- Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
- Written by: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi. Based on Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi.
- Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Christopher Serrone, Frank Vincent, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Catherine Scorsese, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Samuel L. Jackson.
- Rated: R.
When Martin Scorsese’s crime saga Goodfellas was recommended to me, I asked how it was in comparison to The Godfather. To be fair, the two aren’t really comparable. Goodfellas is a dazzling showcase in the best spirit of modern filmmaking, while The Godfather burns more slowly as an old-fashioned family epic on a grander scale. In my book, not only are they fairly equivalent in artistic quality and entertainment value, but they’re complementary. To watch The Godfather followed by Goodfellas would be the ultimate crime cinema experience, a clash of old and new and a vivid portrait of over 100 years of organized crime.
But enough fantasizing about double billings. Goodfellas follows Brookly native Henry Hill’s rise to - well, not to power, nor to notoriety - prominence, we’ll say. He’s played by Christopher Serrone as a teenager and Ray Liotta as an adult. Henry’s enamored with the glamorous life of a “wiseguy”, as he so coins his profession. “To me that was better than being president of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world,” he raves. Henry drops out of high school to join the mob across the street. For awhile, times are good, as long as you make sure to shine your shoes and bribe the right cops. What’s so engaging in these early scenes of Goodfellas is the sense of family. When Henry gets arrested and eventually let off, the whole gang arrives to congratulate him in a group hug. Dinner together at the club is a jovial affair.
Early scenes establish the other key players. Paul Sorvino is Paul Cicero, the Don Corleone of the Goodfellas family who rules his miniature empire with a level head and no-nonsense disposition. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is a volatile hothead with the world’s itchiest trigger finger and the world’s best mobster voice. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) is “Jimmy the Gent”, a man known for his robust tipping as well as for having no qualms with murder. After all, as Liotta reasons by way of voice over, sometimes somebody gets whacked. It’s the business. In the spirit of other gangster movies, the background is populated with a myriad of interchangeable mafiosos. At the very most most you have to know five characters well and another ten by sight to follow along.
Liotta’s unctuous voice over is crucial to the film. We are mobsters looking into the mirror, not observers spying on mobsters. When Henry, now in his early 20s, meets and marries the feisty Karen (Lorraine Bracco), she joins in the narration. The duo spend a lot of time convincing themselves everything’s okay. When a teenage Henry’s father gets a letter from his school explaining his truancy, we see his father beat Henry. But that’s a part of life, right? And of course, sometimes somebody has to get whacked, right? Karen even convinces herself that Henry and company are honorable men who aren’t afraid to take risks to afford a lavish life in a society afraid to do so. Right, they’re perfect models of the American dream.
With Karen comes the literal definition of family, which is often blended with Henry’s Mob family. The mob wives gossip about their husband’s frauds and murders while commenting on each other’s hair and dresses. The kids refer to the gangsters as their uncles, and after burying the body of an insolent gangster one night, Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy stop by Mommy DeVito’s house for a late dinner. Catherine Scorsese, the director’s mother, gives a virtuoso extended cameo performance.
Goodfellas is infamous for its frank and vibrant portrayal of violence. Nearly every other scene contains a murder or fight of some kind. It’s harsh but honest. A lesser movie would’ve diminished its violence, but this isn’t for 15-year old Call of Duty addicts looking for cheap thrills. This is real life, or at least the twisted life we visit while watching Goodfellas.
These early scenes are marked by a sense of fun and entertainment. We enjoy seeing Tommy’s personality clash with the world, seeing Karen and Henry fall in love against all odds, and the heists and jobs the characters pull are ingenious and humorous. Martin Scorsese’s camera work is breathtaking and involving. There are two continuous shots early in the film; the first whirls around the gangster’s favorite bar and haunt, introducing us to amusingly-named background characters, while the second follows Henry and Karen walk through a night club from the back door, through the hallways, the kitchens, and through the main dining room.
But the good times aren’t to last. Cons and tricks give way to the drug trade, and both Karen and Henry become addicts. The camera that flowed so easily and naturally in earlier scenes is replaced by frenetic movements and quick cuts. The voice over is frantic and panicked. The assumption that wiseguys don’t go to jail is tested as the movie goes on, and Henry’s relationships with each of his two families disintegrates. Henry has an affair, and Lorraine Bracco’s best scene comes when she finally confronts him about her suspicions. The mobster quartet of Henry, Tommy, Jimmy, and head honcho Paul Cicero falls apart into a tangled web of lies and deceit. Earlier we had such a sense of trust and even love between these four. By the film’s end, the characters are never sure who’ll try to murder them next. The glorious life of Henry Hill culminates in disappointment and regret.
Martin Scorsese is probably the only person who could’ve pulled this movie off. Much has been said about Scorsese’s childhood, growing up in Brooklyn. It’s clear he has first hand experience with the characters of Goodfellas and has channeled it into art, entertainment, yes, but also a cautionary tale. When talking about Scorsese, the words “Catholic guilt” come up a lot. The most enduring aspect of Goodfellas is that we sometimes think the character’s passion and criminal fantasies may be Scorsese’s forgotten aspirations. If he yearned for freedom and immunity as a gangster, he got the next best thing: a Hollywood director. ☆☆☆☆