Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 26min

In one of Goodfellas’ most iconic scenes, Henry Hill sits with his fellow wise guys in the Copacabana night club, listening to his good friend Tommy DeVito send the group into fits of laughter. “You’re really funny,” Henry chuckles. “What do you mean I’m funny?” As the uproar fades into dead silence, it quickly becomes apparent that Tommy’s fragile ego has taken it as an insult. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” The tension is thick in the air for a full two minutes, before the joke is revealed and everyone bursts into laughter again. Perhaps Henry can brush off the emotional manipulation easily, but Tommy’s instability is noted, and it isn’t the last time we will see him come down hard on those who offend him. The only difference is that in most instances, he is not joking, and we bear witness to his full, brutal anger being unleashed in extreme acts of violence.

“Funny how?” A solid contender for the best scene of Joe Pesci’s career, drenched in the red lighting of the Copacabana.

Tommy may be the best encapsulation of the gangster lifestyle’s volatility, though the backstabbing and bloodshed that comes with it extends far beyond the reach of his revolver. Henry is fully aware of its dangers, but while he is riding its sweet highs through the golden era of the 60s and 70s, he is more than happy to keep doing the mob’s dirty work. In this way, Martin Scorsese seems to be holding up a mirror to The Godfather films from two decades earlier, and it is even a curious turn of fate that Goodfellas was released in the same year as The Godfather Part III. Where Francis Ford Coppola’s series is operatic in its classical, sprawling narrative though, Scorsese’s film races forward with all the momentum of a live rock concert, transplanting the ‘rise and fall’ gangster storyline from high-flying mafia bosses to a true story based in the world of their low-ranking, blue-collar subordinates. Unlike the members of the Corleone family, our antihero Henry Hill was not born into any sort of privilege or destiny, as his very first line of voiceover following the opening scene informs us.

“As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

A forward tracking shot, red lighting, freeze frame on a close-up, voiceover, needle drop – a brilliantly stylistic way to launch this narrative into action.

With a brisk tracking shot swooping in low, a freeze frame on his face, and the big band number ‘Rags to Riches’ punctuating the transition, we are energetically brought into Henry’s innocent childhood, looking up to the mobsters who populate his borough of New York City. The scene we just witnessed of him, Tommy, and the third member of their trio, Jimmy, finishing off the half-dead man they have in their car trunk will be returned to later, but for Goodfellas’ first act Scorsese is all about setting the scene, revelling in the thrill, freedom, and community that this Italian American crime ring has to offer. Henry’s voiceover is there with us every step of the way as well, coating his memories in layers of nostalgia that are powerfully backed up by the wall-to-wall soundtrack of jazz, pop, and rock hits from the 50s and 60s, which at times even seem to comment on the action.

The narrative flies by in the opening scenes of Henry’s childhood, ingratiating himself with the gangsters and floating by on brilliant soundtrack of 50s and 60s hits.

As if in control of a television remote, Henry’s narration holds absolute power over the pacing of his story, pausing the tape to add extra information and flashing through montages of his youth with all the energy of a fresh-faced gangster. At this point in Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas clearly marks his most playful work yet, matching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in its grittiness, though carrying a transcendently suave charm in Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing and Michael Ballhaus’ energetic camera that so many subsequent films would emulate.

Freeze frames…
…slow motion…
…and dolly zooms. Goodfellas is a hugely energetic in its pacing, but Scorsese’s cinematography and editing propels it forward as well.

It is especially through the virtuosic cinematography that small moments are given even greater weight with tracking shots in and out of faces, and that larger scenes become some of Scorsese’s greatest displays of visual style in his filmography. The first time he floats us through the night club to meet minor characters like Freddie No Nose and Jimmy Two Times, we adopt Henry’s perspective as a well-respected man, though by the time his future wife Karen is in the picture, Scorsese turns the allure up higher with an even longer take. The couple’s descent from the street, through the depths of the Copacabana’s restricted areas, and into the main dining area hangs our perspective right on their tail for close to three minutes, where the entire world looks as if it is falling into place right in front of them. Conversely, the red décor and lighting that Scorsese integrates all through his mise-en-scène here carries slightly darker implications – this is a figurative journey into hell for Henry and Karen, though for now they might as well be King and Queen of this infernal realm.

A descent into the depths of hell (or Copacabana) through one of the truly great tracking shots of Scorsese’s career and film history.

Beyond the famous Copacabana scene though, Scorsese is formally laying these blazing, aggressive hues all through Goodfellas as a dominant visual motif, shining it through bars where Tommy loses his temper and splashing it across the scenes of Billy Batts’ murder. Red light pours from the car trunk where the rival mafioso lies gasping for breath, and so too is it diffused through fog as they later dig up his body, silhouetting them in a demonic haze. The emphasis of this colour palette also accompanies us as we return to the opening scene, where its context becomes fully apparently within the narrative – this is the point of no return for Henry, whose assistance in covering up Billy’s death kicks off the erosion of his own relationship with the mob at large.

A stunning, infernal shot silhouetting Henry and his friends as they exhume the body they buried in the opening scene.

Joe Pesci may walk away with the performance of the film as the violently mood-swinging Tommy, though as Goodfellas moves into its final act, it becomes clear that Ray Liotta surely isn’t that far behind. Pressure mounts when Jimmy begins turning on his own friends and Tommy is brutally whacked by those who promised to initiate him as a ‘made man’, and as Henry picks up drug-dealing a side business to support his lavish lifestyle, Liotta’s demeanour grows noticeably agitated. By now his bright eyes and charming smile have faded away, replaced by a permanently nervous expression etched across his pale, clammy face, and Schoonmaker’s editing only drives up the intensity with jump cuts and a frenzied, paranoid juggle of his competing priorities. Most of all, that helicopter following him overhead wears away at his sanity, and with few friends left in the mob, any hope that he might get off lightly for a second time is well and truly gone.

A downward slide for Henry and his friends in the final act of the film. Ray Liotta becomes jumpy, nervous, and sweaty – far more on edge than the cool, confident Henry from before.

The Henry who decides to rat out his associates when cornered is a very different person to the one who, as a young boy, was praised for keeping his mouth shut in court. He is not content with his life as a suburban “schnook” under witness protection, but as his voiceover finally catches up to the present in a direct address to the camera, we see that it is all he has left. Henry’s fall from grace couldn’t be more different from Michael Corleone’s, who keeps his wealth yet loses his family. The fate of mobsters here is not tragic, but wholly pathetic, stripping these selfish men of their superficial riches and sentencing them to a mediocre existence. Scorsese’s agile, vibrant filmmaking meets both ends of this lifestyle with a spirited energy, though in his construction of such a purely compelling narrative as well, Goodfellas stands boldly next to Coppola’s gangster epic as the finest of its genre.

Goodfellas is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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