Gangster films truly inhabit a world of their own. With the possible exception of good science fiction, no other genre has assembled such a loyal following nor indeed witnessed such an incredible amassing of cinematic talent. As if any confirmation of the latter was necessary, 1990 became the year in which the “don crown” passed hands once and for all. Francis Ford Coppola, long awaiting a return to glory failed to hit bars he himself set twenty years earlier, his third and final entry to the Corleone saga desperately lacking in innovation. Into this breach leapt an eager Martin Scorsese with perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema. Amongst all of the Italian’s well-remembered films (and there are many indeed), “Goodfellas” is by some distance his most popular among fans and critics alike. And though not exactly robbed of an Oscar – “Dances With Wolves” is after all a very fine film – it was most deserving of the Best Picture and Director nods that year. Maybe Kevin Costner made the Academy an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, as an exercise in narrative and storytelling the Scorsese is by all mean exemplary.
The film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” the true story of three gangsters’ lives. Beginning in the 1950s, the film tells three decades of life in the mafia, the people, the jobs, the lifestyle and the drama. Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) begins his mafioso career at the age of twelve simply because he’s always wanted to be a gangster. Initially running jobs for local mob man Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry soon climbs up into bigger schemes, those of the highly paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and the highly aggressive Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Together they lift money from just about everywhere, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with the law while living it up in an endless chain of nightclubs and bars. Initially captivated by Henry’s charms is Karen (Lorraine Bracco) but the marriage soon turns for the worse as she is drawn ever further in, yet ultimately left behind.
Everything gangster-aficionados will expect (and more), “Goodfellas” is high on it’s own substance, containing excessive violence, black humour and an absolute overload of the f-word (over 300 times, in all its extraordinary variations). And though “Goodfellas” is a roller-coaster of extreme proportions, its incredible how much of the action happens off-screen: What many a film would pride as a central showpiece, the infamous robberies fall by the wayside, Scorsese making it clear that he is less interested in the plot as opposed to exploring the world of organised crime these characters inhabit. The essence, the real flesh and blood of their mindset is drawn out in countless conversations, sometimes relaxed, more often tense and unpredictable, something many minor characters learn the hard way. It’s a fine line between the jokes and threats and often with horrific consequences as immortalised by Joe Pesci with “What do you mean I’m funny?” The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi is expert in turning 180 degrees when the audience least expect it in a style later translated by Quentin Tarantino for his own “Pulp Fiction,” playing with seemingly casual exposition that has the potential to ignite the situation at any moment.
Remarkable at all times is Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled style, though that superlative does not describe it sufficiently. An education in filmmaking would be a more fitting title for the way he directs Michael Ballhaus’ camera swoops, the sometimes slow, sometimes quick edits, the freeze-frames around every setting. Repeat viewings will be necessary to fully appreciate his talent for telling a narrative in such a free-flowing and entertaining manner. Yet again, the genius lies in the details – take the completely irrelevant preparation of a meal during that fateful day: On page it might seem daft but on film it’s a brilliant tool for cranking up the suspense and pressure in Henry’s cocaine-fuelled life one notch further. Lastly, yet by no means least, several large kudos must go the simply excellent cast, both the leads and bit-parts all appropriately cast. De Niro and Pesci are outstanding in almost everything they do but these are roles that help define careers. The very important core of the film however lies with Ray Liotta. Superb firstly as the young “apprentice” criminal and then later as organiser. His performance is much more restrained than either De Niro or Pesci, his reactions and emotions a little more measured to those of audience members to particular scenes. Sadly this role has so far proven Liotta’s only truly great one as he has since been typecast to a certain extent though never again by Scorsese.
“Goodfellas” does not contain a single note of original film music. Scorsese was one of the very first to experiment with pure source music in his films and would do so again with “Casino” and “Shutter Island.” All of the director’s personal choices, including period hits by Tony Bennet, Aretha Franklin and many more fit the film like a glove however. They perfectly evoke both time and place for every scene though never in a manner that could be considered flashy or drawing attention to itself. While a “Godfather” style score would doubtlessly have worked as well, the songs lend the film a uniques atmosphere and it would be futile to deny their effect. On the other hand, an extremely measly album presentation leaves much to be desired: Of almost fifty songs, the album features a mere twelve. A “Forrest Gump” like double-CD treatment would resolve the issue but until that arrives, the album for “Goodfellas” remains a significant disappointment for fans.
“Goodfellas” remains one of the defining movies within and without the gangster genre. It’s a masterpiece and a landmark in cinema that elevates Scorsese and his ensemble higher and higher as your appreciation will grow every time you watch it.
Songs on album
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