Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1990. Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino. Drama.

Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s real life true crime book on minor criminal Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas marks the last great film for the director and for most of the high caliber talent on both sides of the camera. Spanning three decades, this epic is the ultimate and maybe final word on the world of organized crime. These guys don’t seem to be as politically connected as the Corleones of The Godfather or even the Jersey gangsters of The Sopranos (which carries many crossover cast members), they are a petty crime crew of thieves and are willing to use extreme violence to protect their interests and egos. However as the culture of the '70s takes root in their old-world existence, though warned by their highest authority, Pauley (Paul Sorvino), not to get involved with drugs, they eventually lead to Henry’s downfall. It’s an amazing journey made more amazing by the brilliant filmmaking style of director Scorsese working at the peak of his creative powers.

Like a life in crime itself the film sucks you in, showing you the highlights then becoming increasingly dangerous, and eventually you're searching for a way out. As far back as Henry can remember he wanted to be a gangster. The young Irish-Italian kid gets a job working for the mob at their cabstand. They take him under their wing, teaching him the ways of a criminal, as well as the philosophy (most importantly “never rat on your friends”). With an unhappy home life, the gangsters make Henry feel a part of something bigger than him. Eventually he grows up to be played by the actor, Ray Liotta. Coming off of strong good guy and bad guy performances in Field Of Dreams and Something Wild, Liotta proves to be ingenious casting by Scorsese. Though handsome and charming in a rogue way he’s an offbeat leading man who brings a lot of danger to every role (peaking as the aging, corrupt cop in Narc). As an adult Henry becomes a part of the crew led by Jimmy The Gent (Robert De Niro) and his psychotic nephew, Tommy (Joe Pesci, brilliant in an Oscar winning performance). The film follows their ever-escalating crime schemes peaking with a famous Air France robbery.

Along the way Henry meets, falls in love with, and marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco, later playing the shrink on The Sopranos to much acclaim), a woman of Jewish descent. At first she is shocked by Henry’s criminal lifestyle, but soon comes to be awed by the financial benefits and then dependent on it. Sometime the narration of the film moves from Henry to Karen as we see the world through both of their eyes. Henry’s constant womanizing eventually leads to her putting a gun in Henry's face and to confronting his girlfriend on the side, Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo). Meanwhile Tommy’s increasingly violent and erratic behavior leads him to brutally killing both a young employee, Spider, and a rival gangster, Billy Batts (both played by two more actors who would go onto The Sopranos, Michael Imperioli and Frank Vincent).

Doing time in prison, besides being a chance to learn how to cook quality Italian food, gives Henry the opportunity to start dealing in illegal narcotics, a trade Henry continues on the outside, while he and Karen become heavy users themselves. Finally a massive sting gets him and his at-home cocaine operation busted. He is disowned by his mobster friends and breaks that number one criminal vow, becoming a rat, testifying against his gang in court, hiding out in witness protection, and then the ultimate downfall for a guy like Henry, becoming a complete nobody. What a long strange trip it’s been.

This would be the sixth and best collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro (a string of mostly all high points: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy,  while the unbearable musical New York, New York would be their nadir). Though they would both go on to make some hit films separately, nothing would equal the work they created together. After Goodfellas they continued the collaboration much less successfully with the remake of Cape Fear, which felt like an SNL spoof of the original Robert Mitchum film. Bringing Pesci back into the fold for Casino felt like a spoof of Goodfellas, most of the same talent trying to recapture the magic in an overly long and loud film that petered out after about a half hour.

At least two scenes in Goodfellas will always be remembered, the long one-take shot from the street through the kitchen and into the Copacabana as Henry tries to impress Karen and the scene were Tommy suddenly turns on Henry asking him, “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?” Across the board, from the four leads to the minor characters, the performances are exhilarating (including Samuel Jackson briefly as one of the gang on a heist). The soundtrack is wall to wall pop music, and as the music in the film changes so does the style technically; by the time we reach the Sex Pistols the film has gone from a smooth optimism of the mid-'50s to the hard edged, drug-fueled paranoia of 1980.

Goodfellas has reached the status of quintessential viewing not just as an all-time great crime film - and certainly one of the best films of the 1990s - but also for the pure exciting adrenaline rush of filmmaking craft. On all technical levels the film is superb, if not perfect. It’s edited very creatively by Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (meeting and beginning their collaboration when she was the head editor on Woodstock) and shot beautifully by his side, sometimes cameraman Michael Ballhaus (who was once Fassbinder’s longtime guy before coming to America). Goodfellas serves as the perfect introduction to the work of Scorsese, as with Quentin Tarantino his films can often feel like a best-of past films, but also like Tarantino he steals from other films with class and style, putting his own spin on it, until it becomes his own. Goodfellas is truly a thrilling film watching experience that gets better with multiple viewings.


Goodfellas won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci). It was nominated for an additional five Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 23, 2011 3:30pm
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