Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Stars: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: R

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Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas



Ask anyone on the street to name their favorite Mafia movie, and there’s a 90% chance that they’ll instantly respond, The Godfather.

Not me. Although I really love Coppola’s epic (especially Part II), I’m in awe of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It is the film that Scorsese was born to make, and will be forever cited among Oscar’s most glaring omissions as it lost out to Kevin Costner’s mundane politically correct Native American homage.

Told by a director who witnessed real Mafioso first hand when growing up in New York City’s Little Italy, Goodfellas transforms Nicholas Pileggi’s best-selling Wise Guy into a peerless screenplay about the rise and fall of foot soldier Henry Hill and his mobster buddies. Not only does the film paint the most realistic portrait ever created about the mob, but Scorsese is at the top of his game with his dynamic camera movement, creative editing, and musical juxtapositions. Never again can I ever hear “Layla” without visualizing a montage of bloody corpses--in a parked pink Cadillac, inside a dumpster, frozen on a meat hook.

This is one of the few cases where voice over narration works; in fact, it’s absolutely necessary for such a story. With their insider’s point of view, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen are able to expose the lifestyle of the mob--initially illustrating what makes it so appealing and later revealing the inner Hell that its members experience when their world explodes in chaos. Their nostalgic look back on the “good days” isn’t all that different from what I’ve heard from successful business people, who live off residual income and investments. Henry recalls how they were treated like “movie stars with muscle” and Karen recalls how impressed she was about this 21 year old kid that was so well connected with the rich and famous:

For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls.

Of course the gangsters’ means of obtaining wealth differs greatly from honest businessmen. They rely on forced respect at gunpoint and were “blue collar guys” (in Karen’s words) since they are continuously looking for the next deal. To Henry and his friends, stealing and extorting money was their job:

If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.

By the end of the film, Henry has changed vastly from the young kid once praised for keeping his mouth shut and never ratting on his friends to an desperate outsider without funds, cut off by the mob boss, and a target for assassination by his closest friend. For his own safety and for Karen’s, he joins the Federal witness protection program and endures his new mundane lifestyle:

Today everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook

Tight construction and a fascinating original storyline provide the framework, but Scorsese’s eye for detail and perfect casting provide delectable appetizers to go with the cinematic entrée. Liotta’s casting works well because he is a new and relatively innocent face, who doesn’t exude the Mafioso look of Scorsese veterans Robert De Niro (playing Jimmy Conway) and Joe Pesci (as Tommy DeVito) and the outstanding ensemble cast of gang members who form the mobster family. Paul Sorvino initially wasn’t sure that he could play the mob head, but he effectively gives off the powerful vibes of a boss that refuses to talk on the phone, hates group business meetings, but controls the neighborhood while hardly moving. Pesci deservedly won the Oscar for his supporting role as a humorous hothead that continually scares his friends with his unpredictability, but De Niro deserves equal credit for his quieter, more controlled hit man. Known for heavily researching his characters and getting the details, De Niro talked with the real Henry Hill to get Conway’s body language, visual stare, and cigarette holding accurate. It all pays off, and Scorsese layers in additional details (shoes, suits, rings, hairstyle, etc.) for authenticity. Note: the oft cited close-up of garlic razor slicing was fabricated on the set without any basis in reality, but it’s still a wonderful touch that gourmet chefs have since imitated.

No one can watch a Scorsese film without recognizing his visual style, and Goodfellas represents a photographic tour de force even though cinematographer Michael Ballhaus failed to garner an Academy nomination. Continually moving, the camera never allows even the longer dialogue scenes to grow static. The scene that knocks your breath away occurs during the now landmark Copacabana scene where Henry sweeps Karen past the waiting line to enter the kitchen area past swiftly moving waiters into the showroom just as Henry’s private table is placed near the front in time for Henny Youngman’s act. Accomplished in one shot with a steadicam (a new invention at the time), this scene mesmerizes the viewer just as much as Karen is swept up by Henry’s charms and show business connections.

Above all, this film simply fires on all cylinders and works as well as any film created in the past two decades. Visually it establishes the storytelling standard for the 21st century that will be difficult to surpass, and I expect that it will look fresh and inspired fifty years from now. That’s what happens when a genius director matches up with his dream material, and Goodfellas represents the pinnacle of Scorsese’s oeuvre—no mean feat when you consider his other films made with Robert De Niro at the core. Thankfully, Warner Home Video has finally produced a two disc DVD worthy of its creators that includes commentary by the real life Henry Hill, along with four short documentaries to give us a glimpse behind Scorsese’s craft and work ethic.


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