GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Robert De Niro (James ‘Jimmy’ Conway), Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Braco (Karen Hill). Screenplay by Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 18. Running time: 146 minutes.
What a career. With Taxi Driver in the 70s, Raging Bull in the 80s, and then GoodFellas in the 90s, Martin Scorsese arguably made the best film of each of those decades. He considers the first to be primarily a writer’s film, and thus places it in the ownership of Paul Schrader. The second is De Niro’s, who gave acting new meaning through Raging Bull. But the third masterpiece, GoodFellas, is undoubtedly Scorsese’s, and no amount of modesty can shake that off.
It’s not that the acting or scriptwriting wane as the direction and mise-en-scène excel. Pesci won an Oscar for his role, after all, and rightly so. He plays the hotheaded Tommy perfectly and genuinely injects fear into the viewer, never mind the characters around him. The dialogue also works well: at times to amuse, at times to shock and horrify, but primarily to demonstrate the normality of the life in the eyes of its inhabitants once it has begun.
And that’s probably the main point of GoodFellas: we see it through the eyes and first-hand narration of Henry Hill, who gets involved from a young age, and before long is one of them. But it’s a very long time before he even lives with a single thought being given to law enforcement. The police are either oblivious to their action or part of it. They are immune and take advantage of it brutally. The occasional airport robbery funds their lifestyle, which consists of nothing more than family, more women, drinking, gambling, Copacabana concerts and killing.
None of this would have the effect and feel it does though without Scorsese. First, the music. GoodFellas opens to Rags to Riches, perfectly reflecting how majestic Henry considered his life transformation. The first gangster night out is set to Speedo by the Cadillacs, which fits the tempo and noise of the casino-club so perfectly it’s untrue. Gimme Shelter, Monkey Man and a handful of other Stones songs punctuate one of the final sequences, as we watch Henry’s demise in the form of a cocaine-fueled crazy day of paranoia. Even better, Aretha’s Baby I Love You plays to the image of Henry’s personal whores churning out their mindless chitchat. The absurdity of it all and the abnormality of it really would not be felt with such force without the song. You lose yourself in the world and forget how insane it is. Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love is the other song used just too well: it plays as we watch De Niro smoke a cigar alone at a bar and smirk to himself at the thought of finally whacking someone who’s pissed him off for too long.
Enough of the sound: the image is just as good. No more so than in a staggering, unheard of 184 second tracking shot. When Henry arrives with his girl at the Copacabana, we follow them from the parking lot, past the queue, down the back entrance and through the kitchens before having a table literally fabricate before their eyes just in front of the stage. It’s not just a snazzy, purposeless cinematographic trick. It shows just how fluid the world is for them. Everyone moves out of the way for us, and them, to precede.
This is just a taster of the delights we’re treated to in GoodFellas. Scorsese’s so in love with the images he creates that he occasionally pauses the visuals. It serves as a break for the narration to catch up, but also as a moment for us to appreciate what we’re seeing. That happens to be one of the most perfect cinematic experiences in history.
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Tags: baby i love you, copacabana, gimme shelter, goodfellas, henry hill, joe pesci, lorraine braco, martin scorsese, nicholas pileggi, paul schrader, raging bull, rags to riches, ray liotta, robert de niro, rolling stones, speedo, sunshine of your love, taxi driver, tracking shot