(This review originally appeared in slightly different form on Epinions.com.)
I always hate it when people ask me what my favorite movie is. There are so many that I love it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. But if I were ever to travel to a desert island and could only take one movie with me, there’s no question which one it would be. Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, one of the best movies of all time and my personal all-time favorite mob movie.
It is commonly believed among serious students of film, hardcore cinephiles and aspiring writer-directors (like yours truly) that Scorsese is the greatest American filmmaker working today. It is also commonly observed that he has managed to produce at least one masterpiece in each of the five decades he has been making films. In the 2010s, it’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. In the 2000s it was The Departed. In the 80s it was Raging Bull. In the 70s it was Taxi Driver. And for the 1990s, it was Goodfellas.
At heart Goodfellas is a mob movie. That basic description is accurate. However, simply calling it a mob movie is too limiting a description. In essence, Goodfellas is a perfect portrayal of modern life lived by characters who just so happen to be mobsters.
“As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States”. Those are Henry Hill’s opening words as Goodfellas begins. To a young man growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, that’s the gold. Today, it’s the thing to dream of growing up to be Silicon Valley billionaires or NFL stars. Back then it was different.
Young Henry is drawn in by the mobsters who work at the cab stand across the street from his home. At 13, he goes to work for them part-time. However, it isn’t long before he’s quit school and gone to work for them full time. At first, his father does not approve. However, when the mobsters stop the postal service from delivering truancy letters to Hill’s house, school is soon a complete thing of the past (as are the butt whippings we witness him receive from his father when he realizes Henry has been skipping school.)
Not long after, Henry is taken under the wing of Mob captains Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro). All this as he grows up into an adult played by Ray Liotta. The glamour of organized crime is seductive and before long Hill is working his way up to where he can get personally escorted into the Copacabana, along with his woman Karen (Lorraine Bracco of The Sopranos). So the glitter of organized crime is there. However, there are also the downsides (possibly getting whacked, prison time).
That’s the basic story of Goodfellas in a nutshell. The story is quite entertaining. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
First off, there are the characters. There’s Henry Hill, who begins the film as curious pre-teen and ends it as misplaced adult cursing his fate. The trajectory is quite good. He starts the film as somewhat innocent and ends it as beaten. But not remorseful the way most movies of this type would end. Hill is something of an asshole. But we feel a certain sense of sympathy for him.
Then there’s Jimmy Conway. As played by DeNiro, Conway’s one mobster whom you do not want to cross. But he does have certain layers of humanity. Same goes for Paul Cicero. Cicero’s the mobster who won’t harm you as long as you don’t harm him. But if you do…
Then we have the truly psychotic Tommy DeSimone (Joe Pesci). Psychotic is the true word for Tommy. Watch him go from cracking a joke to blowing someone away. If Macaulay Culkin had gone up against Tommy in the Home Alone movies, he wouldn’t have utilized Rube Goldberg devices against him. No, he would’ve run away screaming.
We can’t forget the women either. There’s Karen the tough no-nonsense lady who begins the film as Henry’s disbelieving mistress, only to gradually be simultaneously appalled and drawn in by all that Henry’s lifestyle offers. There are a few moments where Scorsese switches the telling of the story from Henry’s POV to Karen’s. This is a tricky thing to do as it could’ve easily thrown the rhythm of the story off. But Bracco and Scorsese make it work.
That brings us to another aspect that makes Goodfellas a classic: the direction. Scorsese (who wrote the movie with some assistance from Nicholas Pileggi) brings the characters and the situations to life. Watch that tracking shot where Henry and Karen walk in to the Copa. Watch the scene where Henry, Jimmy and Tommy dig up a corpse and are almost collapsing from the smell. Notice how they give you the you are there feel.
Scorsese knows how to use humor and tension at just the right moments. Witness how he inserts some footage of Henny Youngman into a scene and manages to lighten the scene without cheapening it. Watch the climactic scene where a coked-out Henry gradually thinks he’s going crazy as he heads for his downfall.
That scene itself is set to a superb classic rock soundtrack, which brings us to another great aspect of Goodfellas: the music. There’s lots of great music in the film. But Scorsese had more on his mind than selling soundtracks. He doesn’t just throw songs on as background noise. Witness the aforementioned classic rock montage for the climax. Witness the use of the piano outro from Derek and the Dominoes “Layla” for a scene where a body is disposed of. The songs are used in a way that complements the story.
I try to think of any possible flaws there might be with this movie and the ones that do come to mind are so minor (a few glitches in editing) that they aren’t worth mentioning. Goodfellas is one of the few times where a filmmaker has actually achieved cinematic perfection. So I say this: see Goodfellas if you haven’t already done so. If you have, yet haven’t watched it in a while, watch it again. Buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray.