Let’s Talk About ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

What Goodfellas Means to Us

I think may be Scorsese’s best film, hands down. Sure he won an Oscar for The Departed, but that felt like a gimme because he got shafted on this one. Everything about this film is outstanding. The acting, the direction, the cinematography, the soundtrack, everything. Marty pulled together one of the best ensemble casts you could possibly pull off at that time and told a good old gangster film that stands the test of time. If this one comes on the tv, I’m watching it. Sure I own it, but whatever.

I grew up in NJ and I knew some guys like this crew. Sure some of them were wannabes, but others were pretty legit. So this always reminds me of home. Whether or not that is a good thing is yet to be determined. I just remember listening to Henry Hill call up Howard Stern back in the day and it made me laugh.

– K. Alvarez


Marty’s Wiseguys

In order to make Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese assembled a legendary crew of cinematic wiseguys. For the roles of Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, Scorsese cast his buddies and previous collaborators Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, respectively. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill is sneaky perfect casting. He’s swaggering and charismatic enough to act as the film’s anchor. But he’s also docile enough to allow the action to happen to and around him, rather than be the main driver of events.

The rest of the casting is absolutely brilliant as well. Paul Sorvino is the perfect quiet yet powerful presence as Paul Cicero, the crew’s boss. Lorraine Bracco brings a fierce energy that rivals any of her male co-stars. She also headlines a superb list of actors in this film who would go on in to star in The Sopranos.

Behind the scenes, Marty was aided by his multi-time producer, Irwin Winkler and repeat collaborators cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. To co-write the script, Scorsese was joined by Nicolas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy, the biographical accounts of Henry Hill’s time as a gangster and source material for the film.

All of this is to say that Goodfellas was the coming together of a cinematic dream team. The perfect group of creatives to make the perfect movie.


Lufthansa Layla

Few directors marry rock n’ roll and cinema with the same pizzaz as Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas is as good as it is in part because of the rocking needle drops throughout the flick. The soundtrack brings an additional layer of life to an already rich film.

Nothing exemplifies this knack for the perfect needle drop more than the inclusion of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla” during the infamous discovery of wacked bodies montage. The beautiful keys and guitar directly clash with the morbidly horrific images being shown on screen.

It’s not the only time that the Goodfellas soundtrack is at odds with the action of the narrative. The juxtaposition of sound and image is equal parts confusing, exhilarating, bizarre, and poetic.

Scorsese is able to accomplish everything that a thoughtfully composed score would communicate through his song selection. Not only does the Goodfellas soundtrack sound like that awesome jukebox in the corner of the cool dive bar in town, but it also provides us with a great insight into our characters and their psyches. It elevates our emotional understanding of the movie while getting us to subconsciously hum along to that catchy little ditty.

Some scenes were pre-conceived with song selections already made. Other song choices were inspired during the editing process. Despite their origin, all were magnificent.

Scorsese has famously noted that he only wanted to include songs in particular scenes if it was something that the characters could have been listening to at the time that the scene takes place. While this is a seemingly obvious choice, this sort of detail-oriented filmmaking is what takes Goodfellas from being a just another great movie, to being an all-time classic.

While on the topic of music in Goodfellas, I would be foolish in not mentioning that the camera pushing in on Robert DeNiro while he takes a drag from his cigarette and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” playing is simply one of the coolest moments in cinema history.


Kinetic Cinema

The frenzied paranoia of the day that Henry Hill finally gets his comeuppance is one of great achievements in late 20th century filmmaking. The constant camera movement and slightly spastic editing puts us right in the headspace of Liotta’s Henry Hill. As an audience, we can feel everything crashing down on Henry. The days of easy living are up; the chickens have come home to roost.

Instead of an exciting climax, we are given an anti-climax of unspooling. Henry’s exciting existence builds to a place where it can only come crashing down.

It takes a virtuosic filmmaker to understand the language of cinema enough to know when or how to bend and break the rules in a manner that feels right. The jagged and fragmented nature of Henry’s last day as a wiseguy is made all the more special because of how earlier sections of the film play out.

Henry’s early life and first introduction the world of gangsters and good fellas is comprised of various freeze frames – each one representing a formative moment in Henry’s molding as a character. The literal stillness of these moments acts as the foundation of Henry’s experience as a wiseguy. His inevitable unravelling needs to be in direct opposition to these moments, both structurally and artistically.

Similarly, Lorraine Bracco’s Karen is introduced to this world with some slick filmmaking technique. The one take tracking shot following Karen and Henry Hill through the backdoor of the Copacabana is understandably one of the most celebrated achievements in film. Beyond the degree of difficulty of executing the shot, is the narrative and thematic role that it plays within the film.

Karen is literally being escorted down into Henry’s underworld. And while understanding that something isn’t quite right, she can’t help but give herself up to the excitement that it presents. Once again, this scene’s steadiness is completely undone at the end of the movie.

During Henry’s final day of freedom, everything seems to be of the same level of importance. Drugs, guns, helicopters, girlfriends, family, more drugs, and pasta sauce are presented and spoken of with equal amounts of significance. This is clearly a man at the end of his wits. Cocaine is a helluva drug.


Legacy

Goodfellas is ultimately a film about consequences. Although none of our main characters truly learn from the mistakes that they’ve made, they all end up paying for them. Scorsese is reluctant to pass judgement here. There’s not a whole lot of moralizing. The matter-of-fact nature of actions having consequences is allowed to play out in front of us.

The allure of the fast and loose lifestyle is more than enough to entice our characters. It’s more than enough to make them blind to the fact their choices will come back to bite them in the future. But those choices provide the film with its vitality.

In Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese takes us into the true underbelly of the Italian American crime world. It’s far from the operatic grandiosity of The Godfather films, or even from the opulent American dream presented in something like Scarface. Here, we are getting down and dirty with the lower level wiseguys – the everyday gangsters if you will. We learn about their day to days. Their humanity is apparent both in spite of and because of their layered complexities, including their very real flaws (although some of us might not be able to identify with the ability to murder someone in a fit of blind rage).

Goodfellas is perfect in all of the ways that elevated pop cinema should be. It’s masterfully crafted, endlessly quotable, thought provoking, comprised of wonderful singular moments, and entertaining as hell. A lot of great movies can excel in one, two, or a few of these aspects. Goodfellas’ ability to excel in all of them is a rarity worth celebrating throughout eternity.


Share your Goodfellas trivia or memories down in the comments below!

Author: Raf Stitt

Brooklyn based. Full time movie fan, part time podcaster, occasional writer. Follow on Twitter: @rafstitt