Sitting down to explore the finest films directed by Martin Scorsese, most might think his seething black and white boxing biography ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) might top the list. Visceral, bloody, the fierce story of a warrior at war with himself, ‘Raging Bull’ is widely thought to be the diminutive filmmakers’ greatest achievement.

Not so. For me, his greatest film remains his crime masterpiece ‘Goodfellas’ (1990), possibly the most realistic journey into the world of organized crime, where wealthy gangsters hide in plain sight, quietly (sometimes) building enormous wealth. Scorsese, it is often forgotten, grew up watching this world, he inherently understood every aspect of it visible to the public. From the shocking opening, which sees a bloodied, dying man in the trunk of a car stabbed, hacked, finally shot to death, through to its conclusion, ‘Goodfellas’ is a bouncy, jaunty, upbeat film about Henry Hill, who tells us, “I always wanted to be a gangster.” I say upbeat, but it veers off into the darkness, and you can feel the tone change at one particular moment, when it becomes clear, you could be shot, by your closest friend at any time. Henry’s narration clearly tells us he loved his life in crime, but Scorsese brilliantly juxtaposes the images showing the dark aspects of this life he so loves. 

Hill (Liotta) got involved with the organized crime when still a teenager, quickly making himself indispensable to the mobsters. His life is forever altered when he meets the dangerous Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), an Irish thief in tight with Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and his “family”. Working with Jimmy, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) they own the town, stealing what they want, doing whatever they please, even killing whoever gets in their way. Henry, narrates the film, his life, so we know he manages to live, and he speaks of the times death, danger, and murder was an everyday part of his life. He tells us it was “a glorious time“, introducing us to an array of underworld figures, that whatever they wanted they took when they ran out of cash, they stole more if someone bothered any of them they were hit so hard that the offender never complained again. They ran the town and everything they took, a piece went to Paulie, the Don of the family, the tortoise-like boss of the family. 

Moving quickly up the mafia ladder, from childhood to adulthood, Henry becomes a trusted friend to Jimmy Conway, known as Jimmy the Gent. A gifted thief and ruthless executioner, Jimmy loved to steal but hates giving his crew their fair share. He felt it was easier to kill them, cutting close ties, making him one of the most feared men in New York. Jimmy and Henry can never truly be part of the crime family because they were not pure 100% Sicilian, but they were as close as anyone could come. Paulie (Sorvino) trusts them with his life, the ever-watchful, slow-moving patriarch did nothing quick, because he had an army ready to do his bidding at any moment. This second family is introduced to Henry’s wife, Karen at their wedding, where she begins to understand the life of her new husband lives.

With Jimmy and Henry was the deeply psychotic Tommy (Pesci) a loose cannon, fearless like the others but he seemed to have something to prove, a bad combination when that man has a gun. Encountering an old friend from days gone by, Billy (Frank Vincent) fresh from prison, Billy makes the mistake of insulting Tommy and pays with his life. Kicked, stomped, hammered, beaten within an inch of his life, thrown in the trunk of Henry’s car, before waking up and being slaughtered to death. Later in the film, a slow young man named Spider (Michael Imperioli) cracks wise to Tommy and is shot in the foot when forced to dance as Tommy shoots at his feet, much like an old Yosemite Sam cartoon. At the next card game, Spider is back, a litter more cautious, his foot bandaged, in obvious pain but not too much to lash out at Tommy when Tommy insults him. Stunned by the insult, Tommy pulls his gun and shoots Spider four times in the chest, blowing Spider backwards across the room, killing the unarmed man, leaving Jimmy furious and Henry stunned by his friend’s actions. The death of Spider brings about a tonal change in the film. True, Henry and his buddies can do as they please, but this is extended to all of them, meaning at any moment, like Spider, death could come their way. Tommy was feared by even his closest friends, which is why he is killed by the mob, he must stone for the killings he as set in motion. 

Henry spends some time in prison, along with Paulie and a group of gangsters who are apart from the general population and really, are running the prison-like their own private resort. Lobster and steak, delivered to their huge cell, is consumer each night with wine, fine cigars, each meal a major production. It is jail, Henry begins a slow downfall selling cocaine. Once out he continues selling drugs despite vowing to Paulie he would not. The FBI is alerted to Henry and the walls begin to close in. Whether he suspects it or not, his life as a gangster is coming to an end. After watching, wiretapping his phones, and tracing his every move, the police and FBI are closing in on Henry, now hooked on his own product, cocaine. When finally busted, Henry knows he could be killed at any second, as his friends will now distance themselves from him, and when he realizes they want him dead, he turns against them, providing damning evidence that will see Paulie and Jimmy in jail for the rest of their lives, while Henry enters the Witness Relocation Program. Living in an undisclosed location, Henry misses his life in the mob, he misses his friends, though he knows they want him dead, he misses being a gangster.

Is there another great American film that hurtles along with such speed, with undeniable force? Beautifully directed by Scorsese, edited by the great Thelma Schoonmaker, ‘Goodfellas’ might be a perfect film. The cinematography offers no stunning vistas, instead of taking us inside this dangerous world with confidence and an almost giddy bravado, a striking realism. In one glorious shot, Henry and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enter the Copacabana nightclub through the side entrance, forgoing the long line. The camera follows them through the underbelly of the club, through the kitchen, Henry slipping twenty dollar bills to everyone complicit in his movements. As the two lovers enter the club, a table is carried to the front of the audience and they have, just like that front row seats. Breathtaking. Another shot, the murder of Spider has a claustrophobic feel to it, as it appears at long last Henry feels the walls closing in. And the soundtrack, each song carefully selected, each song making a point.

The legendary performances remain remarkable. As Karen, Bracco is a firebrand, aware of exactly what her husband does for a living and decides she can accept it. What enrages her is the infidelity, which she will not put up with. Paul Sorvino is quietly frightening as Paulie, slow-moving, watchful, taking in everything around him ordering killings with a terse nod of his head. De Niro as Jimmy is both charismatic and terrifying because Scorsese holds his shots long enough to let us see his mind at work, to watch as he decides to execute those on his crew. Radiating danger and power, it is a commanding performance, brilliant once again. Jo Pesci is explosively dangerous as the deeply psychotic Tommy, who always has something to prove. Unpredictable, zone never knows what Tommy is thinking or when his hair-trigger temper might go off. Genuinely terrifying, the infamous “why am I funny?”  remains among the tensest, electrifying sequences in film history. Pesci is astonishing until that millisecond before he realizes he is going to be killed. And Liotta, not a major star before the film was released but he certainly was after. Strong roles in ‘Something Wild’ (1988) and ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) alerted Scorsese to the actor and the weight of the film was placed on Liotta’s shoulders. He did not disappoint, delivering superb performance, a career highlight for the prickly actor.

‘Goodfellas’ received rave reviews upon opening and at years end won Best Picture and Best Director awards from the LA Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, making the film the most honoured of the year. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco), Best Screenplay Adaptation, And Best Film Editing. On Oscar night, the evening belonged to Kevin Costner’s revisionist western ‘Dances with Wolves’ (1990) which galloped to seven wins. ‘Goodfellas’ took home a single award, for Joe Pesci’s astounding performance as Tommy, leaving the years Best Film on the sidelines. Costner also bested Scorsese for the coveted Directors Guild Award as Best Director of 1990, which at the time, and in hindsight appears ludicrous.

In a film teeming with dark energy, shocking, swift violence yet which clearly explores the intensely seductive life in the mob, Scorsese created his masterpiece, though it is safe to state, one of many.

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