward to see what motivates them. Scorsese had almost lost his way. If anyone had needed an introspective look into their psyche, it was him. Luckily, he found it.
Goodfellas, with its impressive credits and its deep, personal examination, had no right to come out of Hollywood. But it did, and we should all be very thankful.
DID YOU KNOW? The word ‘fuck’ is used an average of two times per minute of footage. Most of the time it comes from the mouth of Joe Pesci.