Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese (screenplay), Nicholas Pileggi (book)
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Lorraine Bracco
Goodfellas is a film in which everyone is doing the best at what they do best. Alongside Taxi Driver, it is Martin Scorsese’s most undisputed masterpiece for several important reasons. The most prominent reason is Scorsese’s technique, which is now one of the most easily identifiable “auteur” signatures. From his use of rock music to the way his camera bobs, ducks and weaves alongside these mobsters, he defines the world they live in in almost every capacity.
Helping him do this in front of the camera is a now-legendary acting ensemble that seems as if it were tailored specifically to this material. Ray Liotta is the turbulent center, but when Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are on the fringes, it’s hard not to shift the spotlight. These three, along with Paul Sorvino, comprise the core of this version of the Italian mob’s structure. Unlike The Godfather, ceremony is kept at somewhat of a minimum. Scorsese has said before that he wanted to make this a movie about post-Godfather mobsters. Therefore, what ceremony there is in this movie seems forced by the characters.
Almost every character in Goodfellas resembles Sonny Corleone. This is a movie mafia of raging tempers, prone to violent outbursts at the drop of a hat. Pesci’s Tommy DeVito represents the extreme of this, willing to kill someone for messing up his drink or telling him to go home and get his shine box.
Masculinity and honor are at the thematic forefront here as they are in many mob movies. Unlike most of those movies (The Godfather included), there is room for a female character away from the sidelines. Karen Hill’s (Lorraine Bracco) character arc is crucial to the development of the narrative. Her evolution from outsider to compromiser to complacent criminal shows us how easily the scent of the American Dream corrupts. We see it early on with Henry (Liotta) as a young boy in New York City, but it is rushed through because his character is not about corruption.
Henry faces no moral dilemma with his profession in Goodfellas. His betrayal at the end is ultimately a result of weary self-interest. He and Karen go to the police together and openly negotiate the terms of their induction into the Witness Protection Program. As he sits on the witness stand and rats out his friends, the now-signature character narration takes over as well as a bizarre breach of the Fourth Wall. Hill (and Scorsese) want everyone to know that the Dream is over at the end.
That weary conclusion, as well as the rest of this fairly standard rise-and-fall story is injected with extraordinary amounts of pure cinematic life. Scorsese’s frantic editing (of course in conjunction with his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker) seem to plow right through the material. It isn’t rushed, though, because the authenticity of the environment creates a world where traditional explanation is not necessary. We’re often taken inside the characters heads on the fly, from Henry’s narration of his childhood induction into crime to Karen’s bafflement at the excesses of the night club on her early dates with Henry.
That night club scene contains one of the most infamous and brilliant tracking shots in movie history. Henry walks through the back door with his arm around Karen, past the bouncers and other VIPs, through the kitchen and out into the crowded floor, where a special table is brought out and placed directly by the stage and wine is immediately sent over from another table. Karen’s narration helps solidify her status as a vessel into this unknown world. We are left to grapple with violence and come to accept it as natural much like she is.
Lorraine Bracco, now better known as the shrink from The Sopranos, does wonders with this role, but is often overshadowed by the performances from DeNiro and Pesci. She is an important stepping stone in the evolution of the Mob Wife.
While Karen is the one audiences are meant to connect with in this material, that is largely not the way it goes down. When people quote Goodfellas, much like when they quote The Godfather, they pull those quotes from the most derelict, often violent characters. Quotes about honor, and what a man has to do for it, are both what make these movies famous and what they are trying to examine and critique.
Pesci’s introductory monologue, after another tracking shot through the bar introducing some prominent gangsters, is perhaps the definitive scene in both the movie and his career. Shot in a restaurant that is tinted red and black, as if the gangsters are burrowed safely in their violent underworld. Tommy is holding court like only an actor like Pesci could understand- talking of violence violently. Then Henry calls him “a funny guy.”
As it says in a feature on the Blu-ray, Scorsese shot this scene wide, so that we could see the entire crowd as Tommy goes on a rant about being a clown. Most directors would give Pesci his close-up here, but this performance and this scene are too volcanic for that. Seeing their reactions as they all ponder “Is he serious? Is he about to kill this man?” adds a rich level of authenticity simply by the director pulling the shot back.
Of course, Tommy does eventually explode with laughter, and Henry does too. But for a few crucial moments, both the audience and the crowd are unsure whether to expect violence or laughter. Teetering on the edge of violence and madness is something this movie does better than almost any other.
While the night club scene and the tracking shot are a great summation of the movie’s thematic and technical fusion, the purest moment of filmmaking prowess comes toward the end in Henry’s cocaine fueled recollection of his day’s events toward the end. Scorsese jumps around with him in a frenzy of music and jumpy editing, as he prepares dinner, picks up his brother, delivers weapons and searches frantically for an FBI helicopter that may or may not exist.
Liotta is an actor that is capable of terrific work within the confines of a certain image, as is Pesci. They unparallelled are big screen tough guys, conveying sudden and immediate rage like few performers can. DeNiro and Bracco are performers capable of much more diversity in their roles. Goodfellas makes room for all of them, and Nicholas Pileggi’s adaptation of his true crime book differentiates the characters enough so that no one wiseguy sounds too much like another.
As is always the case with American auteurs, though, Scorsese’s directorial vision is what guides his films to their immortality. A great performance can only do so much for a film with no purpose. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights copies pages of technique from Scorsese’s Goodfellas playbook. You can clearly see that, but that world feels alien to the one Scorsese effortlessly creates here. This technique works because this director knows how he wants you to see this violent world, and then he takes you there and makes you see it all.