GREAT FILMS: Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas (USA, 1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert de Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco 

IMDb Top 250: #18 (13/5/18)

In my review of The Untouchables, I argued that Hollywood has struggled to do justice to Al Capone because he had effectively "become the cliché of the Hollywood gangster". By extension, American cinema has all too often succumbed to the dangers of 'big man history'; it get so easily seduced by the often exciting mythology of famous individuals that its depiction of said people loses all semblance of reality or believability. Even in cases where truth is stranger than fiction, Hollywood often presents it in a way which makes us suspect that we are not being told the truth at all.
When Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy, he said that he wanted to "get hold of a soldier in Napoleon's army". He wanted, in other words, the observations of an ordinary player in the drama, stripped of all the spin and legend-making that surrounds the leading men. Martin Scorsese as a director has often excelled in finding the remarkable, striking or shocking in ordinary surroundings, and of using subtle changes in storytelling (including his patented use of music) to wrong-foot his audience. The combination of these two talents is thereby a match made in heaven, and when you marry it to three cracking central performances, Goodfellas becomes a truly great film.
There is a very fine line in cinema between depicting something in painstaking detail and glamourising it. Films as varied as Green Street and Death Wish have fallen into the trap of praising something utterly wretched and despicable in their (alleged) desire to be as accurate and realistic as possible about the people involved. So often criminals in crime dramas or thrillers are set up in the beginning as the people whom we should revile, but their exciting exploits and rebellious attitudes (as written by Hollywood) can often make them more exciting than the law-abiding citizens (especially when Kevin Costner is involved).
Goodfellas, like Killing Them Softly more than two decades after it, succeeds because it rejects any rose-tinted picture of a life on the wrong side of the law - and does it without it feeling like a moral lesson being hammered into our heads. But where Andrew Dominik's film set its criminals up as lowlifes and then made them sink lower, Scorsese pulls us in slowly, offering us the romantic or stylish side to Italian-American crime and then pulling the rug from under our feet when it's too late to run away. Starting the film in media res with the death of Billy Batts is not just a way of avoiding it being a run-of-the-mill 'rise and fall' story: by starting at the point at which things turn, we know from the outset that however good it seems, it won't last and it won't pay.
Any romance that remains within Scorsese's film is very much ironic, with his attention to detail and knowledge of his own heritage being used to make the more violent and graphic aspects ring all the more true. With The Godfather and its sequels, there was always an element of nostalgia for 'the old country', for the traditional structures of Sicilian life and the Mafia's role in preserving that order. Goodfellas acknowledges this heritage (and, through De Niro's presence, the influence of Francis Ford Coppola's work), but the families it presents are dysfunctional and undesirable; the man are aggressive, unfaithful and two-faced, while the women are either downtrodden, air-headed or too drugged up to care.
One of the most common themes of crime films is the idea of people turning to crime because living a conventional, law-abiding life doesn't bring the comfort or level of luxury which people crave or covet. Films about con artists, such as Catch Me If You Can or The Sting, often set up straight-ahead characters as being fundamentally feeble, poor and undesirable in a bid to make the lifestyle of their leading characters seem more attractive. Goodfellas cuts straight to the chase in this regard: Henry Hill becomes a gangster because he likes the riches it brings, and because making a lot of money by robbing or scamming people is easier than working an honest, badly-paid job. The film tricks us into rationalising Henry's actions, so that we berate ourselves when things go south, cursing that we should have seen it coming.
In a further comparison with The Godfather, Goodfellas is very interested in the way that criminals operate like dysfunctional families. There are the same concerns about blood and race (Italian vs Irish), the same rivalries and jockeying for position, and the same mix of respect and dread which surrounds the paternal figure. But where Michael Corleone is an insider desperate to get out of the family business, only to be pulled back in repeatedly through his loyalty, Henry is an outsider for whom Paulie serves as a surrogate father. In both cases the leading men feel pressured to act a certain way or fulfil certain roles based on the expectations of the father figure, backed up by tradition and their shared values.
So much of what makes Goodfellas great lies in the manner of its storytelling. In the excellent making-of documentary Getting Made, Pileggi and Scorsese discussed the importance of Ray Liotta's voiceover, with the emphasis being on the language used rather than its use to move the plot along. Rather than being used to "patch a little crack in the script", as Pileggi put it, the voiceover gives us a detailed insight into Henry's thought process; by giving us the little details and observations about daily life, he feels more like a real person. As his reactions grow more believable, he becomes more relatable and we get pulled further in, going along with his decisions even as the fear eats away in the background.
This approach is further reinforced by the use of music. In the post-Quentin Tarantino world, where using unusual, sometimes incongruous pop songs to accompany a scene is practically normal, it's easy to forget just how skilfully Scorsese marries music and moving images. His seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge means that he very rarely goes for the obvious or mediocre choice, and his taste is excellent. No-one else would have chosen to put Cream's 'Sunshine Of Your Love' as the backing to the sequence where Robert De Niro decides in his head to do away with those involved in the Lufthansa heist. Watching it back several times, it makes the scene all the more complete, to the point where it doesn't work without it.
In his review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Mark Kermode said that all of Tim Burton's films were "attempting to burst into song." Scorsese may not have made a bona fide musical since New York, New York, but he has retained his intuitive understanding of how music can convey a character's innermost thoughts. Even when he's cantering through a lot of plot to move things forward in a montage, it feels deft and personal rather than being padding. There is no better example of this than the sequence designed around 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominos: it flows perfectly, possessing the spot-on timing and choreography that Stanley Kubrick achieved with his SteadyCam shots, but without being clinical or drawing attention to the artifice of the situation.
The whole film looks excellent, thanks in part to the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who had previously worked with Scorsese on After Hours, The Colour of Money and The Last Temptation of Christ. He captures the period feel to a tee, bringing out just enough of the colours and styles of the setting without it feeling like a pastiche. His understanding of Scorsese's visual style was so precise that very often little coverage of a given scene was needed; shots like the long track through the restaurant were shot multiple times from the same position, rather than shooting with multiple cameras at once and then stitching the best bits together in the edit.
The central performances in Goodfellas are first-class, with each of the three leading men being given a chance to shine. Ray Liotta is terrific as Henry: you can see and appreciate the amount of research and preparation which he put in, and yet it's not mannered or restrained - he lets loose when he can and is just guarded enough when he needs to be. Robert De Niro is great as Jimmy Conway, bringing all his familiar skills to the party but working hard in every scene to be true to the character rather than just leaning on past successes. And Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his performance, is a firecracker, managing to be impulsive and dangerous without seeming over-the-top. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Paul Sorvino as Paulie and the smashing Lorraine Bracco, who beautifully balances Karen's desperation, jealousy and feeling of being in slightly over her head.
Goodfellas is a great crime film and one of the highest peaks in Scorsese's illustrious career. While it does lose a little momentum in the last 15 minutes, everything up to that point is nigh-on perfect, with great performances being matched by a tight script and highly proficient direction, creating a compelling cinematic experience which more than holds up to repeat viewing. It remains one of the greatest films of the early-1990s and one of the benchmarks against which all subsequent crime films must be measured.


NEXT REVIEW: Spellbound (1945)

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