Are you sitting down? ‘Goodfellas’ is now 27 years old. Shocking yet not shocking, right? For this is a film that feels like it has always been with us, always on an unquestionably high pedestal of the utmost admiration. One of the greatest gangster movies of all time, a movie of epic proportions that spans almost thirty years in the space of 146 minutes and marks a career high of one of Hollywood’s finest auteurs. In fact for many it is Scorsese’s finest movie – a pitch perfect blend of sobering thrills, criminal capers, reflexive rage and workplace humour of a certain ilk. The world the film occupies is one that was real for a only select few; a world where power is everything and all can be yours if you speak/threaten/kill the right people…
Scorsese gives us unrestricted access to the realm of the Goodfellas, a group of gangsters operating out of a blue-collar Italian-American neighbourhood in Brooklyn, East New York. Henry Hill (Liotta) is our guide to proceedings, explaining to us via voiceover narration in the films opening moments that “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry is the kind of guy that seems to fall into events and schemes, possessing little more natural inclination than a nose for trouble. He’s the kind of guy who, had he not ended up rolling with the mob, would have ended up as a nobody prone to telling anybody who won’t listen that he ‘could’ve been somebody’.
As a protagonist he epitomises why the film works so incredibly well as he, and by obvious extension Scorsese, allows us to be simultaneously detached yet admiring of all that we see. We’re intrinsically repulsed by the deeds and behaviour yet are drawn to it. We cannot help but watch. As human beings we are naturally drawn to power & authority, our cavemen ancestors survived thanks to their belonging in tribes. Our innate survival instinct pulls us towards membership in packs and groups as they, seemingly, provide a sense of community and therefore safety. Henry believes that being part of the mob will provide that sense of belonging; Scorsese isn’t afraid to show us how hollow and short such a life would be.
And yet it’s a life that we as viewers voyeuristically participate in. We become unwitting accomplices to various horrific crimes and as the violence becomes increasingly vicious we still don’t feel the urge to run away. As Henry’s behaviour becomes more unhinged and frantic, disintegrating in front of our eyes, we’re still hypnotically drawn in. Such is the seductive force of the mob – personified by De Niro as James Conway. He’s the celebrity figure of the group and their most menacing. Their biggest idol and their biggest threat. Fascinating yet repulsive. For the entirety of their mentor/mentee relationship Henry is desperate for James’ respect yet fearful of his wrath. It’s the kind of contradictory relationship the film masterfully explores.
This is a world we’re used to seeing glamorized – in many ways it still is within the film – but it’s not being moralised either. The film then becomes an indictment of human condition and the paradox of the American Dream. Henry’s innate sense of entitlement and want of betterment comes at the highest of costs. There’s also the fact that his downfall is brought about by his own will, or lack therefore of it. Just like the greatest of Greek tragedies our ‘hero’ of sorts is forced from his self-proclaimed Olympus by his fatal flaw – in his case drugs & vice. Scorsese doesn’t condemn Henry for this, and as a result, neither do we. It’s Liotta’s finest performance, the guiltless grinning greasy-haired Gangster yuppie who shines in the glamour then sinks into anonymity when he causes it to all crash down.
The film then serves two functions with its rise and fall narrative. During the rise, the film has moments of almost wishfulness – a debate our consciousness may not want our subconscious to admit. As the limitless Henry struts around his town we too get to be one of the fellas. Yet, the film’s stand out character and stand out performance, Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, reminds us of this paradoxical allegiance. His performance is blistering and brutal, frightening in its explosivity, as the raw canon that refuses to be contained. He steals every scene and frame that he is in – the ‘funny’ sequence in particular demonstrating the brutality and brutal humour that cements the film as being of cinematic perfection.
The film’s bold swagger is declared from the outset and maintains its tone of claustrophobic thrill until the crumbling end. The timing of this re-release in interesting as ‘Silence’ – Scorsese’s 23rd feature film – entered cinemas on New Year’s Day. Though the films differ vastly in terms of setting/plot (the mob in 1950’s America and Christianity in 17th Century Japan) they possess the same quasi-religious centre. Both films focus on sin and the regret – Catholic guilt – that comes with impulsive decisions, how an omnipotent mythology can be brought down by seductive influences and our innate sense that even if we knew the outcomes of our actions would we still follow through anyway. Purgatory in a perfectly soundtracked package.
- Dir: Martin Scorcese
- Scr: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
- Cast: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr.
- Prd: Irwin Winkler
- DOP: Michael Ballhaus
- Music: Christopher Brooks
- Country: USA
- Year: 1990
- Run time: 146 minutes
A new 4k restoration ‘Goodfellas’ is opening at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide on 20 January 2017.