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Dissecting the Classics – Goodfellas

April 20, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: September 19, 1990
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, based on Pileggi’s Wiseguy
Produced By: Irwin Winkler
Cinematography By: Michael Ballhaus
Edited By: Thelma Schoonmaker
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Ray Liotta as Henry Hill
Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito
Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway
Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill
Paul Sorvino as Paul “Paulie” Cicero

What Do We All Know?

Before Goodfellas came out, writer-director Martin Scorsese’s place as one of the preeminent directors of his generation was already established. He made one of the absolute best movies of the 1970’s (Taxi Driver) and what is almost certainly the best movie of the 1980’s (Raging Bull), and while most of his other movies have mixed reviews, when you’ve made two of the finest movies ever made, you’ve got a legacy. And then Scorsese firmly planted his claim to having the best movie of the 1990s when this epic true story of mobsters was unleashed on cinemas. While Scorsese and his film were once-again robbed of Oscar glory (no offense to the very good Dances With Wolves, it just isn’t in the same league), it didn’t take long for most industry analysts to crown it one of the greatest achievements of his career and one of the greatest mobster movies ever made.

Goodfellas is virtually a perfect movie. What is kind of impressive about that is that even at that level of excellence, it’s still probably the third best movie of Scorsese’s career and is arguably only the third best movie in its genre. Comparing Goodfellas to the first two Godfathers is surprisingly difficult; Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces are works of fiction, a great American fable. Goodfellas, based on crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, is a stylized retelling of genuine facts; Henry Hill was a mobster-turned-FBI informant and this is his story. So, while the genre similarities are there, the presentation and content is still entirely different. And with that preface, let’s dive deeper into Goodfellas.

What Went Right?

Goodfellas follows Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill’s rise and fall in the mob, from his childhood wish to join the gangsters, his promotions and arrests through his career, his life-threatening downfall, and his switch to an informant. Ray Liotta plays Hill, but an equally important role for Liotta is the narration, as he gives us an inside look at life in the mob, introducing us to everyone and talking about their various tasks and pastimes with fascination and flair. If this didn’t work, the movie probably would have fallen short of a classic. But it would still be excellent thanks to a crackling screenplay, ingenious camera work, masterful editing and one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled.

Unlike Scorsese’s previous masterpieces which were primarily character studies of singular individuals, Goodfellas features several great actors giving excellent performances. His ace in the hole Robert de Niro is there playing Jimmy Conway, doing a 180 degree turn from the frightening seriousness of his roles in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Lorraine Bracco stands out as perhaps the most likable wife character in any mob movie, and handles her own bits of narration well. I also appreciate that while there are understandable moments of tension in the relationship between Henry and Karen, at the end they have each other’s backs. It’s a rare occurrence in the genre. There is an extremely good performance from Paul Sorvino here as Paulie, who functions as the father figure to Henry.

And of course, there is Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, a wiseguy with a short fuse and an animalistic temper. Pesci got an Oscar for this role, and while he has done great work before and after this, I think this will always be the role he’s remember for most. He’s the epitome of a dark horse character, someone who isn’t in the movie nearly as much as Henry, Paulie or even Karen, yet makes such an impression because of how terrifyingly unstable he is and how convincing Pesci is in the role. Gene Siskel identified the character as the most important one in the film because it shows how Scorsese is condemning the mob as violent scum, and he’s got a point. Pesci embodies the larger-than-life charisma that makes the mafia life appealing to Henry, but he also embodies the senseless violence that threatens him and his family when he falls out of favor.

That’s the movie’s main theme; Scorsese understands that the gangster lifestyle, with its power and money and freedom, is appealing on the surface level. That’s why we’ve made so many gangster movies; it’s a warped vision of the American Dream. The first hour of the movie very much romanticizes the mafia through Henry’s narration, through the long intimate tracking shots, the camaraderie of the characters, and an endless series of love songs that play over these events. We also see Henry laughing off Tommy’s fits of violence and Karen normalizing the criminal lifestyle because of how she benefits it. Things take a turn when Tommy murders made man Billy Batts; the consequences of the lifestyle become more dire and we see that Henry is no longer laughing at the violence. It scares him. And this is where Liotta really shines as a character who realizes that he wants to escape but is in too far deep.

After an exhilarating opening, Goodfellas seamlessly changes its view on the mob and changes its style in the process. The love songs of the 1950’s are replaced with rock ‘n’ roll, the glamorous, easy heists are supplanted by the messy drug business, the playful violence evolves into a series of brutal murders, the camaraderie devolves into paranoia and backstabbing, and the long takes are nowhere to be found as quick cuts from multiple angles ramp up the tension. This is an example of Scorsese at his absolute best. The man is a moviemaking genius, a master storyteller who knows his medium inside and out, and is capable of sneaking a cautionary tale into a movie as fun and exhilarating as this one.

I think the fact that Goodfellas is a good time may be what makes it stand out among Scorsese’s classics. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ are more meditative, slow burn pieces of art. Goodfellas is one of the fastest moving two-and-a-half-hour films I’ve ever seen, and even when it switches over into being about the negative experience of gangster life, it remains exciting. Perhaps that’s why it bridges a gap and is popular with viewers who aren’t always into Scorsese’s slower work. It’s easy to see the influence of this movie on later works like Casino, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street.

What Went Wrong?

One would have to strain really, really hard to find any meaningful complaint about this movie. Unless you have no stomach for mob violence and foul language, Goodfellas will entertain you. And unless you have difficulty understanding the difference between glamorization and a cautionary tale, I can’t imagine anyone having a moral problem with it early. Like I said, it’s pretty much a perfect movie. If there is a weak spot, it may be that Ray Liotta is only slightly less excellent than the rest of the ensemble cast, but that’s why it’s an ensemble movie.

And In Summary…

Goodfellas is a certified classic, one of the finest films by one of the best directors of all time. Scorsese can make a great movie in his sleep, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s almost without peer. Goodfellas is one of the best mobster movies ever made, one of the best movies of the 1990s, and we’ll still be talking about decades from now as a certified classic. It’s the very definition of a must-watch movie.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks

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