“Being a Gangster was better than being President of the United States”
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime-drama Goodfellas, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, so what better time to look back at his masterpiece.
As an icon of the genre, Goodfellas is inevitably compared to what is often seen as the crown jewel of the genre, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1975). The two films represent very different visions of life in the mob. The world of Coppola’s film represents life at the higher echelon of the Mafia, wherein Brando’s Godfather is the boss at the top of his family. He lives a life of opulence and privilege. Scorsese’s film represents life at the lower end of Mafia hierarchy. It is about the people that make Don Corleone’s opulence possible.
For the unfamiliar, the film is based on the true-life story of gangster Henry Hill. It is adapted from a book written by Nicholas Pileggi, whose writings would also inspire director Martin Scorsese gangster vehicle Casino (1995). Pileggi co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese. The biopic follows the life of gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), as he navigates the lower rungs of the New York Mafia. The grit and grime of the streets are never far from the screen. He finds himself in a crew working with gangster Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They are overseen by boss Paulie Verio (Paul Sorvino).
Along for the ride, is his wife Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco). Henry and his crew involve themselves in some high stakes armed robbery. After a stint in jail, Henry finds himself low on money. When he discovers the ease and money of drug dealing, he proceeds to import and sell cocaine. He does this in direct defiance of Paulie’s edict to avoid drug dealing. After a drug bust, in order to save himself from mob recourse, Hill “flips” and becomes a government informant. In the Mob world, they are known as “rats,” seen as the lowest type of scum. Hill testifies and imprisons his mob compatriots. Henry finishes the film as he enters the Witness Protection Program.
Battle of the Heavyweights
Henry Hill operated at the lower end of the Mob. Karen Hill is quoted in the film as saying that Henry and his fellow gangsters “weren’t brain surgeons…they were blue-collar guys. And the only way they could get extra money was to go out and cut a few corners”. The violence in the film has the grim aesthetic of Scorsese’s 1970’s work, including the iconic Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The camera doesn’t shy away from the blood and the gore. In fact, the shock of the few sequences of graphic violence has the effect of making the film seem more violent than it realistically is.
So what makes Goodfellas worthy of celebration after thirty years? For one thing, the film was a showcase of acting brilliance. It earned Joe Pesci an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor. The film also went on to be the apex of Ray Liotta’s cinematic career, and one of his only critically noteworthy attempts at leading man status. Additionally, it introduced Lorraine Bracco to the Mafia film genre, a genre she would explore more fully in her recurring role as Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos (1999-2007).
Besides the strong performance by the leads of Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta, the film is brightly lit by a stellar supporting cast. Paul Sorvino shines as Paulie Verio, a low-level mob boss who “didn’t have to move for anybody”. Sorvino’s performance is subtle and focuses on eyes and a menacing glare. Sorvino is able to emote while not needing to do much physically. Near the end of the film, when he discovers that Henry has betrayed him, the look of sadness and betrayal in his eyes says more than words could.
Smaller roles are filled by character actors who shine, even with limited screen time. One standout example is Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low) is a low-level gangster that helps Henry and his crew to rob the Lufthansa airline. After the theft, he badgers Jimmy Conway for his share of the robbery (who never had any intention of paying him). Low plays the role of high-strung and obnoxious Morrie to perfection. He is a marked man, and the more we see of his character, the more his terminal fate becomes inevitable.
The film is full of actors who shine in scenes they are in. Props for the casting go to Ellen Lewis, a frequent collaborator of Scorsese. A high-profile example of this trend is the casting of Frank Vincent who shines as Billy Batts, the loud-mouthed Gambino gangster whose disrespect gets him murdered by Jimmy and Tommy. He memorably tells Tommy to “go home and get your shinebox,” an oft-repeated quote. Frank Vincent ultimately gets his revenge in Casino, in which another of his characters beats Pesci’s character to death. He is but one selection from a movie full of them.
In terms of the leads, what more needs to be said about the genius of Robert De Niro? He is an absolute treasure here, showcasing a poise and mastery over every detail of his performance. The real Henry Hill commented in the past the De Niro called him relentlessly during shooting to ask questions about the real Jimmy Conway (in real life known as Jimmy Burke). He would ask about such minutiae as “how would Jimmy hold a cigarette”? He used these notes to create one of his most iconic performances.
De Niro could always play the tough guy, even in 1990 he had about fifteen years of such experience. But it is in the other moments that De Niro shines. When his friend Tommy is murdered and he learns about it from the upper echelon of the Mob on a payphone call, he reacts initially with trademark violence, smashing the phone and kicking over the booth. But when Henry runs out to check on him, he is blubbering like a baby. It is in moments like this that his performance takes on the shades of grey that make this character come alive.
Joe Pesci’s performance is the least nuanced, mostly because Tommy is not someone who does nuance. He operates at a 10/10 most of the time, he is a full-fledged psychopath. The notable exception involves a scene when Jimmy, Henry and he stop off at his mother’s house, ostensibly to pick up a shovel to bury Billy Batts. They end up awakening Tommy’s mother, played by Catherine Scorsese, mother of Martin. She insists on making them a meal worthy of an Italian mother. He turns down the volume in this scene, and becomes the doting son that is the apple of his mother’s eye. She wants him to “find a nice girl so he can settle down”. The sequence is memorable for the relaxed naturalism of the scene, in which Mrs. Scorsese (a non-actor) seems quite at home with veterans De Niro, Pesci, and Liotta.
She is just one of the non-actors to turn in solid performances. FBI agent Ed McDonald plays himself in the film. He was responsible for arresting Hill and encouraging him to flip and turns the state’s evidence against his Mafia cohorts. He is terrific in his no-nonsense scenes. He knows he has Henry over a barrel. He may just be repeating reality, but just because he did it in real life, doesn’t necessarily mean he can act. But it is a credit to his and Scorsese’s talents that the scenes turn out as well as they do.
As a character, Henry Hill is himself one of the great unreliable narrators. As every other figure in the film is either in jail or dead, we only have his perspective as to what actually happened. At the moments of extreme violence, Henry is always shown as a bystander or helping to clean up after the violence was done. When Jimmy and Tommy stomp Billy Batts to death, Hill is shown as not participating. The Lufthansa heist that forms the apex of his mob career is conducted without his knowledge, and he learns of it on the radio. It forces the audience to consider if we can even trust him.
The film is anchored by his narration, a storytelling technique often decried as a crutch of a poor storyteller. I do agree that it is often overused as a storytelling device. However, in the case of Goodfellas, the narration is essential. If the audience did not get to know Henry through this intimate narration, we would simply see him as a thug, who is not worth caring about. But by getting a glimpse into his childhood, which included beatings by his strict father, we see what drew him into the Mafia world and its pseudo-family. Pathos is the core of what makes this character work.
We may not end up liking him by the end; in fact, we shouldn’t, he is self-obsessed, self-absorbed, and not particularly worthy of redemption. When the FBI is preparing to allow him into the Witness Protection Program, essentially saving his and his family’s lives, his only concern is that they do not place him anyplace cold. He is not likeable, and creating an unlikeable character that the audience still cares about is one tough feat. Liotta brought this character to life and did it expertly. We are not sure if we want him to succeed, but it sure is fun to watch.
A Technical Marvel by a Cinephile
The film is also a standout technically. Memorably, the film features one of the most dynamic uncut long-take Steadicam shots in movie history. When Henry is wooing Karen, he brings her to the prestigious Copacabana nightclub. The camera proceeds to follow them from their entrance through a side door, through the chaos of the Copa’s kitchen, through to their seating in the restaurant. This sequence is genius, not only for its technical difficulty but for its ability to act as a literal stand-in for the eyes of the audience. We are Henry and Karen’s companions through this chaotic walk, where Henry knows everybody and tips them generously. He is the King of his Castle here. We see the flamboyance that drew Karen to Henry in the first place.
Scorsese is an unabashed cinephile, and the obvious influence of such sequences as the long take in Orson Welles’ 1958 classic Touch of Evil can be spotted here. A lesser filmmaker might have gone for a pseudo-Paul Greengrass shaky-cam which would have been dizzying and lacked intimacy. No offense to Greengrass, he actually does it well. It is his pale imitators that have cheapened its aesthetic. It would have allowed less detail to be absorbed by the viewer.
The film’s visual look had much to do with legendary German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Ballhaus plays with colour and light with a painter’s touch. The film uses frequent freeze frames over which character observations are given in voice-over. These freeze frames are perfectly captured moments in time. Blues and reds especially pop, giving the film a dynamic palette.
Scorsese’s ability and willingness to experiment are on display throughout the film, using everything from the aforementioned long take, to the use of rapid editing throughout the film’s climax. Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker experiments wildly with pacing throughout the third act of the film, wherein Henry Hill is being pursued by DEA helicopters. Schoonmaker edits the film’s third act with a jagged edge, using a wide variety of avant-garde editing tricks to mimic the cocaine-fueled paranoia. Even the music has a schizophrenic element, skipping from one song clip to the next, like an amphetamine user who can’t settle on a radio station. From Muddy Waters, to the Stones, to George Harrison, the craftsmanship of the editing is motivated by the musical cues in expert fashion.
Besides his filmmaking, Scorsese is renowned for his cinephilia and knowledge of film history. He has been a strong force in world cinema preservation and restoration, as well as his role as a film professor at UCLA. His cinephile tendencies are quite visible in the last shot of the film. The shot is a flashback in Henry Hill’s mind of the late Tommy DeVito firing a gun head on towards the camera. The striking image can be interpreted as symbolizing the unrest with which Hill would live the rest of his life (he died in 2012). It is also an homage to the seminal 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter. The film is a proto-Western and a trailblazing achievement in early narrative cinema. The scene is both striking and memorable and acts as a jolt that carries the audience into the credits. Like any great auteur, Scorsese wears his influences on his sleeve.
Scorsese’s cinephile tendencies also extend to the minimalist yet memorable title sequence. The sequence, wherein the titles zoom into the middle of the screen, was completed by the legendary Saul Bass, and his wife Elaine Bass. Saul was well known for his title sequences in legendary Hitchcock films North by Northwest and Psycho. Scorsese, like any good cinephile, knows his Hitchcock. Saul’s skills with crafting a striking opening sequence are also on display in the memorable neon-lit intro to Casino.
Musically, the film exemplifies what would become the Scorsese style through much of the last thirty years (with the exceptions of period pieces, such as Kundun (1997) and The Age of Innocence (1993)). The film uses period-appropriate pop music to build the mood and place the audience in its appropriate era. Goodfellas was made in a pre-Tarantino, pre-Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) world, when there was still a novelty to the use of popular music to score a film. Scorsese does it with a dynamic flair, using choices that complement their scenes in a creative way. As an example, “Monkey Man” by the Rolling Stones plays an important role in the Cocaine-induced, paranoia section of the third act. The song itself is steeped in drug-fuelled paranoia. The song itself is steeped in junkie imagery that compliments Henry’s drug dealer persona.
He also places pop music in places where traditional films may have used classical or opera. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a montage where various mobsters who have been killed by Jimmy Conway are discovered by police and onlookers. The sequence is accompanied by “Layla (Piano Exit)” by Derek and the Dominoes. The piece serves the role of a funerary dirge. Instead of reaching backwards to a classical score, he awards rock and roll the status of high art.
Goodfellas also differentiates itself from the typical mob film with its (often quite dark) humour. The film is often quite funny, despite its often dark subject matter. It is a hard balancing act, but Scorsese maintains it throughout. The humour is not always in the dialogue, but is often in the nuanced details—the way Jimmy uses a Ketchup bottle by rolling it in his hands, the giant ostentatious Christmas tree Henry buys after he gets his giant score from the Lufthansa heist. It is these little details and nuances that give the film an incredible repeat value.
Goodfellas remains a contemporary Hollywood classic, something that I think we will be continuing to analyze and appreciate in another thirty years. It successfully combines classic performances with a solid script that captures the grimy reality of its subject. Scorsese directs his actors with assurance and confidence. The film has a hipness and modern flavour to it that inspired series such as The Sopranos ( a series which borrowed much of the talent, such as Michael Imperioli (Spider in Goodfellas, and Christopher in The Sopranos) and Lorraine Bracco. Master storytellers are few and far between, and at his best, Scorsese certainly is.
Even with a relatively long 2 hr 26 minute running time, the film never drags. This is largely due to a master filmmaker like Scorsese and his feel for balance and rhythm. As many good moments as his recent Mob film The Irishman (2019) had, it lacked that economy of storytelling that Goodfellas has, as evidenced by The Irishman’s bloated 3 and a half-hour run time. According to Pauline Kael, in Goodfellas, “every frame is active and vivid, and you can feel the director’s passionate delight in making these pictures move.” Scorsese has spent much of the 30 intervening years attempting to recapture the flair of this film in films like Casino and The Irishman, and in its own way, Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
But as good as those films were, and they are, Goodfellas captured lightning in a bottle in a way that cannot be recreated. The cast was right, the story and script were right, the creative juices flowed. It worked because it was a modern take on a classic story of power, betrayal, and murder, told by the right people, at the right time. You cannot replicate that. Just as Taxi Driver was a perfect film that could only have been made in its era, Goodfellas is the same. You can’t go home again.
- Drew Williamson