“Goodfellas” is my favorite film by Martin Scorsese. It’s a fast paced roller coaster narrative of Irish street kid, Henry Hill’s experience in the mob-dramatized from his real life as part of the Gambino crime family of New York.
“How am I funny?,” the Lufthansa heist, Spider takes it in the foot and then in the chest, Morrie’s Wigs, Cream’s piano montage, Billy Batt’s demise followed by an early morning breakfast stopover at mom’s, and Henry’s helicopter paranoia. All of these elements are assembled to depict the perceived glamour and undoing of street level hoods, proud to steal and dress in the finest threads while bedding dames behind their wives’ backs.
Scorsese along with Nicholas Pileggi uncovered something special when they adapted “Wiseguy” (Pileggi’s book) for the screen. I think they struck a nerve because they showed these guys as men doing a routine living. There was a process to their deeds. Give a cut of your theft to the man above and keep the rest for yourself. Above all else, stay off the fucking phone. Get out of line and get whacked, unless you’re a made guy. This is all code, normal to Henry and his cohorts (Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway; Joe Pesci as Tommy DiSimone).
Moreover, the wives understood this behavior as well. Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) knew these guys were not 9 to 5 husbands and the more it occurred, the more normal it all seemed. Including when the FBI presented a warrant to search the premises.
Scorsese took the best approach by not judging the actions of these raw criminals. They dressed well but they weren’t reluctant to draw blood if an insult was tossed their way. Pesci in an Oscar winning best represents that philosophy. Scorsese, with his regular editor, Thelma Schoonmacher, are not shy about the violence. Watch how Jimmy and Tommy beat up a made guy. DeNiro just stomps his dress shoes into the guy’s face over and over. Pesci pistol whips him but before he can shoot him, he breaks the gun, on the guy’s face. The romance of gangster life quickly undoes itself in moments like this. As Henry notes, your friends come at you with smiles before they whack you.
Ray Liotta is Henry, the primary narrator and centerpiece of the film. Most of the story is from his perspective. I’m sorry that Liotta didn’t get much award recognition. He really deserved it. His voiceover narration is superb. It gives a feeling like I’m talking to Henry in a bar with his tales of Mafia code and life in the criminal world. The voiceover is conversational. He’s got great expressions of disregard, anger, and intense, raging fear on screen. Watch the scene following his 3rd act incarceration where he argues with Karen over the last of their drug supply being flushed down the toilet. It’s not so much a party anymore. The manic response couldn’t feel more real.
Liotta and Bracco have sensational chemistry together. The courting nature when they first meet followed by the ongoing bickering in married life. There’s a great hysteria to them. Bracco got a nomination for her role. She deserved it.
Scorsese is a master at filming basic gestures as well to show the nature of these mob guys and their crimes. A key folded in a paper is then inserted into a knob and a stash is walked off with.
Even better is how he depicts their incarceration midway through the film. Watch how the head mob boss Pauly (Paul Sorvino) slices onion with a razor for dinner complete with steak broiling, pork sauce and even lobster. Scorsese and Pileggi found it important to depict how attractive this life could be, despite a stretch in the joint or the violence that might come. Pay off the right guys and you could live like kings.
The master director doesn’t stop there. His selection of doo wop and rock period music paints the historical palette of the 50s through 80s. Music was being played and life was happening all the while an underhanded way of crime and violence occurred.
One of the best blends of film and song occurs during the classic one shot steady cam where Henry escorts Karen through the back way of the Copacabana. It’s one of the greatest scenes ever in film. The walk journeys downstairs, through the kitchen, past wait staff, cooks, bouncers, people necking and to a front and center table to see Henny Youngman’s stand ups routine. The sequence is accompanied by “And Then He Kissed Me.” It’s a great character description to display a young guy, proud of his gangster image, with a whole world ahead of him and everyone offering their respects while he hands out twenty dollar bills like gift coupons.
“Goodfellas” is one of the greatest mob movies ever made. It’s one of my favorite films. It’s genuine in its grit and language. Every f word uttered is necessary to translate the regard for code or the blatant disregard for the law, loyalty within a crew, or even the ethics of marriage. It astounds me that it didn’t win Best Picture in 1990, losing to “Dances With Wolves.” Perhaps it got cancelled out with fellow mob nominee “The Godfather Part III.”
Regardless, the film struck a chord and pioneered a new way of showing criminals in celebration of themselves while avoiding the inconvenience of the law or the women in their lives or worse, the betrayals among themselves. At any given moment you might rat on your friend and not keep your mouth shut.
Without “Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos” might not have been as welcomed into the pop culture lexicon. Maybe even the films of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie or Paul Thomas Anderson or even other Scorsese projects yet to come.
“Goodfellas” is an electrifying film of unabashed humor, realistic and shocking violence, and authentic culture within a well established crime syndicate.
“Goodfellas” is a must see film.