Goodfellas (1990) Dir. Martin Scorsese
Upon mentioning that I would discuss Goodfellas for this week’s column, a member of my family quickly disputed its cult status. She argued it was too mainstream; too permanently embedded in modern pop culture to be considered for a column meant to tackle the more quirky, unappreciated titles at the video store. Worried she was right, that I was betraying the very nature of The Weeklies Are Cheaper, I left the laptop, sat down and had a sandwich. Then I watched Goodfellas again. Then I watched it a third time with audio commentary. Then I sat back down at my desk and asked myself, “When has a member of my family ever been right about anything in the past?” Then I started writing about Goodfellas.
Though a lot of Generation Y might be familiar with modern mob tales such as The Departed, HBO’s phenomenon The Sopranos and, closer-to-home, Australia’s own gritty gangland tales of Channel Nine’s Underbelly they might be forgiven for missing Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime drama, Goodfellas. Like some kind of bastard brother, Goodfellas has spent a lot of time in the shadow of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Now, 20 years after its release, Goodfellas is enjoying success on DVD, being watched and inevitably, quoted, by an entirely new audience.
Based on the real-life mafia expose, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wise Guys, the story follows Henry Hill, who, whilst growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, idolises the neighbourhood gangsters. Looking to infiltrate their world of organised crime and unstoppable power, Hill begins to do odd jobs for the gangsters and, after being busted for a petty crime, is accepted into the fold by mob capo Paul Cicero and his mafia associates, Jimmy Conway and Tommy De Vito. In his early twenties, Hill carries out a successful Air France heist, cementing his status and bringing him the riches and notoriety of his childhood dreams. For a period, Hill enjoys dizzying heights (meeting his future wife and, shortly after, his mistress) but after the brutal murder of “made man” Billy Batts and a failed debt-collection mission, Hill does a stint in prison and upon release struggles to find a path back into a life he once enjoyed.
Martin Scorsese, like many of the great directors, spent many hours indoors as a kid, not just watching films, but studying them. In Goodfellas, he references Fellini and borrows the filmic techniques associated with Truffaut and Hitchcock. Though I’m still waiting for my wasted youth to pay-off, Scorcese’s knowledge of great cinema makes Goodfellas a rich experience. His direction may owe a lot to the masters, but he breaks all kinds of rules in the film, using countless freeze frames, breaking the forth wall and paying little attention to continuity. Frequent Scorsese collaborator and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is responsible for the elegant look of the film – capturing everything from the smoky haze of a Queen’s nightclub to the reflection of a red headlight on the face of a startled Henry Hill in the film’s first minutes.
In one of his first major film roles, Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Henry Hill – externally, a faithful insider, but internally, a moralistic outsider. As his wife Karen, Lorraine Bracco prepares herself for a lifetime of listening to the twisted logic of a mafia man, later to be seen as Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos. Despite sharing a lot of camera-time with a tense Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci manages to run away with entire scenes. Arguably Pecsi’s finest performance on screen, his portrayal of the maniacal Tommy DeVito earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
This month, to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, GQ magazine looked behind the scenes of the production, calling Goodfellas “the truest, bloodiest, greatest gangster film of all time”. Producer Irwin Winkler told GQ that Tom Cruise was discussed for the role of Hill, whilst Barbara De Fina, executive producer of the film, said Madonna had been considered for the role of Karen.
Let’s all just take a deep breath and be grateful for another bullet dodged.