"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster." Henry Hill, 1955
The year was 1990. The day: September 19. I was four years old. At that point, the one film that consumed me the most was E.T. It wouldn't be until about the 6th or 7th grade that I would see GoodFellas for the first time. I knew I was seeing something I hadn't seen before. Not just in terms of content (this being the first gangster film I saw) but how the content was being presented. There is unflinching conviction in every frame of Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece. This is the life of a wiseguy and it's not pretty. Subsequent viewings as I got older cemented it's place in my top 5 films of all time.
If The Godfather could be described as operatic, then GoodFellas in many ways is the punk version of a gangster film. It's raw and has jagged edges. There is a kind of energy that explodes off the screen.
Now before even getting into the meat of the film, one has to look at just how much of an influence the gangster films of the 30's had on Scorsese. Just look at a film like Scarface or a film like Public Enemy. These were not films with happy endings. They looked at their protagonists or antagonists in this case in an unflinching manner. Scorsese has stated that he loves films that chart the rise and fall. But the most important part of those pictures is the fall. Not only does this film accomplish that but it is about the process of getting to the top. The mundane details are presented to us through the narration and insert shots- whether it is a closeup on the watch of the wrist of a guy getting out of a car or Henry Hill telling us how Paulie had a system to make food in jail.
GoodFellas starts out not with a whisper but with a bang. Before the audience knows it, they end up witnessing Joe Pesci stick a carving knife into a man in a trunk and then see Robert DeNiro put a few rounds in the guy. Right off the bat, Scorsese lets us know, this is not going to be pretty. It's going to be a visceral experience for the next 2 1/2 hours.
The story is based on journalist Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, which is an account of the life of gangster turned informant Henry Hill. Hill, a half-Irish half-Sicilian growing up in Brooklyn, from a young age idolizes the Lucchese crime family gangsters that live and work across the street from his apartment. His admiration turns to initiation into the lifestyle. He quickly climbs the ladder of success....and falls down the ladder just as fast.
For a movie that is two and a half hours long, it moves at a breakneck pace, which was apparently Scorsese’s goal. He would later state that he wanted the movie to start like a gunshot and just pick up steam from there, ultimately reaching the point where things would be so out of control that they would have to unravel. Scorsese accomplishes precisely this and it is an example of how in control he was throughout the entire making of this film. Every time that I watch, it is glaringly obvious that you are witnessing a director who is confident to do whatever he wants on the screen.
The characters in the film are all memorable and shows Scorsese's knack for getting the best performances out of whoever he is working with. In this case, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino & Lorraine Bracco. Even small characters like Sam Jackson's Stacks Edwards and Frank Vincent's Billy Batts shine here.
The best films take you into their world for however long their running time is. It's only on the 4th or 5th screening of the film that you are able to sit down and take apart shots. This is one of those films that employs a narrator as a means of giving the viewer information that pertains to a scene. The device of a narrator is a tricky thing. Sometimes it hinders a film. It tells us too much about what's going and ambiguity is thrown out the window. A film like GoodFellas is exactly the type of film where a narrator is needed.
There are many components that make this film rewatchable, but for me the music and the pacing/editing is what seperates it from all of the other gangster films. First off, we are treated to an eclectic soundtrack that ranges from Dean Martin and Muddy Waters to George Harrison and Sid Vicious. Scorsese doesn't use music to tell us the certain emotions of a character, he rather uses it as a counterpoint to what is taking place in the scene. Who can not hear Donovan's Atlantis without thinking of Billy Batts getting beaten down by Pesci & DeNiro or listen to Derek and the Dominoes Layla without thinking about the montage of whacked wiseguys and the one chord synching up to the opening of the meat truck.
Editor Thelma Schoonmaker has worked with Marty since his short films. Some of her best work is displayed on the likes of Raging Bull. The question was, could she possibly top her editing skills that she showed us there? After GoodFellas, the answer was a resounding YES!.
Now it's important to note the style that Scorsese brings to each project he takes on. He went wild on Raging Bull and then on King of Comedy he was very controlled. He always lets the story dictate style. This is exactly what any great filmmaker does. The style of GoodFellas starts off with classical filmmaking in the first act. It is also where the famous dolly shot into the Copacabana takes place. As the film goes on and as Henry Hill gets deeper and deeper into the pit of organized crime, the editing & pacing become more and more chaotic. By the time we reach the "Last Day As A Wiseguy" sequence, Scorsese employs shock cuts, freeze frames, sped up zoom ins, and reverse zooms. Add to that a montage of blues and classic rock songs along with Henry Hill's frantic schedule through his narration and you got some of the most riveting filmmaking of Scorsese's catalog.
To quote Roger Ebert: "Scorsese's best films have always been poems about guilt." Quite so. Religion and violence are always two themes the director has come back to. In Henry Hill's case, his sins lead him to live his life as "a schnook." A nobody without a name to look up to.
I could go on for hours about my admiration for this film. Every time I watch it, I am reminded of why I love the medium of film so much. It's the type of film you completely surrender yourself to when it's on. Just try turning it off once you've caught a part of it on cable. I dare ya. I know I can't. So go get your shinebox, finish stirring that pasta sauce (make sure it doesn't stick) and pop in GoodFellas. You'd be a schnook not to.