4 Stars out of 4
“It’s a masterpiece … it is a stunning script, and will make a wonderful film, and a priceless social document.” — Michael Powell to Martin Scorsese via letter
Major Spoilers Ahead.
Yes it was. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime tale Goodfellas is a transcendent work of wonder. It is my favourite film of all time. It enters the mind of a foot soldier named Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). He’s not a mob boss as Brando was in The Godfather nor is he a heavy shooter like Costner in The Untouchables. Goodfellas was originally to be called Wiseguys, based off Nicolas Pileggi’s novel, but it changed to Goodfellas due to a comedic TV series that preceded it, by Brian De Palma. As a result, the title tacks on a rather arrogant yet enchanting prose, one that foreshadows a life much more prestigious than it really is. Observing the story through Henry Hill creates this obscuring objectivity. He’s half-Irish so he can never be made and thus we encounter events to extents that we cannot necessarily understand or directly witness. Fascinating.
Originally Scorsese was hesitant to do another crime film. He said sharply: “There’s no sense in making another gangster picture, unless it is as close as possible to a certain kind of reality, to the spirit of documentary.” Goodfellas looks nothing like a documentary but it truly defines the real, the quintessential mob life (and that is not saying the same thing). The film is crafted in a genius way in which the camera, the music, the characters, and the tone morphs into the film’s conventional arc. This is a rise and fall after all.
It’s, as I said, about a mob soldier turned FBI Informant named Henry Hill, who we, more or less, first encounter through a freeze frame (a dominant contemplative shot by Scorsese here, taken from Truffaut’s Jules and Jim). He says in narration: “for as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” The acerbic irony is that hhereis chums Jimmy Conway (Robert De NIro) and Tommy DeVito) have just stabbed and shot a made man to death. Who? It does not matter (for the sake of plot and spoiler sake) as Goodfellas doesn’t try to behold any orotund need for pretentious conflict, sappy empathy, or any particular goal for the characters. It’s about a character talking us through the process of the business and how his control ultimately snowballs into disaster. The opening scene is indeed the end of the beginning, in which Tony Bennett’s Rags To Riches paradoxically bombasts.
We then precede back to an early life of Henry Hill that Scorsese tries to set up an exposition and curiously justify an early stage of discovering. We first see eyes staring through blinds down at a group of mobsters, having smokes and popping jokes at each other. First and foremost, this is totally Scorsese. The film discovers its own inner-culture through mere observation (as Scorsese did in his Elizabeth Street apartment as a little boy). We don’t understand this atypical lifestyle, though it is one against the status quo but people somehow embrace it. What’s out is in.
The opening twenty minutes is designed as pure mesmerization. Michael Powell told Scorsese that the first twenty pages of the script are ultimately the best of some great films. I would vehemently argue the opening does not transform Goodfellas but it is an astute set up. The realization it poses reeks of ignorance; just capturing the viscerally stimulating highlights (freeze frames, of exploding cars and hugging mobsters, and that it is “all outta respect.”) But we soon find out there are rules “among the Italians, real bullshit” and that this exuberant life never flourishes.
I find Goodfellas really jolts to its gears in the funny guy scene (a scene Scorsese found aroused most audiences the most in the film’s first screenings, which also included about a dozen walk-outs). Tommy and Henry, the centre of attention, sit in a night club, and Tommy tells a story about profanely telling off a cop, having poor consequences. Henry calls Tommy a funny guy and then the scene switches gears right away. Tommy starts to question Henry “what the fuck is so funny about him?” and everything becomes dead silence. Scorsese also regarded that the poignancy of gangster’s lives was that they could be alive one minute, dead the other. Henry’s only escape from the situation is to call Tommy on his serious countenance, in which Tommy laughs it off, and joshingly pulls a gun on Henry (which is what he perhaps could have been thinking). The situation is then dismissed with Tommy chirping to Henry – ”sometimes I wonder about you, Henry, you may fold under questioning.” A sharp foreshadow to the film’s ending. Also noting this whole scene is done in medium shot.
But there is always a woman involved. Her name is Karen (Lorraine Branco), a performance criminally overshadowed, not because she is underused but because it is the most passive and downcast. Effortlessly, Karen starts to narrate the story, balancing out Henry and her’s differed viewpoint on why gangsters do what they do. Fascinating. Karen is abused much in this film, so much so she becomes rough around the edges. But she is seduced, mainly by the trinkets and luxuries. Such as: when Henry brings her into the Copacabana Night Club, via tracking shot, and down through the back route, exposing Henry’s seductive lifestyle and how Karen is besotted by it. That shot ends on a hierarchal note: the foot soldier, Henry, is seated to a table that basically comes from the ‘sky’ and the two enjoy champagne on the house and listen to Bobby Darren at front row.
I know I’m revealing much. But I warned you. I feel I need to cover these elements, because Goodfellas has been given much praise, but for only reasons underlying its realism and ernest provocation of violence. It deserves more. I will provide that to it.
It is important to examine Henry Hill’s frame of mind. Scorsese has always constructed protagonists generally off a spiritual basis – Charlie in Mean Streets, Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. The fact that Henry is more of a materialist correlates to the embodiment of ‘post-gangster- (I call it). One not burdened under irrepressible sin, but more willing to make a profit, which makes sense because the 1960′s and ’70s was the intensive rise of lucrative capitalism (post-World War 2).
Henry wears a cross not for his own complacency but to impress Karen’s parents, after which she tells him to hide it and say he is half-Jewish. Henry eventually becomes overprotective and overly attentive to Morrie, a wig salesman, a man more about the money than the virtue. Henry does his best to save Morrie, but when Conway eliminates most of the sources involved in the Lufthansa Heist (an event we don’t see, wisely, since Henry was never involved), Henry’s efforts are then futile. Jimmy and Henry talk, while walking, freeze frame: “that’s when I knew Jimmy was gonna kill Morrie.” And then they keep walking. It’s an unconventional way to stop the action for a moment, explain these characters’ thoughts, and then continue. That shows confidence in a director. The willing to narrate and teach.
Other materialist aspects fill Henry. At Christmas, he is sure to get “the most expensive tree they had.” Him and Karen, when purchasing a new house, decorate it with an Oriental decor. And then there is Henry’s spiral into the drug underworld, something Paulie (Paul Sorvino), his boss, forbid because drugs could link back to his privy business.
But Goodfellas reaches its catalyst at the arrival of Billy Bats (Frank Vincent). Bats insults Tommy at a bar and later that night, Bats is brutally beaten to a pulp by Jimmy and Tommy, while Henry observes frenetically, locking all the doors. What’s rather perturbing is how Scorsese plays this scene all to Donovan’s ‘Atlantis.’ I’ve pondered this outlandish music choice and have ascertained an answer for the genius choice. Scorsese plays the rather whimsical ‘Atlantis’ to off put the viewer and make this horrible event seem rather more typical than dramatically forced. Scorsese also prevents his violence as unwelcoming in clumsy (especially in the final showdown in Taxi Driver). But if you remember Mean Streets, when the punks had an elephantine brawl in a pool club. During so, Scorsese played paradoxically The Marvelettes “Please Mister Postman”. It shows the explosive, yet degenerately cursory events that take place in this business. Nothing always happens as it should.
Upon the death of Billy Bats, we hit Henry’s breaking point of his life. Tommy had just killed a made man and since Tommy (though one hundred percent Italian) was not made yet, he was essentially a dead man. Realistically, it takes a while. Tommy starts to bump off accomplices in Conway’s heist and everything starts to unfold with terrible consequences. A merely terrific scene involves Tommy executing Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson) in his apartment. Right afterwards when Tommy exits, we rewind to a slow motion shot of Tommy shooting Stacks to “Bells of St. Mary” by The Drifters of Clyde McFadden.
But to get past the gruesome murders, Scorsese does not ostentatiously stage the violence but through an effortless montage. He plays Derek and The Dominos’s Layla, the climax of the song with the piano number, which refers to the film’s rising climax and the creeping arrival of the film’s massive turning point (there are many here). What’s genius about Goodfellas is the spontaneity of everything and how all of this comes to much surprise because Henry can only witness so much, so we can only comprehend so much.
There’s a gut-wrenching scene, magnificently acted by De Niro and Liotta here (of whom the latter I think gives a career performance). They just learn of Tommy’s execution, when they really thought he was going to be made. Via telephone, an underboss (played by Scorsese’s father) tells Jimmy: “He’s gone, we did everything we could.” A line totally indirect but the message is clear. Tommy had crossed the line and he had to be stopped. The reaction of Jimmy and Henry is pungently subtle, with the exception to Jimmy destroying the phone booth. But afterwards, the two sit in silence – ”they fuckin’ whacked him.” At this point, the both of them are at their most fragile, even Jimmy, the most hard-nosed tough guy, breaks down and whimpers. Henry’s life is quickly changing.
From the on, not just Henry or the story, but the style changes. Every mode of Goodfellas has its own mind – the eclectic sourced soundtrack, the kinetic shots, the brooding characters. Henry even spends about 10 years in jail, and to pass that time, Scorsese plays Bobby Darin’s ‘Beyond The Sea’ and then a subtitle soon reads ’6 Years Later.’
But once Henry gets involved in drugs, the camera pulsates, swerving in to close ups, developing itself as bravura at its finest. Scorsese wanted to set up the manner and anxiety of a person completely doped up. The rather gentle music from before escalates into powerfully intimidating rock, such as Mick Jagger and Ry Cooder’s Memo From Turner, The Stones’ Monkey Man, and Gimme Shelter. The camera jolts, swings, and glides into the eyes of Henry as he stares, coke on his nostril, delirious to where he is for a moment. Goodfellas endures this breathtaking final forty minutes with Henry being followed by a helicopter. Is it FBI? Who? Amongst this while mayhem, Henry has to pick up his paraplegic brother and stir the tomato sauce (an modest reference to Henry’s spiralling mindset). Henry, with great angst and languid energy, explains his mission for the day. It sounds like a shopping list. It’s not until the night eclipses on a drastic end. No one dies, but we almost thought so.
The last ten minutes has almost no music. Karen visits Jimmy at a department store, but freaks out and flees when she becomes paranoid that Jimmy hired a few men to kill her. We don’t know the exact motive, we never end up knowing. There are a lot of curious touches around the end, and some very frightening, such as, when Karen flushes the remaining coke down the toilet and Henry reacts in a saddened, despondent fit. He’s really lost himself.
To say Goodfellas is predictable is like call the highlights in sports just as so. Goodfellas captures the delicate, the brutal, the glorious moments in a gangster’s life and gradually alludes to a conclusion when Henry must live the “rest of his life like a schmuck.” Henry picks up a newspaper, stares at the camera, and then we witness a surreal shot of the dead Tommy firing a pistol at the screen (a reference to the end of the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery. And then I’ve missed other notable scenes: the bartender named Spider and the conflicted love affair between Henry and a skimpy doxy named Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo).
Am I missing anything else? Either way, Goodfellas is a crime masterpiece because it takes the curiosity and ultimate obsession of guns and violent (introduced in Hawks’ Scarface) and tells a non-fiction story through fictitious characters. The film is so honest it is border line naturalistic. Scorsese wasn’t interested in homaging other films to exploit his smarts; he was interested in making a crime movie, both brutal yet abrasive with its verisimilitude. Pesci was debating with Scorsese on set of Goodfellas. Scorsese looked at him, coyly, and replied: “John Ford made Westerns. We make Gangster movies. Let’s do that.” And he did: a great one.