“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
With this line, and the well-timed use of ‘Rags to Riches’ by Tony Bennett, Martin Scorsese unleashed upon audiences the story of Henry Hill, in a mob movie that shook the foundations of the operatic aura of The Godfather and filtered it through something more grittier but also more Scorsese-like.
The elegance and classicism that Francis Ford Coppola had brought to the genre with the story of the Corleone family (which played a massive part in the onslaught of ‘New Hollywood’ that emerged during that period; a period that also saw the emergence of Martin Scorsese himself) was replaced with a more intense, ferocious edge that saw Scorsese throw everything on-screen: voiceovers, freeze-frames, long takes, and his trademark use of pop and rock songs over the soundtrack.
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If The Godfather (and even Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America which had also starred Robert De Niro) had taken the tropes and storytelling of the type of films that had once starred the likes of Jimmy Cagney, and filtered them through an increasingly more darker and increasingly adult edge, upping the violence considerably (in the case of Leone’s film, also leaving the audience queasy with some horrifying displays of sexual violence), Scorsese’s adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s novel Wiseguy would be an onslaught of visceral impact and may lay legitimate claim to being the best crime/mob movie of the ’90s.
Where Coppola’s epics had a romanticised quality to them, with an almost monarch/religious/mythic portrayal of The Corleone dynasty (what else is Vito but a King of sorts, with Michael, Sonny, Fredo and Tom Hagen as his sons or princes), with scenes and plots involving the higher echelons of crime families, Goodfellas is more of a street-level portrayal of being a gangster or mafia hood. And for the first half at least, it isn’t afraid to give the audience a sense that Henry (a never better Ray Liotta), Tommy (Joe Pesci on typically fiery form) and Jimmy (De Niro, because of course he’ll be here and fantastic as always during this period) are actually entertaining company, (sometimes intense company, as is the case with Tommy), and we get a sense of why it is that Henry has always felt compelled to be a member of this world and has fallen in love with it.
We see much of the life of being a gangster through Henry’s young eyes during the first act: the power, the fine suits, and the respect that goes with it; things that he acquires as he becomes older and falls further and further into a life of crime, working under caporegime Paulie (Paul Sorvino). Yes, some terrible things happen during the course of the first half of the film – lives are threatened, people are hurt, guns are fired, and a lot of money is stolen during a pivotal robbery at one point – but it almost seduces us with the allure of power that comes with being where Henry finds himself.
During one of the very best moments of Goodfellas, Henry takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on their first date, taking her through the back entrance of a night club, and their entire journey to their table involves a breathtaking Steadicam shot that culminates with them getting the best seats in the house. Of course, crime never pays, particularly in a Hollywood film, and with the second half Scorsese and Pillegi put the screws on to the characters and have the wheels come off, with bad decisions (some of which come from an increasing drug-fuelled Henry) leading to the ultimate betrayal from someone in Henry’s position.
In many ways, Goodfellas was Scorsese back on home ground with its world of crime. It could be said to be something of a spiritual sequel to Mean Streets, with a young protagonist embroiled in criminal activity, but Goodfellas comes with a sprawling narrative that takes place over the course of twenty-five years and yet never feels slow-paced. Scorsese throws every trick he has into a breathless epic, with voiceover, fantastic use of music, and in quite possibly the best sequence in the entire Scorsese canon, the moment when a drugged-out Henry has to contend with a busy day drenched in drug deals, cooking, picking up his brother from the airport, and his paranoid thoughts over a helicopter flying overhead.
It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking that genuinely makes you feel as drugged out as its lead character, drenched in paranoia, an energy that becomes increasingly burnt out before being raised again, and culminates in an arrest that is inevitable.
Coming off the back of the 80s and a period that had seen Scorsese delivers a more eclectic band of work with the likes of The King of Comedy and After Hours, comedic works with increasingly dark tones, Goodfellas marked a return to the territory in which he made his name, and yet it feels incredibly vital, energetic and original in how it tells its story. At one point, as the film is winding down, the voiceover that Henry is delivering turns into him facing directly to the camera and breaking the fourth wall just to hammer home the film’s final point.
Not long after, as if we need reminding that he is an encyclopedia of film, Scorsese places a tribute to famous silent film The Great Train Robbery and its iconic image of a character firing a gun right into the camera, only this time it’s done by Joe Pesci and it’s set to ‘My Way’ by The Sex Pistols. It probably sums up Scorsese in a nutshell; a combination of the dawn of cinema, rock music, gangland violence and the dark, magic spell of the medium. There have been other great Scorsese films since, there were many before, but Goodfellas still remains the absolute pinnacle of his career and in the top tier of American crime films.