When Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy, he said that he wanted to "get hold of a soldier in Napoleon's army". He wanted, in other words, the observations of an ordinary player in the drama, stripped of all the spin and legend-making that surrounds the leading men. Martin Scorsese as a director has often excelled in finding the remarkable, striking or shocking in ordinary surroundings, and of using subtle changes in storytelling (including his patented use of music) to wrong-foot his audience. The combination of these two talents is thereby a match made in heaven, and when you marry it to three cracking central performances, Goodfellas becomes a truly great film.
There is a very fine line in cinema between depicting something in painstaking detail and glamourising it. Films as varied as Green Street and Death Wish have fallen into the trap of praising something utterly wretched and despicable in their (alleged) desire to be as accurate and realistic as possible about the people involved. So often criminals in crime dramas or thrillers are set up in the beginning as the people whom we should revile, but their exciting exploits and rebellious attitudes (as written by Hollywood) can often make them more exciting than the law-abiding citizens (especially when Kevin Costner is involved).
Goodfellas, like Killing Them Softly more than two decades after it, succeeds because it rejects any rose-tinted picture of a life on the wrong side of the law - and does it without it feeling like a moral lesson being hammered into our heads. But where Andrew Dominik's film set its criminals up as lowlifes and then made them sink lower, Scorsese pulls us in slowly, offering us the romantic or stylish side to Italian-American crime and then pulling the rug from under our feet when it's too late to run away. Starting the film in media res with the death of Billy Batts is not just a way of avoiding it being a run-of-the-mill 'rise and fall' story: by starting at the point at which things turn, we know from the outset that however good it seems, it won't last and it won't pay.
Any romance that remains within Scorsese's film is very much ironic, with his attention to detail and knowledge of his own heritage being used to make the more violent and graphic aspects ring all the more true. With The Godfather and its sequels, there was always an element of nostalgia for 'the old country', for the traditional structures of Sicilian life and the Mafia's role in preserving that order. Goodfellas acknowledges this heritage (and, through De Niro's presence, the influence of Francis Ford Coppola's work), but the families it presents are dysfunctional and undesirable; the man are aggressive, unfaithful and two-faced, while the women are either downtrodden, air-headed or too drugged up to care.
One of the most common themes of crime films is the idea of people turning to crime because living a conventional, law-abiding life doesn't bring the comfort or level of luxury which people crave or covet. Films about con artists, such as Catch Me If You Can or The Sting, often set up straight-ahead characters as being fundamentally feeble, poor and undesirable in a bid to make the lifestyle of their leading characters seem more attractive. Goodfellas cuts straight to the chase in this regard: Henry Hill becomes a gangster because he likes the riches it brings, and because making a lot of money by robbing or scamming people is easier than working an honest, badly-paid job. The film tricks us into rationalising Henry's actions, so that we berate ourselves when things go south, cursing that we should have seen it coming.
In a further comparison with The Godfather, Goodfellas is very interested in the way that criminals operate like dysfunctional families. There are the same concerns about blood and race (Italian vs Irish), the same rivalries and jockeying for position, and the same mix of respect and dread which surrounds the paternal figure. But where Michael Corleone is an insider desperate to get out of the family business, only to be pulled back in repeatedly through his loyalty, Henry is an outsider for whom Paulie serves as a surrogate father. In both cases the leading men feel pressured to act a certain way or fulfil certain roles based on the expectations of the father figure, backed up by tradition and their shared values.
So much of what makes Goodfellas great lies in the manner of its storytelling. In the excellent making-of documentary Getting Made, Pileggi and Scorsese discussed the importance of Ray Liotta's voiceover, with the emphasis being on the language used rather than its use to move the plot along. Rather than being used to "patch a little crack in the script", as Pileggi put it, the voiceover gives us a detailed insight into Henry's thought process; by giving us the little details and observations about daily life, he feels more like a real person. As his reactions grow more believable, he becomes more relatable and we get pulled further in, going along with his decisions even as the fear eats away in the background.
This approach is further reinforced by the use of music. In the post-Quentin Tarantino world, where using unusual, sometimes incongruous pop songs to accompany a scene is practically normal, it's easy to forget just how skilfully Scorsese marries music and moving images. His seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge means that he very rarely goes for the obvious or mediocre choice, and his taste is excellent. No-one else would have chosen to put Cream's 'Sunshine Of Your Love' as the backing to the sequence where Robert De Niro decides in his head to do away with those involved in the Lufthansa heist. Watching it back several times, it makes the scene all the more complete, to the point where it doesn't work without it.
In his review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Mark Kermode said that all of Tim Burton's films were "attempting to burst into song." Scorsese may not have made a bona fide musical since New York, New York, but he has retained his intuitive understanding of how music can convey a character's innermost thoughts. Even when he's cantering through a lot of plot to move things forward in a montage, it feels deft and personal rather than being padding. There is no better example of this than the sequence designed around 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominos: it flows perfectly, possessing the spot-on timing and choreography that Stanley Kubrick achieved with his SteadyCam shots, but without being clinical or drawing attention to the artifice of the situation.
The whole film looks excellent, thanks in part to the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who had previously worked with Scorsese on After Hours, The Colour of Money and The Last Temptation of Christ. He captures the period feel to a tee, bringing out just enough of the colours and styles of the setting without it feeling like a pastiche. His understanding of Scorsese's visual style was so precise that very often little coverage of a given scene was needed; shots like the long track through the restaurant were shot multiple times from the same position, rather than shooting with multiple cameras at once and then stitching the best bits together in the edit.
The central performances in Goodfellas are first-class, with each of the three leading men being given a chance to shine. Ray Liotta is terrific as Henry: you can see and appreciate the amount of research and preparation which he put in, and yet it's not mannered or restrained - he lets loose when he can and is just guarded enough when he needs to be. Robert De Niro is great as Jimmy Conway, bringing all his familiar skills to the party but working hard in every scene to be true to the character rather than just leaning on past successes. And Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his performance, is a firecracker, managing to be impulsive and dangerous without seeming over-the-top. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Paul Sorvino as Paulie and the smashing Lorraine Bracco, who beautifully balances Karen's desperation, jealousy and feeling of being in slightly over her head.
Goodfellas is a great crime film and one of the highest peaks in Scorsese's illustrious career. While it does lose a little momentum in the last 15 minutes, everything up to that point is nigh-on perfect, with great performances being matched by a tight script and highly proficient direction, creating a compelling cinematic experience which more than holds up to repeat viewing. It remains one of the greatest films of the early-1990s and one of the benchmarks against which all subsequent crime films must be measured.
Plot: Based on the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi about the real life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) - a low level New York mafia member who turned F.B.I informant. We're shown his life from childhood, his induction to the local 'family', and his subsequent rise in status alongside pivotal figures Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Then it all starts to go wrong as Henry gets involved with drug dealing and loses the trust of his partners in crime.
What more can you say about Goodfellas that hasn't been said already? This is such a cinematic classic that it's been reviewed and dissected while topping numerous polls and lists throughout the years since it's release. Those who may not have seen the film are still, at the very least, aware of it and the impact it's had on the genre and other directors. It's arguably Scorsese's strongest and most iconic work and is responsible for influencing a new generation of filmmakers who, to this day, are regarded as some of the best of recent times; Quentin Tarantino borrowed heavily with its eclectic use of songs on the soundtrack, playing them out to sudden bursts of violence and Paul Thomas Anderson has emulated its long tracking shots while introducing numerous characters within the story. These are just a couple of notable directors that have so obviously learned from Scorsese's expertise. That said, Scorsese himself had already trialed these approaches in his 1974 masterpiece Mean Streets but it's Goodfellas where he honed these techniques to perfection and it's this film that often takes the kudos.
When you look back at Goodfellas, it's easy to take it for granted. Many of the stylistic flourishes are now par for the course but Scorsese was majestically showcasing the technical possibilities of his craft; There are flash cuts, freeze frames, crash zooms and montages, all expertly executed and aided by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and edited with consummate skill by Thelma Schoonmaker - which make a huge and important contribution to the pace and vibrancy of the film. There is rarely a moment when the camera is static and it's this very approach that's required for, not only the plot to move at a brisk pace, but for us as viewers to feel involved in the events. In true pugilist style, Scorsese bobs and weaves through the lives of the characters which brings a real sense of excitement and one that makes us complicit in the actions that take place. If there ever was a comparison with The Godfather's then that comparison ends in how Scorsese conducts his business here. Coppola conducted a very operatic approach where we were left as mere bystanders to the inner workings of organised crime but Scorsese takes us closer. We are no longer eavesdropping on 'what offers we can't refuse', we are strictly being informed of the code at the heart of these operations and that we should 'never rat on our friends'. It's this very personalised approach from Scorsese that allows us to feel like we are part of this world. He takes us by the the hand and literally walks us through it with the Copacabana nightclub tracking shot a sublime example that allows us to involve ourselves in this dark but glamorous existence. It may not be the extravagant wedding of The Godfather but what it is, is an insight into the more inner-working-class elements and the roles of the foot-soldiers that make the crime syndicate tick.
In achieving such a personal result, Scorsese adopted a very meticulous approach and a great attention to detail. Surprisingly, a lot of improvisation and ad-libbing where allowed in rehearsals but Scorsese done this so he could allow the cast to be free and natural and he then formed this freedom of expression into transcripts that would work in a revised script. One of the biggest examples of this was Joe Pesci's frighteningly volatile portrayal of Tommy DeVito and his "funny how" speech which was actually based on an experience that a young Pesci came across while working in a restaurant. When Pesci relayed the anecdote to Scorsese, he decided to include it in the film but didn't include the scene in the shooting script, so that Pesci's interactions would elicit genuinely surprised reactions from Ray Liotta and the supporting cast. This is just a small example of Scorsese's approach to authenticity throughout the production with his cowriter Nicholas Pileggi also using exact quotes from his discussions with the real life Henry Hill - which resulted in the key voiceover that we hear throughout the film. As always, the method work of DeNiro played a part too; it has been said that he was directly in touch with Hill as well to enquire about the mannerisms of Jimmy Burke - the inspiration behind his character Jimmy Conway. Apparently DeNiro wanted to know the minutest details right down to how Jimmy held his cigarettes and how he applied ketchup to his meals and DeNiro's also had a watch and a pinkie ring to match it every outfit he wore onscreen.
It's needless to say that Goodfellas is an ensemble piece and it's the commitment from the whole cast and crew that bring this experience together and the actors really excel across the board. Relatively unknown at this time, this was the film that essentially introduced us to the abilities of Ray Liotta. Despite him not being an established leading man, he is an absolute revelation as Henry Hill as he manages to capture the youthful naïveté of a young man caught up in the glamour and Lorraine Bracco (rightfully Oscar nominated) matches him as Karen, his equally impressionable wife who gets way in over her head. A huge portion of the film relies on these two central characters and it often surprises me that they don't get mentioned as much as they deserve. Much of the attention went to Joe Pesci and his Oscar winning portrayal of Tommy and it is, admittedly, very hard to ignore his frightening volitility whenever he's on screen. There's also strong and intensely reserved work from Paul Sorvino and DeNiro, as always, shows charismatic class in what is essentially a lesser role for him. He seems happy to take a back seat to the others but whenever he's called upon, his subtle exchanges are very powerful.
As perfect as the cast is, however, Goodfellas could have been very diffferent. Instead of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco we might have had Tom Cruise and Madonna - who were at one point considered. DeNiro could so easily have had Pesci's part but choose to step back and Al Pacino was offered DeNiro's role. Pacino foolishly turned it down for fear of being type-cast and it's a decision that he now openly regrets but when you consider these options the film could have looked quite different. As it stands, though, the entire cast are first-rate and no one puts a foot wrong.
Scorsese is on comfortable ground with Goodfellas and it shows. A tour de force crime film that never let's up and boasts career highs for most involved. The comparisons within the genre will forever rage on but one critic was certain from a very early stage. To quote the late Roger Ebert "no finer film has ever been made about organized crime, not even The Godfather". Many will agree and it certainly ranks as one of director Martin Scorsese's finest moments. This holds its own in any (and every) capacity and, to put it simply, it's a cinematic masterpiece.
I loved the first two thirds of this movie, but it lost a bit of the good pace and the flow in the final act. It was still good, but not as good.
Fascinating story all around, played out magnificently by the entire cast. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci were especially amazing.
Music was fantastically fitting, the editing was slick, the cinematography was mostly alright, and the production was surprisingly great. I was not expecting this movie to be so well made in that regard. What brought this movie down a peg for me was the feeling that it was a little too cluttered. I understand that this movie is based on a true story, and that Scorsese was probably trying to be as accurate as possible, but I didn't find it that enjoyable to go through every single little moment and detail in the story. You could definitely shave off like a dozen minutes off this movie.
I didn't feel like I fell in love with it enough to want to see every little detail.