Back in ye olden days, the horse and buggy days, the two bits a gander days, or, as they are more commonly referred to now, the VHS days, a majority of film snobs got their classic and foreign film fix sated at their local public library. This is where I repeatedly tried to rent Goodfellas for the first time. The infinitesimal (at least when compared to the once-goliath chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video) mom and pop’s video store I frequented at the time had a copy many moons prior, but it had either been stolen or worn out due to repeat viewings, never to be replaced. I knew for a fact that the library—more oftentimes than not my second option for renting cinema in those days, as I was frequently penniless and they were free to check out to anyone with a membership—had a copy; I had it in my hands once, but then elected to rent Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause instead, not a bad choice, but the wrong one in retrospect since Scorsese’s gangster classic would, in due time, become my best-loved film, a perch it has rested upon for around 15 years, waiting in vain for another film, full of cinematic brilliance, to supersede it. The library’s copy was either lost after my fateful decision that random summer afternoon or the film proved to be so popular, they couldn’t keep it checked in.
It would take a bit of happenstance for me to view Goodfellas. One day in high school, quite by accident, I had to ride the bus home from school, sitting down next to a fellow classmate that I had seen around campus but didn’t know (his name escapes me now, I want to say it was Wes, but that fact has been lost in the ether for the rest of time), and honestly, he was someone that I wouldn’t have sat next to if there had been any other open seats. This might sound mean, but my not wanting to sit next to him didn’t have anything to do with our popularity standings or some other such high school nonsense. Nope, the kid just stunk to high heaven. He always did, probably still does. His demeanor was generally unpleasant as well (his clothing matched his attitude, he wore nothing but black, jeans and all), getting suspended at regular intervals throughout the school year. In addition, he wore adult diapers; something that I would come to find out wasn’t his fault as it was due to a preexisting medical condition, but riding home in a school bus is a chore in itself, even without having to sit next to someone who might—through no fault of their own—soil themselves at any moment. Plus, mountain roads are bumpy and filled to the brim with curves, which I deduced could only hurt my chances in having an incident-free ride home. Soon, apprehension gave way to good fortune as our conversation turned to film and the fact that I had yet to see Goodfellas, which happened to be his favorite movie. Unbelievably, at that particular moment, his favorite movie also happened to be located in his backpack and he also happened to ask if I would like to borrow it, an unforeseen turn in a conversation that I was previously reticent to even participate in. Even though the VHS tape smelled like cigarettes and stale air*, I was happy for the opportunity to finally view it, which I promptly did after my hike up the mountain to my house.
Goodfellas is the film that I have seen the most in my lifetime (only Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Manhattan, and Big Trouble in Little China can compete in the category of “most times viewed” and all will be covered by me on this site at some point); I know and love every beat of the film, each character seems like an old friend come to visit when I sit and watch it for the umpteenth time, and the film’s look—the grain, cigarette burns, and, in a general sense, the emulsion of the film itself—brings me comfort. The cinema classic is so well known to me that it is somewhat intimidating for me to sit down and actually bang out my thoughts on it; there is so much to say, much of it having been said before I’m sure, but here goes nothing. Hopefully, the word count won’t be too excessive in the end.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a gangster film that broke all our perceptions of what a movie in the gangster genre could be. Gone is the glamour and romantic nature that permeated Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series or the jokes and good-times nature of Get Shorty. Instead the master-director adopts a point-of-view style fueled by sudden bursts of brutal violence, the rewards of unearned spoils, and its protagonist’s longing for his former lifestyle. Its structure is a typical 3-act setup that doesn’t so much chart the rise and fall of protagonist Henry Hill but how he is seduced and is fundamentally destroyed by the gangster way of life. During its 145 minute runtime, the narration of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) clues the audience in on just how easy it is to be sucked in by a life that provides its inhabitants with everything they could possibly need and more. Cars, jewelry, women, wads of cash bigger than Andre the Giant’s fists, and most important of all, power and respect, even if the only reason most people give it to them is because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t. This last reason is what gets Henry into the life in the first place. Power and respect is something that the young man has only heard of or read about in books. It’s difficult to obtain as a teen in any situation, but its extra difficult when your father beats you like a snare drum whenever the mood strikes him. This isn’t a problem that the neighborhood gangsters seem to have, especially the ones tied into Big Paulie’s (Paul Sorvino) crew, who have a vice-like grip on Henry’s neighborhood. This fact isn’t lost on him, he sees the power the gangsters wield on a regular basis while looking down on them from the windows of his family’s meager domicile—mirroring Scorsese’s own upbringing and point of view as he was rarely able to venture outside due to a severe case of asthma.
After pulling petty crimes and running errands for higher-ups in Paulie’s gang, Henry gets pinched or, as the gangsters refer to it, “pops his cherry” for selling cigarettes that fell off a truck. From this point on, he is regarded with more esteem and eventually becomes an integral part of a trio of underworld ne’er-do-wells whose criminal enterprising brings in a stunning amount of coin, culminating in the daring Lufthansa heist, netting them $5 million** in cold, hard cash. Rounding out the group is Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro), easily the smartest and most ruthless killer in the bunch, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a mobster who makes the crucial error of allowing his psychopathic tendencies to take over one too many times when it would have been better to not over exercise his clout and let it go without saying. During the middle section of the film—the good times portion if you will—the audience is sucked in just like Henry was and Karen is about to be, thinking this lifestyle might not be so bad after all. Helping in allowing this sentiment to hit its mark is the movie’s most talked about, signature, tracking shot in which Henry and Karen—going out on their second attempt at a first date—arrive at the Copacabana Nightclub and due to his big-wig status, go in via a side entrance, allowing Henry to show off and interact with everyone he comes into contact with. It’s a bravura sequence in which not only Karen but the audience as well is whisked off their feet by Henry and his style of living.
But as we all know, the good times can’t last forever, and in this case, drugs, greed, murder, paranoia, prison, and a healthy dose of tunes by The Rolling Stones accompany our mobster friends on their long trip down the rabbit hole. During the runtime of Goodfellas, violence is innate in every frame, perpetually threatening to bust out at any point and take our breath away. Fittingly, it has a prominent role in the scene that serves as a tipping point for the remainder of the film. In another landmark film moment, Tommy decides to cruelly dispose of a gopher named Spider (Michael Imperioli) during a backroom poker game for merely deciding to finally stand up to his taunts and insults. As a result, the mood of the film changes rapidly. The violent undercurrent of the film has now breached the surface, and the criminals we have spent the last hour and a half getting to know (and, God help us, like) are about to be swept away by the undertow. A sense of dread sets in with the audience and it has become clear that they—and by extension the viewer—must now receive their comeuppance for their past discretions. Death, prison, and a purgatory where egg noodles in ketchup passes for spaghetti in marinara sauce await, a deliverance that none of them have the power to escape.
Goodfellas represents Scorsese at the top of his game, and he not only creates the best film of his career but arguably the best crime film of all time. Despair sets in on the audience in a suffocating manor. Is this really how the world works, they ask? More oftentimes than not, this question is generated after watching a Scorsese film, and it simultaneously serves to limit the film-master from finding a larger audience and strengthen his oeuvre, turning his films into something that is unmistakably his. He has a long history in pointing his lens at subjects that most shy away from and Goodfellas is no exception. Helping to ease the audience’s journey through the belly of the underworld is top-notch acting from all participants. Ray Liotta, fresh off his scene stealing turn in Something Wild several years prior (a performance that in a sense served as a warm-up for playing Henry Hill and helped him land the role) is nothing short of magnetic, fully embracing the shark like vibe and slimy charm of the character. Despite top-billing, DeNiro’s character is really only a secondary one but without question embodies the most dangerous presence in the film. His smile chills the blood, his body language seems to say “That’s right, I’m the shit, but no applause, please,” and once again the actor proves to be a master of imparting all the thoughts and emotions of a character without saying a word. In one of my personal favorite shots in film history, the camera slowly closes in on the actor as he contemplates murdering Morrie, a particularly bothersome compatriot, as well as other members of his crew he deems expendable. As he takes a drag of his cigarette and the camera creeps closer, it becomes obvious to the audience that he has not only decided to off him, but that he will enjoy planning and pulling the strings of the deed as well. Accompanied by “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, the shot is brief, only 22 seconds, but is one of the best in both the director and cinematographer’s (Michael Ballhaus, who the Academy failed to recognize, one of the greatest oversights in the past 25 years) career, and represents full understanding of film language. It’s nothing short of brilliant.
Despite being beat out for best picture by Dances with Wolves, there is no doubting the lasting impact of the film and that Scorsese is in complete control of his craft, telling a story he was born to, in a way only he can. It is a piece of cinema that stands as an indictment of organized crime, but somehow, it manages to resist adopting anything that could be construed as a moralistic opposition. This fact has always amazed me. How a director could grow up in and around this way of living, show it for what it is without any added commentary, all the while still managing to be able to explain crime’s appeal to man in such a succinct and clear fashion blows my mind. Goodfellas, to me, represents Scorsese’s masterwork, a film that contains unpleasant characters and moments; one that never flinches in its examination of the darkest side of human nature. It’s a trip that jangles the nerves and is filled with fierce moments, but for any film lover it’s a journey worth taking. Again. And again. And again.
*So much so that the interior of my book bag smelled this way a week later. Take a second and think about that; I didn’t even think something like that would have been possible.
**Adjusted for inflation: $17.8 million