TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 November 2017
I have always regarded Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film, Goodfellas, as a 'defining’ film, both for the film-maker personally, the film pulling together themes and cast (in particular) from earlier films (Mean Streets and Raging Bull) and, arguably, for the genre, the film providing as skilful and perceptive a dissection of the attraction (and failings) of the gangster lifestyle as any film. Of course, the film could (rightly) be criticised for glamorising the violent, brutal, amoral existence of its protagonists but, perversely, it is this, however unpalatable, truth (the film being based on Nicholas Pileggi’s real-life gangster account, Wiseguy) that cements the film’s reputation and authenticity – the ultimate perversion of the American Dream, if you like, a dream that turns into a nightmare. Stylistically, Scorsese has never been on surer (or, to this point, slicker) form, boasting an outstanding cast of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent, etc., a typically evocative soundtrack of songs following the maturation of Ray Liotta’ Henry Hill from schoolboy to Mr Big (1950s to 1980s) and plenty of exhilarating visuals, courtesy of Michael Ballhaus’ dynamic (and sharply edited) cinematography.
The film’s screenplay is, of course, another highlight – again authentic, perceptive and witty. It is not surprising to learn that improvisation played a significant role in arriving at the finished script, for example, as Pesci’s volatile Tommy DeVito baits Hill ('What’s funny?) in a standout scene. Indeed, it is Scorsese and Pileggi’s dialogue that contribute to the film being very funny – for me, this is actually one of its foremost qualities – playing up the idiosyncrasies of this close-knit set of immigrant communities (Italian, Irish, Jewish) and the oddball characters within e.g. Jimmy Two-Times. A particularly amusing detail here is that of the Italian obsession with cooking – just as much a male as female interest ('too many onions’). Unsurprisingly, the screenwriters also get down to a tee the rationale behind the appeal to Christopher Serrone’s teenage Henry of his neighbourhood mobsters – namely that of status, power and respect (even if the latter is usually cowering). Equally, the patriarchal system in place in Henry’s world is dominant – women are characterised by the 'whore/cook’ maxim, with the conveniently overlooked hypocrisy of this position evident via the revered treatment of mothers and the superficial respect attributed to the institution of marriage (and family). That said, the mobsters’ women are attracted to the glamour and wealth of their lifestyle as Lorraine Bracco’s Karen (wife to Henry) says, 'It got to be all normal’.
Acting-wise, relative newcomer Liotta impresses as Scorsese’s main protagonist (and narrator), whilst each of De Niro as Jimmy Conway and Pesci are just about perfect (the latter winning the film’s only Oscar). Elsewhere, Paul Sorvino is excellent as the veteran 'voice of restraint’, Paulie, whilst each of Scorsese’s parents also put in an appearance, his mother Catherine, featuring in another standout sequence playing Tommy’s mother, as her son, Jimmy and Henry drop in for a midnight feast, prior to disposing of a corpse. Throughout, Ballhaus’ cinematography is outstanding, featuring freeze-frames, a roving camera (e.g. to introduce the local 'goodfellas’) and the famous three-minute tracking shot following Henry and Karen’s entry to the Copacabana nightclub. Scorsese is also typically adept in the choice of soundtrack, morphing from The Crystals, The Chantels, The Shangri-Las and Aretha Franklin during the film’s early (at times, romantic) exhilaration through to the drug-addled devastation via The Stones (Gimme Shelter), Cream, Derek and the Dominos (the instrumental outro to Layla) and culminating, appropriately enough, with Sid Vicious’ version of My Way.
I was reminded (again) just recently of how good a piece of film-making Goodfellas is, for me, certainly up there with Scorsese’s own Mean Streets and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America as one of the finest examples of the genre.