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.


Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven | 1hr 53min

At every step of Douglas Quaid’s journey into the Martian conspiracy of Total Recall, he is confronted with forks in the road, offering him one of two choices. To welcome the danger of new technologies, or to reject the call of adventure. To live out his deepest wish fulfilment as a monster, or to carry on an ordinary life as himself. To save a potentially fictional civilisation and risk death, or to let it perish and return home none the wiser.

One of these realities exists only in his head, but it is impossible to tell which, and from this ambiguity Paul Verhoeven draws out an identity crisis that follows Quaid to the depths of a strange, extra-terrestrial plot. If Alice in Wonderland’s bizarre trip down the rabbit hole met the retrofuturism and metaphysics of Blade Runner, then it would probably look a lot like this – an ambitious, off-kilter genre movie that unites its science-fiction, action, romance, and comedy elements under a space-bound adventure, and then tops it off with a riotous Arnold Schwarzenegger performance.

A very physical Schwarzenegger performance, almost pushing into the realm of comedy. He makes some big choices here that don’t all land, but it is tough to imagine anyone else in this role.
Precision in Verhoeven’s staging and camera angles, bringing artistry to the violence.

The Blade Runner comparison shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the source material of both films comes from the wildly creative mind of Philip K. Dick, equally questioning the nature of reality, perception, and identity in the context of futuristic civilisations. The influence of Ridley Scott’s seminal work of science-fiction extends far beyond character and themes though, as the sheer scope of Verhoeven’s visual world-building is stretched to magnificent proportions, crafting alien cities and landscapes out of imposing, expressionistic miniatures.

From there, it is impossible not to see a mix of other cinematic predecessors emerge as well, with talk of political revolution bringing Metropolis to mind, and the surreal madness evoking the distorted humour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The choice between two different realities being boiled down to a single pill even remarkably presages The Matrix by nine years as well, setting a new standard for action sci-fi films with philosophical concerns. In its entirety though, Total Recall is very much a Verhoeven film in the vein of Robocop, hiding inspired reflections on humanity beneath audacious set pieces of bloody violence and extreme tonal shifts.

Total Recall is in a lineage of science-fiction films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Brazil, building out a fantastical world of imposing architecture rendered through detailed miniatures.

It takes a little while at first for Verhoeven to arrive at these brilliant displays of spectacle though, as much of the first act is spent around Quaid’s home on Earth where he lives with his wife, Lori, and works a construction job. Televisions lining the walls of subway trains and giant x-ray walls that screen civilians both represent small but significant parts of a technology-dependent society, and Verhoeven maintains a strong narrative drive through it all in the staging of a heart-pumping chase. But as the story moves to the Martian colony ruled by tyrannical governor Vilos Cohaagen, it is evident that this planet is where Verhoeven is having the most fun as a filmmaker. Most importantly, he passes that joy on to his audience with some truly unhinged conceits as well – a fat lady disguise that encases Schwarzenegger in a shell-like apparatus, an underclass of mutants living in Mars’ red-light district, and even a revolution leader who lives as a conjoined twin growing out of his brother’s belly.

Solid world-building on Earth before we even get to Mars, lining subways with televisions.
Body horror rendered in grotesque practical effects, pushing the film’s style in unexpected directions.

Cronenbergian body horror abounds in scenes like these that push Verhoeven’s visual madness to its limits, even going so far as to render the bulging eyes and popping veins of characters doomed to suffocate on Mars’ uninhabitable surface through grotesque practical effects. Adding a sense of peril to these fervid designs is a persistent dedication to red hues all through the mise-en-scene, vibrantly lighting up interiors of rigid lines and steel beams, but even more dominantly hanging in the air of Mars’ rocky landscapes, casting a hellish glow over Cohaagen’s dominion.

Giant sets and the red light of Mars coming together to create brilliant backdrops and action set pieces.
An oppressive frame here with the giant fan obscuring a shot of total carnage.

It is almost too easy to be swept up by such outlandish visual fantasy, as much like Quaid, we excitedly invest our suspension of belief into his believed reality as a secret agent from Mars. Schwarzenegger himself too is a huge, physical presence onscreen that matches Total Recall’s deranged aesthetic, even if his throaty grunts and yells eventually grow tiresome. And yet every now and again, Verhoeven weaves in just enough doubt for us to wonder whether these thrills are simply one big distraction from a greater existential question lying beneath.

“What if this is a dream?” Quaid wonders in the final seconds, having remarkably solved all of Mars’ political troubles. “Then kiss me quick before you wake up,” his too-perfect love interest responds, right before the screen fades to white. Even in his escapist storytelling, Verhoeven still finds a way to let the uncomfortable ambiguities of reality linger in our minds, as Total Recall finally settles in that anxious space that exists between majestic, adventurous bliss and crushing, psychological despair.

Great work from Verhoeven in using his steel architecture to obstruct and divide frames.

Total Recall is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

King of New York (1990)

Abel Ferrara | 1hr 49min

It is hard to tell at first how genuine drug lord Frank White is in his desire to “fix” New York, but we can at least gage that he is resolute in his ambitions. In his transition from prison back into society, a luxurious limousine is his ferry, and coinciding with this return is his second-hand assassination of past associates, evoking the climactic murders of The Godfather. Frank is our Michael Corleone figure here, though he evidently has far more years of experience in the criminal underworld behind him, commanding an aura of intimidation and respect in his imposing presence. As Christopher Walken stares out the window of the limousine with a stoic gaze, the radiance of passing street lamps fade up and down upon his face, and immediately Abel Ferrara brings us into King of New York with a deep, fearful reverence for this man.

There is also something so solemn and poignant about Walken’s eyes that speaks volumes about Frank’s love of the city. As he admires its beautiful lights and architecture from afar, we begin to believe that his motivations might go beyond mere selfishness. Perhaps it was those years he spent behind bars that has made him reconsider his own place in the world, as he searches for ways that he can contribute something positive, eventually latching onto a struggling children’s hospital in desperate need of private assistance. Still, it is difficult to remove the man from his ego, as it is in these aspirations that he also misguidedly sets his sights on becoming the Mayor of New York, viewing the office as his chance at some vague sort of redemption.

“If I can have a year or two, I’ll make something good. I’ll do something.”

A landmark performance for Christopher Walken. His tired, anguished eyes serve this character perfectly as he gazes out at views of New York at night.
Ferrara creating a wonderful frame here capturing Frank’s love for this city, though also his immense loneliness.

The gritty realism of Ferrara’s location shooting in real New York streets and hotels is a perfect fit for this character study of urban grit and power plays, with The French Connection especially coming to mind in the use of this imposing city as a set for the thrilling cops-and-criminals battle at its centre. The authenticity of Ferrara’s style especially takes hold in his dim lighting, gorgeously diffused through the smog and mist of dark exteriors, and in one pivotal club shootout, drenching the room with a dark blue neon glow. A diegetic hip-hop track underscores the slow-motion deaths of criminals and police officers here, until eventually it spills out into the streets in a high-speed car chase.

Gorgeous mise-en-scène and lighting within this nightclub, setting a moody scene for the imminent shootout.

It is within this extended sequence of moving the violence from one location to the next that King of New York reaches its stylistic apex. As Ferrara’s heavy rain beats down upon cars speeding down wet roads and their headlights beam through the deluge, the combination of his lighting and weather elements effectively heighten the dramatic stakes of this spectacular set piece. Eventually this loud, bombastic showdown turns into a cat-and-mouse contest of stealth and reflexes, with the few straggling survivors from both sides seeking refuge from the rain in a fenced-off construction site beneath a bridge. As it continues to pour down buckets in the background, Ferrara brings a visual texture to the muddiness of this confrontation, pulling both sides of the law into a dark, drab underworld of corruption and bloodshed.

Ferrara reaching the stylistic apex of his film in this dark, rainy car chase and shoot out. The heavy rain brings another layer of texture to the action, lit beautifully by the harsh street lamps of New York City.
Cops and criminals facing off beneath this bridge, both brought to their knees in the mud and rain. Ferrara’s choice to shoot on location and capture these magnificent structures in the background is integral to this set piece.

Though we spend more time with Frank and his associates than the police officers, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for both. The antagonism they hold towards each other is devastating, obliterating each other’s dreams in a feud of mutual destruction. It is this hopelessness which settles in Frank’s minds in his last moments as he is faced with two options, both of which he realises will ultimately lead to the same result. Bleeding out in the back of a taxi with swarms of cops closing in, he could choose in this moment to go out fighting. But with his hopes of bringing something positive to the world dashed, perhaps it is his love for New York that holds him back from wreaking further destruction, recognising that a quiet exit might be the best thing he could really do for it. Really, Frank was never going to be the one to reform this city. It is rather in Ferrara’s skilful twisting of a traditional redemption arc that we see the true tragedy of this man bound by choices he made long ago, and who only is only willing to accept his true purpose when it is his turn to join the list of people killed in his name.

Ferrara bouncing the city lights off windows and surrounding Frank.

King of New York is not currently available to stream in Australia.