"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
The most celebrated shot of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas comes early, when young wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date at the Copacabana. Eyeballing the long line outside, Henry instead ushers her to a back entrance, and the snaking camera follows him down through a private hallway, through the kitchen, and into the club, where the staff places a table for him right down front, in front of Henny Youngman, who tells some jokes. Scorsese and ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus play the entire scene, from the street into the club through the kitchen to the stage, in one unbroken take. It’s a virtuoso moment.
But it’s not just a gimmicky extravagance, Scorsese showing off his mastery of craft. It’s fluidly active storytelling, a visualization of Henry’s power and access, a thrilling illustration that, for that moment, the world was his oyster. And then it’s a gimmicky extravagance, on top of that. The entire picture works in that way—it’s full of flash and style and razzle-dazzle, but always properly employed at the service of a gripping story. It’s just that Scorsese found a narrative that could support as many snazzy tricks as he wanted to heap upon it.
It’s a tight first-person account of life in the mob, as told by Henry (and occasionally Karen) in voice-over narration that is so packed with information, Scorsese often has to freeze the action on screen so his narrator can catch up. It begins with Henry as a boy, peering through the windows of his family apartment at the wiseguys hanging out at the cab stand across the street, and follows him as he becomes one of those guys, a soldier for family head Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). His primary partners in crime are charismatic thief Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro) and hot-tempered troublemaker Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
In those nostalgic opening scenes, Goodfellas shares much of the ambience and tone of the other great gangster epic, The Godfather. But Scorsese’s gangsters aren’t the operatic, Shakespearean figures that Coppola’s are; his guys are working stiffs. Early on, Paulie (with Henry’s help) takes over the Bamboo Lounge, a struggling nightclub, and Henry proceeds to explain to us exactly how they ran it into the ground for maximum profit. Sequences like this are Goodfellas’ stock-in-trade; Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi are interested in the minutiae of the organization, the specifics of the day-to-day operation. It is, in this respect, that its influence on The Sopranos is most clear (well, that and the fact that about half of that show’s cast—including Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, and Vincent Pastore—pops up here).
Scorsese and Pileggi’s screenplay (adapted from Pileggi’s nonfiction book Wiseguy) is not without laughs, both the slice-of-life variety (particularly in the scenes involving Scorsese’s mother Catherine as Tommy’s mom) and the gallows humor expected from these unrepentant killers (“Hey, Henry, there’s a wing!”). But their script also has a phenomenal ear for conversational subtleties—the tiny inflections and subtext that separate a put-on (“Tommy, you’re a funny guy!”) and a fatal mistake (“Now go home and get your fuckin’ shine box”). These guys have a good time; they joke around, they laugh, they “break balls.” But they also carry guns, and time and again—particularly in Tommy’s two encounters with poor Spider (Imperioli)—we watch a situation turn on a dime, and observe how quickly a good time can go bad.
Much of the effectiveness of those scenes is due to Pesci, whose finely-tuned performance balances charisma and real danger in a manner seldom seen on the screen. DeNiro is playing, in many ways, the archetypal DeNiro role, but he finds the character’s pulse by honing in on the individual moments (like his scene at the phone booth, or that slow push in to the strains of “Sunshine of Your Love”) and playing them full-tilt. Sorvino, who easily could have overplayed his powerful mob boss, instead chooses a more subtle tack; he sees Paulie as the strong, silent type, and it’s a choice that works (particularly considering what a bunch of yammerers he’s surrounded by). Liotta, all but unknown when the film was made, has a fierce energy that deteriorates convincingly into desperation—this is all he’s ever wanted, and he can’t stomach the notion that it’s all slipping away.
His performance, and the film that it hinges on, comes to a full head of steam in what may very well be the single greatest set piece Scorsese has ever filmed (which is saying something): the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence, a virtuoso piece of cinema that follows a coke-fueled Henry through a long, exhausting day in which he tries to a) put together a major drug deal, b) take care of his brother, c) unload some hot guns, and d) make a huge dinner for his family. The sequence is hyperactive, kinetic, and brilliant, an edgy montage of drug-induced mania that is akin to a hip-hop track, what with its quick hits, breakneck pace, and smash-and-grab music samplings. Thanks to the smoothness of the picture’s construction (from the innocence and nostalgia of the early years to the slow deterioration in the middle era to the jittery loss of control in the third act) and the omnipresence of the first-person narrator, by the time we plunge into the darkness, the movie is Henry—it’s sweaty, messy, paranoid, itchy.
In that section, and throughout the picture, Scorsese calls upon all of his considerable gifts as a technical filmmaker—zip pans, trick zooms, fast dolleys, unbroken takes, slow motion, fast cutting, inventive compositions, circular storytelling—to cast his spell. It pulses with atmosphere, from the non-stop music to the period décor to the culinary details. Before Goodfellas, Scorsese was certainly a well-respected filmmaker (the previous year, several critics’ polls had chosen his Raging Bull as the best picture of the 1980s), and had spent the years leading up to it proving himself as a commercial filmmaker (The Color of Money) and as a provocateur (The Last Temptation of Christ). But in retrospect, Goodfellas feels like the moment when Scorsese became an icon—the guy that young filmmakers wanted to pattern themselves after. It wasn’t just that he spends the film having a great time playing with his camera (though he certainly does); it’s the supreme confidence and control on display. Right at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Scorsese seemed to be bursting open the notions of what was possible in “mainstream” cinema, making up new rules seemingly as he went along. The influence of his resulting work is specifically felt in many of the great films of the ensuing years (it’s impossible to imagine Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights without Goodfellas), but more than that, it pointed the way for a new era of bold, brash filmmaking. As with all truly great films, Goodfellas sums up what has come before it and suggests what’s to come. And it proves its director, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be a storyteller of unmatched technique and unquestionable skill. It’s an electrifying motion picture.
"Goodfellas: The 20th Anniversary Edition" will be released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 16th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.