Martin Scorcese immortalized gangster parlance, behaviour and attitudes in Goodfellas. Perhaps more than (drum roll) Coppola did in The Godfather movies; true those movies no doubt gave re-invigorated birth to the gangster genre as a viable, adult vessel of cinematic storytelling after the practical demise of the genre after the studio system days of Hollywood, but it is Scorcese’s movie, for me, that epitomizes the gangster lifestyle. With Coppola, the gangster is deified; with Scorcese, the gangster is naturalized.
The depiction of Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) life (based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 book on Hill’s life, Wiseguy) from his wide-eyed wonder days at the start of the film (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) to his initiation into the mob, to his eventual fall from grace through drug use and fingering his former mafia comrades, Scorcese weaves a roman á clef in film guise of stunning proportions. It goes without saying, then, that throughout the movie there are so many stunning moments that stick in the mind afterwards; iconic scenes that demand the film be re-viewed time and time again.
From the iconic opening retroactive murder of Billy Batts, to the disquieting scene of Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito terrifying the hell out of Henry (and us) with his “What do you mean, I’m funny?” speech, to Jimmy’s (Robert De Niro) beating up of a hapless phone box after learning of Tommy’s death, to the eventual end scene where Henry is finally in witness protection after losing everything and turns to the camera and laughs ironically while Sid Vicious’s rendition of ‘My Way’ plays us out, Goodfellas itself becomes iconic.
There is however, one scene in particular-for me at least-that epitomizes the style, imagery and theme of the movie so well and so naturally: it is of course the famous one-shot of Henry taking his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Braco) into a club through the back entrance, passing countless employees only to be seated right at the front of the stage while others wait in a massive line outside.
Stylistically, the shot is amazing; it lasts, unbroken, around 3 minutes and encompasses the entire journey from street to table. Nowadays we’re all used to shots like this because of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alfonso Cuarón, but it is so important to realise that directors have been doing this way before the new wave of independents (Goddard or Antonioni, for example), and few come close to shots like this.
In just 3 minutes we’re made aware of the world Henry inhabits, and the resplendent pleasures and privileges he is accustomed to. Nearly every person he passes is either given a tip or acknowledged friendly as the camera snakes its way behind him through the labyrinthine corridors, kitchens and finally the ballroom itself. By following both leads, Scorcese is enticing us to ‘look’ at them, to regard them with the awe they deserve, and to never take our eyes off them, all the while merrily plodding along with them to The Crystals song ‘Then He Kissed Me’. They are as gods to us; able to walk past the lowly mortals waiting outside into any place they desire, there to cavort, frolic and partake of the sweet fruits of privilege. Indeed, Goodfellas is nothing if not a film about immoral privileges, taken not given.
Importantly, it also “implicates us in the action”, as Roger Ebert points out. It sets us up as accomplices, as people who are more than willing to watch not only this spectacle of delights and privilege unfold, but also the shocking-and instantaneous, in most cases-violence that will follow. For this reason, this voyeuristic and savagely delightful image is what lends Goodfellas its sheen, its charm, its threat, and ultimately its immortal place as one of the greatest of all gangster pictures.
On 5th September 2016 Warner Bros UK. launches the Iconic Moments Collection, a beautifully matching packaged set of 22 standout titles celebrating the breadth of their catalogue.