Based on the confessions of mobster Henry Hill, Goodfellas brings the epic style of The Godfather to the suburbs of New York. Scorsese was still suffering from the controversy surrounding Last Temptation of Christ when Goodfellas was released. It may have even seemed foolhardy at the time to follow up with this obscenity littered film, but for Scorsese it was really about going back to his roots, and doing what he does best - namely astutely observed films about gangsters. It clearly paid off as the film is an acknowledged modern classic.
Goodfellas is full of moral ambiguities, but whilst it undoubtedly depicts a certain seductive quality to the mafia, it doesn't shy away from the gruesome details either. Former crime reporter and author Nick Pileggi spent four years interviewing Hill before he collaborated with Scorsese on the screenplay. The outcome is frighteningly convincing, and a veritable who's who of the Italian-American Mafia scene in the sixties and seventies. Goodfellas portrays the reality of the Mafia world, the highs and lows, the pinnacle of what it is to be a 'made man', as well as the violence and constant state of fear that presides over men who can't even trust their closest friends.
Scorsese's enthusiasm for character driven cinema provides his actors with fantastic roles and serves to unite him once more with longstanding collaborator Robert De Niro. De Niro's Jimmy is introduced as the sort who "roots for the bad guys in the movies", and he does, at first, appear quite likeable. So too does Ray Liotta who, as Henry, is our narrator and the window into the world of Goodfellas for the audience. Finally, of the main three, there is Joe Pesci, a complete revelation as startlingly brutal psychopath Tommy. Their narrative follows a pseudo-tragic structure, but unlike the gangsters familiar to us from the James Cagney era, these characters do not grow in stature or garner empathy as the film progresses. In fact the reverse is true, with lies and betrayal of Shakespearean proportions serving to peel back the layers and slowly reveal characters who are nothing but shallow and self serving.
Scorsese emphasises the realism by using documentary style camerawork and past tense voiceovers from both Henry Hill and his wife Karen (superbly portrayed by Lorraine Bracco - who is, incidentally, married to another Scorsese regular, Harvey Keitel, in real life). Karen is dragged somewhat unwittingly into the role of gangster's moll, entranced by the glamour as much as by the charismatic Henry. By the time her eyes have been opened to the truth it is too late to get out.
Scorsese further sets the tone of scenes using popular music from the era, as he did in his earlier film Mean Streets (in many ways a companion piece to Goodfellas). He is also indebted to Sam Fuller, another maverick director, particularly in the way the fight scenes are shot, using long takes and a tracking camera to create energy and movement. Scorsese adds to this with his trademark floating overhead shots which atmospherically portray the sense of impending violence constant in Goodfellas. The most famous and beautifully choreographed scene of all is Henry and Karen's entrance to the Copacabana club. The way the camera relentlessly pursues them as they weave their way through the busy kitchen and to a table on the front row is so astounding it's almost like you're right there with them....and the last fifteen minutes of the film are so full of tension even Hitchcock would be jealous. The result is a highly polished, intelligent piece of film-making, and a stylistic masterpiece.