Every director should have at least one film that can be called a classic. An indisputable masterpiece that stands out as a pinnacle of cinema. For some, though, one isn’t enough. They are the filmmakers whose every film is greeted with anticipation and whose work is judged by what they’ve done in the past. Names like Spielberg, Tarantino, Hitchcock and Lean fall into this category. Another unquestionable candidate for this list is Martin Scorsese, a director who can claim to have at least three of the greatest movies ever made on his resume- Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas, which is thirty years old this year (released in the U.K on 26th October 1990) GoodFellas is a bruising and uncompromising portrayal of the life of a gangster and a showcase for everything Scorsese is known for.
The movie could almost be described as a companion piece to another gangster classic, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). These two movies are the ultimate on-screen interpretation of life in an organised crime syndicate yet presented from two different perspectives. The Godfather is about the decision makers, the bosses who issue orders and command respect, but don’t often get their hands dirty. GoodFellas takes place on the streets, following the enforcers and the low-level employees who carry out the jobs their mob bosses give them, whether its delivering beatings to people who owe money, providing protection for desperate clients or taking out rivals. For Scorsese, the movie revitalised a career that had been severely affected by the controversy surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Re-teaming with his favourite leading man, Robert De Niro, and returning to themes that had been prevalent in his earlier career, an older, more experienced Scorsese was able to deliver a film of confidence, vitality and style.
GoodFellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguys and follows the tale of real-life mob enforcer Henry Hill, who is played by Ray Liotta. Following an early prologue set in 1955 which sets up a teenaged Henry’s induction (a sequence which gives rise to Henry’s iconic line ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster) into Paul ‘Paulie’ Cicero’s (Paul Sorvino) association in Brooklyn, New York, the bulk of the story follows Henry, his childhood friend Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Irish hijacker James ‘Jimmy’ Conway (Robert De Niro) as they build a fearsome reputation pulling off incredible schemes, including the famous Lufthansa heist of 1978, which begins their downfall. Henry’s rise and fall through the Mafia ranks is staged alongside his volatile marriage to Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), who alongside Henry, serves as one of the film’s narrators, a narrative decision which helps to underscore a degree of uncertainty surrounding Henry’s eventual fate and which helps to emphasise the unreliability of Henry as the storyteller. The film eventually ends in the 1980s, with a neurotic and paranoid Henry forced to turn his back on his old friends in order to save the lives of himself and his family.
GoodFellas is not a film about nice people, but it is a film about real people. By opening the story with Henry as a relatively innocent teenager, Scorsese can present a protagonist capable of acts of both good and evil and who is able to remain somewhat sympathetic, even as his moral compass collapses. Scorsese employs the same trait with both Jimmy and Tommy, two characters whose personalities are far more explosive than Henry’s. Tommy, a man who can fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, is shown to be deeply caring for his mother (played by Scorsese’s own) and Jimmy is incredibly generous with his money, helping out those who have fallen on harder times. On Henry’s part, he delivers a brutal beating to a man who was harassing Karen, but later he himself becomes violent towards her as his life begins to spiral. These men are not likeable, but they are compelling characters, not caricatures. It’s not hard to see why Henry becomes obsessed with the life of a gangster when seeing Jimmy in the opening segments of the film- he is charismatic, popular and powerful, which in turn, makes his final betrayal all the more shocking. Jimmy’s advice to Henry- “Never rat out your friends and always keep your mouth shut” proves to be potently prophetic as the bond between them is broken beyond repair.
Like a coiled viper, GoodFellas begins quietly, before launching into its tirade of bloodshed and carnage. The violence on display here is often shocking, sudden and visceral. Many of the moments, such as the killing of Billy Batts and the assault on Spider, are built up, bubbling away beneath the surface with tension and suspense, but others, including Tommy’s fate, come out of nowhere and unsettle the audience. Scorsese wanted the violence to be presented as ‘cold, unfeeling, almost incidental’ and he certainly achieves that. The use of violence and brute force is as much a currency for these people as money is and is often infinitely more effective. How else can you ensure someone who won’t take a bribe is brought on side? Show them what happens to people who aren’t in Paulie’s protection. If The Godfather is all about romanticising the Mafia, GoodFellas seeks to portray its darker underbelly.
Anybody who wants to study Scorsese’s visual genius can find plenty of examples in GoodFellas. With the help of his cinematographer Michael Ballhus (who worked with him on multiple projects in the 80s and 90s), Scorsese presents a fluid, flowing canvas, with a camera that is never static. He uses slow-motion, freeze frames and quick cut editing to emphasise the lifestyle and draw in the viewer. The movie’s most famous and often repeated scene is the tracking shot that follows Henry and Karen through the back of the Copacabana nightclub, passing through the kitchens and back rooms before they reach the main room where a table has already been set up for them. This sequence, which came about because Scorsese couldn’t get permission to enter the nightclub the short way, accomplishes two things- it solidifies Karen’s seduction into Henry’s world that ultimately convinces her to marry him, and it emphasises the respect and admiration Henry himself has been seeking since he first joined the gangster life as a young man. There’s also the innovative pan around the bar, where several of Henry’s fellow wise guys are introduced with the help of his voiceover, and the diner shot between Jimmy and Henry, where they are brought into focus and the background disappears (this was achieved by moving the camera away from the actors while at the same time using the zoom lens).
There is no musical score for GoodFellas, but Scorsese uses his usual trick of having pop music create atmosphere and set tone. Among the songs used in the movie include Gimme Shelter, which he has used multiple times, Ain’t that a Kick in the Head, And Then He Kissed Me, and most notably, Layla, which plays over the montage of the various mob bodies being found in the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist. The songs either incorporate elements of whatever the scene is trying to portray (Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches plays over the opening scenes of Henry fantasising about the mobster life) or to ironically satirise the character’s actions (during the helicopter ride to deliver guns to Jimmy, Jump Into the Fire by Harry Nilsson is used). Compare Scorsese’s use of popular tunes with the intrusive addition of Prince in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), which doesn’t do anything beyond promote the singer’s work.
Scorsese can draw strong performances out of even the most unremarkable of actors and GoodFellas is full of excellent acting. Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his role as the flamboyant Tommy DeVito, a part he virtually repeated in Casino (1995). His brilliance is his ability to make Tommy’s sudden change of behaviour seem believable rather than jarring- the ‘do you think I’m funny’ scene works because Pesci switches easily from offended to jokey- no matter how many times someone else tries to replicate this moment, it doesn’t work nearly as well as how Pesci plays it. It’s a mark of how respected Scorsese is that he was able to draw Pesci out of semi-retirement to star in The Irishman (2019), their third collaboration together.
Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta have less showy parts, but their work forms the foundations upon which GoodFellas is built. De Niro, who so often lately has been a shadow of his former glory, is mesmerising as Jimmy, easily holding the camera’s attention whenever he’s on screen. Jimmy is both suave and dangerous and De Niro makes the character believable and, once or twice, vulnerable. De Niro has arguably delivered his best performances under Scorsese’s direction and GoodFellas, while not the showcase that Raging Bull is, proves no exception. Liotta has the least splashy gangster to bring to life, but his unwavering, steady interpretation guides the audience into this murky, unforgiving world and he himself has rarely been as good as he is here. Also, of note are Lorraine Bracco (her most impressive work to date) as the spiky yet frightened Karen, Paul Sorvino as the jovial yet sinister Paulie and the late Frank Vincent as the unfortunate Billy Batts. Samuel L. Jackson has a small role as Stacks Edwards.
There will forever be an argument as to which of Scorsese’s films is his outright best. What is clear, though, is that GoodFellas deserves its reputation as one of the greatest studies of a mob culture ever put on film. That it was snubbed by Dances with Wolves at the Academy has done nothing to dilute its reputation as vital and vibrant Scorsese. Three decades on, its ability to entice and ensnare viewers has not weakened and its standing alongside The Godfather is forever assured. It’s masterful filmmaking from a master craftsman.