Truly Great Movies: Goodfellas (1990)
“You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, :You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.: You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys.” – Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas
Goodfellas is one of those rare gangster movies that doesn’t get caught up in its own unique improbability. Sure, it’s rampant with stereotypes, over-the-top mayhem and hammy acting, but that is the essence of its charisma. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas is the antidote to The Godfather. Whereas Coppola’s saga feeds on its own dignified and quiet melodrama, Scorsese’s crime tale is gritty, grasping and utterly believable in its own in-your-face honesty.
Based the true life story of minor mob underling and jack of all black market trades Henry Hill, Goodfellas is a marvel of storytellingand filmmaking genius. The screenplay is based on true crime author Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, a unique inside look at the mind of a career mob criminal. Pileggi himself co-wrote the script, and would end up collaborating with Scorsese again on another one of his great films: Casino.
Thanks to Scorsese’s eye for detail, the marvelous script, and Ray Liotta’s smarmy but charming performance as Henry Hill, Goodfellas captures the viewer’s undivided attention from the opening scene. These are not “noble” anti-heroes or hapless victims. Hill, along with his cohorts in the Lucchese crime family, works his way up through the ranks like a hungry pack dog. These are not your grandfather’s mobsters, lounging in impeccable suits and charming show girls. Scosese’s “goodfellas” clamber and scramble for every scrap of the good life they can get their hand on. There are no hushed meetings in stately mansions or dignified war councils. Meetings (and firings/”whackings”)in this mob world take place in seedy back rooms and tacky restaurant “fronts”. Henry knows he’s living on borrowed time. He’s going to live the high life while he can.
We see Henry’s rise from plucky,lackey teenager to go-to guy for head Lucchese honcho Paulie. His main cohort in this adventure is the brash and calculating Jimmy “the Gent” Conaway (Robert De Niro). Both Henry and Jimmy can never be “made” mob men of the inner circle due to their ethnic backgrounds. They aren’t pure Italian, but the bosses use their talents nonetheless. There’s also the hot-headed and explosive Tommy (Joe Pesci), whose vanity and pride run tandem with his need for pointless and brutal violence.
The supporting performances by talented actors such as Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s long-suffering wife Karen, and Paul Sorvino as Paulie, make each scene utterly fascinating. The setting is at times both frightening and illuminating. It’s a dirty, low-down, dangerous world, but it is tough to look away from the spectacle.
The dialogue and action is lifted virtually line by line from Henry and Karen Hill’s own interviews and accounts. Their oblivious honesty is as disarming as it is alarming. Little real-life details intriguingly break up the many tense scenes of criminal activity. As the Hill family rises in prominence, Karen decorates the apartment as those with money and no taste would. The living room is carpeted in leopard-print and furnished with black leather. There’s even a television that magically appears from a behind the wall. Such tacky luxuries are worth dying for – if you are a Goodfella.
Scorsese drops the viewer down into Hill’s world with no pity. For Hill and his counterparts, life is short and uncompromising, with a few brief moments of victory. Hill moves from petty theft to full on felony larceny, and finally to drug dealing in quick succession. Along the way, he goes from a smooth-talking, sharply dressed con man to a fidgety, paranoid mess, threatening his position in the very world he cherishes.
Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker does the best work of her career with this film. Each frame ticks by with perfect continuity and tempo. Alongside the nostalgic and engrossing soundtrack which brilliantly (and appropriately) uses popular songs from the 60s and 70s, Schoonmaker’s editing is right on target. Try and hear the last refrain of “Layla” without thinking of this film’s iconic montage showing the bloody cleanup of the Lufthansa Heist. The final scenes of Henry’s days as a “goodfella” utilize jump cuts to perfection. Henry may have lost his touch, but Scorsese is right on track.
Overall, Goodfellas is one of those rare combinations of sublime casting, excellent source material, magnificent directing and perfect editing that is difficult to achieve. The story of Hill’s rise and fall never ages and never ceases to be relevant or entertaining. Somewhere, Henry Hill is grinning. He got the last laugh AND the elusive fame he so craved after all.