A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 1
15th Anniversary Retrospective
1990, R, 148 mins.
James Conway: Robert De Niro / Henry Hill: Ray Liotta / Tommy Devito: Joe Pesci
/ Karen Hill: Lorraine Bracco
There is a small moment in Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS - truly the finest American film of the last 15 years - where it shows how the allure of the gangster and mob lifestyle can attract even the youngest of hearts. In an early scene we are introduced to a young adolescent Henry Hill, who seems whisked away from his daily family choirs and stares lovingly out the window and down the streets at the local neighborhood mobsters.
Scorsese’s camera is as subjective here as it ever has been, and it notices what young Henry notices – expensive suits with luxurious shoes and cuff links; fine and exquisite gold rings that must have cost thousands; cars that jump out and sing of affluence and prestige; and the men themselves that carry an aura of overwhelming power and, most importantly, fearful respect.
In his voice over narration the older Hill, who recounts this situation, explains, “To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.” He would later go on to reveal, “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers.” Judging by the naivety of young Hill at the beginning of the film, well…who could blame ‘em…right?
If Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS is not the best film about gangsters and organized crime that has ever graced the screen than I sure don’t know what is. Yes, there was THE GODFATHER and the overrated GODFATHER 2. The first film, truth be told, was a masterpiece and stirring expose of the mob mentality from a family perspective. It surely set the benchmark for other future mob films. Then there was Brian DePalma’s SCARFACE - one of my favourite films of all-time - which was a much more flamboyant, sarcastically funny, and violent look at the rise and fall of a Cuban drug kingpin.
But, beyond those films and many more, GOODFELLAS stands ahead of the pack for one simple reason – it’s just more intimate than any of those other screen portrayals of lowlifes and gangsters. THE GODFATHER almost seemed to have a mythic fixation with its mob figures whereas GOODFELLAS seems much more matter-of-fact and pragmatic with its focus. We get the more of the minute and personal details in Scorsese’s film than we did it Coppola’s. His 1972 film is still and undeniable classic, to be sure, but GOODFELLAS just breathes with more gritty veracity. Scorsese's work here feels strangely like watching one of those National Geographic documentaries where you are able to have a very up-close and neutral look at something you are otherwise not privy to.
GOODFELLAS, at least at a glance, may seem like a natural progression for Scorsese. He did, after all, make MEAN STREETS in the 70’s, which also focused on wiseguys, albeit on a much smaller scale. Even his later films, like RAGING BULL, had lingering secondary elements of the mob mixed in for good measure. But GOODFELLAS is the film where Scorsese was able to completely narrow his vision down and depict the mob lifestyle with as much attention to the little details as possible. The film is based ostensibly on two sources. Firstly, the screenplay takes its story right out of the real life exploits of Henry Hill as chronicled by Nicolas Pileggi in WISEGUY: LIFE IN A MAFIA FAMILY. Secondly, and to Scorsese’s own admission, the film reflects his own memories of growing up in Little Italy where the mob was a constant presence. Perhaps the young Henry Hill sees the mob as a young Scorsese did as a child growing up. If only Hill turned to film directing.
There is no doubt that the film is Scorsese’s most enthusiastic and personal. I think that the majority of mob pictures take on one of the following two criteria – they either glorify the characters and the violent worlds they exist in or they depict both the personas and the mayhem with such gut-wrenching and perverse detail that no one, in their right mind, would want to become a member of that questionable fraternity. I think that GOODFELLAS is one of the only mob films that manages to achieve both with equal weight. The film does have a definitive sense that the mafia life is an appealing one in terms of the spoils it generates. Who would not want to be filthy rich and powerful? Hill himself, in his early teens, commanded a presence and authority that most adults could not attain. In one early moment he recounts, “One day the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother's groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” Yet, the film sets up a sort of romanticized look at the larger-than-life mob figure and then engulfs the viewer into its seedy and incredibly violent underbelly. In a way, GOODFELLAS is a masterful amalgamation of both an idealized and visceral look at the mob. It’s easy to see why Hill seems so attracted to it so early on and not surprising to see how it all spirals out of control for him later in the film.
GOODFELLAS is not a leisurely film to sit through. Yes, it is long by the conventional length of modern films, but it never feels long. What it does with its extended running time is it frees itself up to seriously explore, look at, and analyze the details, characters and themes. The film does not have a particular unifying story, but it does have ideas, tone, and mood. There is not a plot that monotonously progresses from A to B to C and finally to a cozy denouement. Rather, the film is one of frame of mind – it more or less brilliantly encapsulates what it might actually feel like to live in the mafia. Sure there were lots of good times for the men in GOODFELLAS, but they are mixed in equally with the bad. More than anything, GOODFELLAS creates a lasting and absorbing impression of the power and influence of these men.
How powerful was the mafia as depicted in GOODFELLAS? Well, consider one scene in the film where an older Henry escorts his date to the Copacabana nightclub. Those "ordinary" 9 to 5 people he earlier described would be lucky if they could even bribe their way in to the Copa, but not Hill and his wiseguys. When an oppressively long line awaits the two at the front entrance, Henry soon takes his escort through the service entrance, past the security guards and the off-duty waiters, down a corridor, through the kitchen, through the service area and out into the front of the club, where a table is all ready for them for others to see so that the young couple can be in the first row for the floor show. Scorsese shows this all in one of the single greatest steady cam shots of all-time, without making a cutaway. Hill later recounts, “Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city…. When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.” So, in essence, these guys were extremely powerful!
GOODFELLAS also works marvelously as one of the cinema’s great biopics. The film is based on an actual person – the real Henry Hill, still alive today – whose own life was the inspiration for Pileggi’s book. He was, as depicted in the film, put into the witness relocation program and sent to Redman where he ran an Italian restaurant. However, he was such a wanted man by all of the wrong people that when the film came out in 1990 he was forced to relocate again. Even more rousing is his participation on the audio commentary track for the film’s 15th Anniversary release on DVD this past year, where he reveals that, for some elements of the film, Scorsese remained about 90-99 per cent accurate in the details. While watching the film it feels like this assertion is quite honest.
The film opens by introducing us to a 13-year-old Henry Hill (played by Christopher Serrone). The story is narrated throughout by the older Hill (voiced and later played by Ray Liotta, in a completely career making performance). We are shown New York of the 50’s and, to the young Hill, becoming a member of the mob looks a hell of a lot more enticing than going to school, getting good grades, and then getting some sort of menial job that pays next to nothing. As he states very early on in the film, “As far back as I could remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” and no wonder. He is utterly surrounded by the influence of the mob and to the untainted and unmolested child’s eye, it’s as close to being a super hero as possible, with many more perks. These men had it all – money, women, cars, jewellery, and a hell of a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t. There is an appealing bravado and swagger to these men - and Henry wanted it all.
The film soon chronicles his slow, but assured, rise up the corporate mob ladder. He quickly comes under the influence of the brother of the local mob boss, Paul Cicero (the commanding Paul Sorvino). Paulie is so powerful that he actually gets all of his phone calls second hand and makes those under him respond to those second hand calls for him from an outside line. It is at this point where the young Hill gets a taste of the lifestyle that many adults don’t get and his first snippet is glorious (“I was treated like a grown up. I was living a fantasy... At 13, I was making more money than most of the adults in the neighborhood.")
By 1970 Henry achieves the position of great importance in the organization. He is teamed up with two of his closet associates, the hotheaded of violent-tempered Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, never more charismatic and never more fever-pitched) and the no-nonsense Jimmy Conway (regular Scorsese alumni Robert DeNiro, equally confident and authoritative). Tommy is one of those deceptively likeable guys in the sense that he is small in stature, has a seemingly carefree disposition, and a penchant for making all in the room crack up hysterically, but if you even say the wrong thing to him in the slightest, he is capable of the barbaric.
No more is his ability to make the transition from affable and charming friend to dangerous sociopath more indicative than in a now famous scene early on when he tells a funny story to Henry and his friends at a restaurant. He brings the house down with laughter and Henry rather dryly responds that Tommy is “funny”. Tommy shifts immediate gears and retorts, “Funny how?” The conversation gets to the point where it just may look like Tommy will grease Henry, but alas, he’s just pulling his leg. Yet, there is a point to this scene – Tommy is such an unstable cannon that he can scare even his best of friends into thinking that he will kill them.
Henry does manage to settle down to a family life and marries Karen (the never-been-better Lorraine Bracco). The story, in a rather surprising and democratic move, also allows her to provide a voice over narration to the story, which adds to the film’s effective punch, counterpunch of the themes. As the story continues Henry and his gang begins to get involved in areas that the mob does not approve of in any way – drug dealing. To make matters worse, Henry’s life starts to spiral out of control as he soon starts to “get high on his own supply” and takes on several mistresses, not to mention that he becomes an accomplice to Tommy’s murder of an untouchable, "made" man. It soon becomes apparent that the once gratifying and romanticized life that Henry aspired to live as a child is now tumbling down around him, so much to the point that he soon can’t trust those that are closest to him. In the end, Henry soon realizes that he might have to break two cardinal rules of the mafia (never rat on friends and never say anything to anyone) in order to save his life.
As a drama of characters, GOODFELLAS is a remarkably confident vision. All of the characters are developed fully into interesting personas. All of them demonstrate inherent goodness and vileness, even the once squeaky clean Karen. Moreover, the film is about trust, loyalty, and ultimately the guilt involved with betraying that trust. Imagine going against the will of a friend or family member where you’ll ultimately parachute out of the situation with a slap on the wrist. In the world of wiseguys, the consequences are more devastating, as betrayal is seen as the most contemptible offence imaginable.
The film is intimate and epic at the same time. The story has scope and grandeur, but still does a brilliant job of chronicling the particulars of the rise and fall of Hill over a twenty-year-plus period. Scorsese's eye with the camera reflects these various time periods effortlessly. In the opening moments of Hill’s childhood he paints the screen with lush colors, sweeping and majestic camera shots, and loving close-ups to create the sense of inescapable attraction to the mafia lifestyle. Yet, his technique changes as the film progresses towards personal oblivion for Hill, who is at his peek of drug addiction and ultimate paranoia. There is an extended sequence in the film where Scorsese shows why he’s the finest director of the last quarter century. It’s a sequence that, better than any I’ve seen, is able to get inside one character’s head and reveal their current state of mind. It follows one day in the life of Hill as he tries to do a cocaine deal, cook a great Italian dinner for his baby brother and his family, and deal with the advances of his mistress - all while coping with the enormous sense of paranoia that he is being monitored by police helicopters all day.
This sequence shows Scorsese's command over shots, editing, pacing, and music placement (no one does it better to finer effect than here). What he does is create a fabric that helps typify the mood of the final act of the film. There are several issues Henry deals with here – the sense of anguish about being caught; the sense of anguish of betraying his friends and fellow mob bosses that gave him his livelihood; the sense of anguish of becoming addicted to the lifestyle that the mob clearly shunned; the sense of anguish of getting the drug deal done without being pinched; the sense of anguish of ensuring that his brother stirs the sauce just right so that it does not burn and ruin the dinner…and so on and so on. Henry’s life is taking a nosedive, and we feel his sense of fear.
Much has been written about the film’s incredible level of bloodshed and expletives. Yes, the film is relentlessly violent and vulgar, but all to a point. The violence is not over-the top and exploitative; it’s what it probably would have been like for real – shocking, bloody, and animalistic. Yet, the bloodshed and potty-mouthed language in the film are absolutely crucial elements to help frame the film’s sense of time and mood. These are not straight-arrow characters with the noblest intentions. These are men that are likeable, but with unquestionable mean streaks. Horrendous violence and scatological rhetoric are often tertiary content of a film that acts as a redundant level of filler (see BAD BOYS 2), whereas here it serves to strengthen and accentuate the context.
The film opened in 1990 and soon became a real critical sensation. It also has developed a near cult following on home video and its popularity has only continued to grow (as of this year the film ranks #27 on the IMDB list of the Greatest Films ever as voted by readers). It was nominated for six Oscars, but only took home one, a crying shame if there ever was one. Pesci got a statuette - and a well deserved one - for Best Supporting Actor, but Liotta failed to garner a nomination (this still remains his best work) and Bracco lost Best Supporting Actress to Whoopi Goldberg's role in GHOST, which I still consider the greatest miscarriage of Oscar justice ever. Scorsese, as he did in 1980, lost Best Director to an actor turned first time director. He lost to Robert Redford in 1980 and lost to Kevin Costner in 1990 for his work on DANCES WITH WOLVES. WOLVES, a great film in its own right, was the much more PC and Academy friendly spectacle than GOODFELLAS. Unfortunately for Scorsese, he would lose another chance for a Best Director trophy in1995 to another actor turned director, Mel Gibson (BRAVEHEART). When Gibson and Costner have won Oscars for direction and Scorsese has not, you just know that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
I have said it many times and will allow myself the pleasure of doing so yet again - Martin Scorsese made the very best film of the 1970’s in TAXI DRIVER, the best film of the 1980’s in RAGING BULL, and unquestionably made the finest film of the 1990’s in GOODFELLAS. Now, nearly 15 years since its release in September of 1990, the film still has not aged a day. The film is a cinematic high for taking a subject matter and embodying in it a sense of time and place with its characters, and I have yet to see a better film about organized crime. Maybe even more noteworthy is that the film represents Scorsese at perhaps his most sure-fire and competent, as he spins a yarn that plays out like a hardboiled symphony of the macabre and desolate. Many films sort of leave you once you are done with them and more and more carry a weight of disposable popcorn entertainment – easily digested and soon forgotten. GOODFELLAS is the antithesis of this notion. It has a staying power and vitality that few films are able to achieve. In other, simpler words - it’s a quintessential classic.