As far back as I can remember I always loved Goodfellas, and even though I’m 25, it’s just not everyday that you can say one of your favourite films is 30 years old. This unequivocally timeless mobster film was released the same year as The Godfather Part III, the uninspiring final installment of the trilogy that at the time was pegged as the biggest mob film of the year. But 30 years ago this month Scorsese debuted his revolutionary and masterful turn of the genre at the Venice Film Festival, which stands out as one of the most blisteringly impactful films of the 20th century. Its stellar cast is one of its greatest assets, comprising of relative newcomers Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco to stalwarts such as Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Paul Sorvino. Even fleeting appearances from future Sopranos star Michael Imperioli who feels the wrath of Pesci’s volatile character of Tommy, made such an impact as Spider writhing on the ground of the bar in that brief scene where he cries out ‘no, I thought you said you’re alright, Spider.’ Even though as we all know Spider wasn’t alright in the end.
Adapted from Wiseguy, Nicolas Pilleggi’s account of Henry Hills’ life, Scorsese took the source material which formed the basis for his canvas, on which he would paint an intricate portrait of Italian American wiseguys. What he so finely captured wasn’t just the conventional tropes of a genre, which by 1990 was wearing thin, he managed to weave in that enviable and universal sense of community spirit that is synonymous with being part of a gang. Sequences aptly display why Ray Liotta’s character of Henry Hill was repeatedly told, “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut,” and we get a sense of how this culture of silence to protect others in your tribe really doubles as solidarity and dedication to ‘the life.’ And with an abusive father, we can justify how Hill sought paternalistic protection and refuge in an organised crime group that acted as a surrogate father.
When I think of Goodfellas, many of the most memorable scenes involve Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill, the innocent Jewish girl who marries into a male-dominated, Catholic-centric world. We witness her symbolic baptism by fire as she is thrust into uncharted territory as the wife of a gangster and everything that comes with it. Karen doesn’t condone the lifestyle in theory, but in practice she accepts Henry’s mob-related activities and on occasion even takes part. Scorsese uses Karen as a vector for the audience perspective, her curiosity and observational qualities mean that she actively questions the life and even despises the tackiness of the other wives around her. Bracco gives a dazzling performance, most memorably screaming through the intercom of Henry’s apartment he purchased for his mistress. Karen threatens the cowering girl, refusing to believe her husbands’ revelation to the audience that Saturday was for the wives, but Fridays were always for the girlfriends.
Throughout the film we follow a young Henry Hill as he becomes more entwined in the wiseguy life, charting everything from his enviable influence around town to his inevitable demise as the anxiety reaches fever pitch. Despite the overwhelming sense throughout that surely, this all has to end in tears, Scorsese creates a sense of nostalgia for a life you’ve never even lived.
There are particular scenes in this intricately woven tapestry that stand out in your mind with colour and vibrancy. They stay with you, because each scene is a work of art, every frame and transition is like watching a Caravaggio piece being created from scratch. The most widely recognised scene in Goodfellas is the long tracking shot that follows Henry and Karen as they enter the Copacabana through the back entrance. In terms of craft its a huge accomplishment but Scorsese’s use of the Steadicam isn’t just a spectacle for his aesthetic; it is a wonderfully constructed sequence that embodies the concept of the film. With a raven beauty on his arm, a private entrance into the Copacabana, waiters parting like the Red Sea to get out of his way in the corridors, and the best seat in the house being produced out of thin air, it manages to capture that elusive moment in time when Henry Hill felt untouchable.
Scorsese himself once said “music and film are inseparable. They always have been and always will be.” For me, the most distinguished scene that is infused with musicality is the sequence documenting the fate of numerous murders, punctuated by Ray Liotta’s qualified narration all set against the beauty of Layla by Derek and the Dominos. As we’re brought through the discovery of bodies laid out like dolls in the pink Cadillac and hanging amidst the frozen meat in the truck, these images profoundly resonate against the latter half of the most beautiful song in rock history. The personalised score that Scorsese crafted for Goodfellas has a range of eclectic genres peppered throughout the film, ranging from Dean Martins’ Rags to Riches, to songs from both of Eric Clapton’s bands Cream and Derek and the Dominos. Scorsese’s eyes and ears work in tandem as music is fine-tuned to fit scenes and sequences – the music is transcendent.
Spirituality creeps in
Spirituality and the hold that Catholicism has over Scorsese is littered throughout his film repertoire. From the opening credits of Mean Streets with Harvey Keitel’s prophecy, we witness the beginning of an enduring career where an artist seeks answers through his work, ‘you don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.’ It’s a thematic thread that bubbles up in his scripts and in that sense, the blanket label of ‘mob movie’ genre isn’t entirely accurate, as he explores everything from crime to community and spirituality.
Legacy and influences
Many people compare the coke-fuelled debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street with its predecessor. Parallels exist between DiCaprio’s arrogant, entitled Jordan Belfort and Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, both men become victims of the pitfalls that inevitably come from the life they are now irrevocably intertwined with. Both follow the broad character arc that shows how a life built on power, influence and risk ultimately ends up with a man crippled with anxiety stemming from a loss of control. Towards the end we see a coked-up Liotta exemplifying this paranoia at the top, as he convinces himself that the helicopter flying above is watching his every move, all the while he keeps a watchful eye on the tomato sauce simmering on the stove.
And what about time?
Has it aged? Is it still timeless? More so than ever. To me, Goodfellas is why people go to film school – you have a story in your head and you get that down on a reel and make the audience feel something. Scorsese does that. A significant issue for me and a weight I’ve been carrying around for the last five or so years is the realisation that De Niro has a range. He has a very good range, but he stays comfortably within that. There’s no doubt he gives a fantastic performance as Jimmy Conway, the personable mentor to both Tommy and Henry. But perhaps in the years since, instead of letting a great performance lie, he has exhumed it and mercilessly rehashed the same mannerisms and character ticks again and again. And that’s blindingly obvious now in a way it wasn’t years ago.
Scorsese has done much more than refine and curate the mob-movie genre with films like Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. His style of filmmaking is so arresting that when coupled with a good story, it stands the test of time and transcends any genre. And as I previously said, this blanket label of the mob movie doesn’t really apply as Scorsese infuses his work with subjects that seem to equally haunt and intrigue him. In later years, the public would become fascinated by one of Scorsese’s biggest, mainstream movie in years with The Wolf of Wall Street, an in-depth study on the dalliances and debauchery of those in corporate America. This excellent piece owes a great deal of its brilliance to Goodfellas, and I’ve no doubt that Wolf will stand up in stature in another 30 years in the same way its inspiration did. That’s why Scorsese’s film seems so timeless, because he explores more than the world he seeks to portray and in doing that he draws us further in. In short, Goodfellas’ legacy remains one of the tightest, slickly made gangster films of all time and served, for better or for worse, as a cultural reference point for countless future works to anxiously look up to.