GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

22Mar11

Robert De Niro (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.

I’ve reviewed GoodFellas before, but looking back at what I wrote, I’m almost ashamed at how blasé I was in my albeit pumped-up praise. After having had the privilege of seeing an original print of Scorsese’s magnum opus on the big screen at the Prince Charles Cinema in London last night, I cannot resist returning to it, and reemphasising as much as possible just how incredible it is.

That GoodFellas is the greatest cinematic achievement of all time is as close as my mind will probably ever come to claiming an aesthetic truth. Words could never do it justice, because only by watching can you realise that you are witnessing history being made. Scene after scene stands out as a masterpiece in itself: from the rapid-fire opening montage as we’re treated to a whirlwind tour of Henry Hill’s youthful years, to the ‘funny how?,’ Billy Batts, Copacabana and Spider scenes and situations, all the way through to Henry’s final, cocaine-fuelled day as a gangster, filmed to feel nauseating and yet playing out to the sounds of Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones. It’s indescribable how upbeat, hip, and sometimes scary this all is. Every song is perfectly picked to almost seem written for the movie’s moments, every line of dialogue ridiculously smart or funny, and all adding to an image of gangster life as the most glamorous yet disturbing form of living imaginable.

It’s almost as if Plato’s Ring of Gyges experiment is being put onto celluloid, its main question being this: if you can take and do anything without fearing the wrath of the law or social condemnation, would you still bother to be law-abiding? In GoodFellas – largely a true story – that ‘if’ becomes a viable reality, and Henry Hill jumps at the opportunity to live life as the ultimate free-rider, taking the earnings of others whenever he felt like it and living life as a God in the material world. It’s appalling, but it’s also inexplicably compelling to watch, and makes for the most wonderful cinematic experience in history. This is like watching a benchmark being set for the early Tarantino and any other future wannabe-Scorseses to be judged by. It is the style Bible for the mob movie. It’s everything cinema should want to be.

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