Revisiting Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)

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With Martin Scorsese’s new religious epic Silence in cinemas nationwide this January, the BFI in association with Warner Bros Pictures are bringing back one of his most beloved works to our screens, the sprawling mobster saga, Goodfellas.

Released in 1990 to huge critical acclaim and starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Scorsese’s film follows real-life mobster Henry Hill (Liotta) and his two confidants Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci) as they navigate their way through mob life. Goodfellas spans a huge period of time, we see our anti-hero Henry as a young boy, in the 1950’s idolising the mob life and wanting more out of the ‘average shmuck’ life his parents offer him. As the decades pass, Henry dabbles in hijacking, murder, drug dealing, and finally, in the 1980’s informing.

Scorsese uses this vast time period as a chance to show off his unparalleled record collection, with each decade being represented by the film’s ever-impressive soundtrack, featuring the likes of The Cadillacs, The Shangri-Las, and The Rolling Stones. Scorsese is a director who is renowned for his use of popular music in films, whether it be in the iconic opening scene of Mean Streets with The Ronnettes ‘Be My Baby’ or right up to his use of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, Goodfellas moves at a tremendous pace, and Scorsese’s extensive use of the cinematic long take only exaggerates this. Several scenes appear to be just one singular unedited shot with the camera sweeping through nightclubs and bars, one particular scene stands out where Henry shows girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) the back entrance to the Copacabana with The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’ played in the background, a song that perfectly matches Karen’s uncontrollable schoolgirl crush on Henry.

Similar to The Godfather in its sprawling style, the two films do however differ where Coppola’s epic seems to mythicize the life of a gangster; Goodfellas takes almost a documentarian approach at times, going into great detail on the realities of life as a mobster with a matter-of-fact narration by Henry being regularly overlaid on top of the action, let’s not forget that this film is essentially a biopic, being based on the non-fiction novel ‘Wise Guys’ by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi and Scorsese both argued that the life of a mobster is not what you see in films and television, it is not about killing people, it is about making money first and foremost, and murder just happens to be an unfortunate element to this line of work. The film represents a cinematic version of Scorsese and Pileggi’s vision of how a mobster film should be.

At the heart of Goodfellas is sheer brilliant characterization, many of Scorsese’s characters throughout his oeuvre are unforgettable, but Goodfellas boasts some of his very best and this is of course largely due to the wonderful performances that grace the screen. Ray Liotta has never given a better performance than he did here, De Niro, underplaying in a rare secondary role is serenely chilling, seeming to think that the only way he’ll ever be safe is to kill everyone he knows; Lorraine Bracco is also devastatingly good as Henry’s long-suffering wife Karen. However, Joe Pesci is a class in his own as the brutal Tommy DeVito (he rightly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role). DeVito is a true psychopath, masterfully blending hilarious monologues with violent and abrupt acts of murder and barbarism; he represents a contemporary Edward G. Robinson from Little Caesar. This is not just Pesci’s best ever role, but one of the greatest acting performances you’ll ever see.

Goodfellas arguably represents Scorsese’s last truly great film, his work since has been good with highs (Casino) and lows (Bringing out the Dead), and it surely ranks amongst his very best, taking its rightful place with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as masterpieces of contemporary American cinema.

Goodfellas opens at 80 cinemas nationwide from the 20th January 2017 in a special 4k-restoration format, and will be screened at the BFI Southbank as part of the Martin Scorsese retrospective season taking place from 1st January to 28th February.

Josh Hall