MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Drama/ Stars: Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Debi Mazar, Jerry Vale, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Samuel L. Jackson, Ileana Douglas/ Runtime: 146 minutes
For a few days after the first time I saw Martin Scorsese’s film GoodFellas a long time ago, the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave me alone. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, and of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was also an element of furtive nostalgia for bad times that shouldn’t be missed, but are. Indeed while most films, even some great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world despite leaving memories behind this film, which shows one of America’s finest filmmakers at the peak of his form and filmmaking prowess, does not. Indeed no finer film, save The Godfather trilogy, has ever been made about organized crime although to be fair even those two are not really comparable, but it is nevertheless no mistake to say that GoodFellas is and always will be a true and undisputed masterpiece of the crime drama genre.
The plot is as follows: GoodFellas is a memoir of life in the Mafia, narrated in the first person by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Italian kid whose only ambition, from his earliest teens, was to be a Mafioso with additional narration by Karen, the Jewish girl who eventually married Hill, and who discovered that her entire social life was suddenly inside the Mafia. So it is that what we are treated to is a slow yet effective showcasing of the various levels of the Mafia hierarchy, with characters introduced casually and some of them not really developed until later in the story as we meet, among other people, the head of this Mafia family Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) who really comes to value and love Henry and see him in a sense as a son, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), a man who steals for the sheer love of stealing and who would become a mentor, another father-like figure, and dear friend to Henry, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a likable and funny dear friend of Henry’s except for the fact that his fearsome temper can explode in a second, and often with fatal consequences attached. Thus with the cast of characters in play, we as an audience then are allowed to follow these characters through 30 years of unchallenged power, decline, and then inevitably into betrayal and decay because at some point, the whole wonderful romance of the Mafia goes sour for Henry Hill, and from that point on everything just starts going downhill from there into a labyrinth of paranoia and chaos….
Now there is a real Henry Hill, who disappeared into the anonymity of the federal government’s witness protection program, and who over a period of four years told everything he knew about the mob to a reporter named Nicholas Pileggi who co-wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of his best-seller Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family which was the result of the Hill interviews, and the screenplay manages to distill those memories into a fiction that sometimes plays like a documentary. The reason for this comparison being that the movie contains so much information and feelings about the Mafia that finally it fantastically creates the same claustrophobic feeling Hill’s wife talks about which is the feeling that the mob world is the real world. Indeed it should then go without saying, but Martin Scorsese truly was the right and only director for this material as he knows it inside out with the great formative experience of his life being his growing up in New York’s Little Italy as an outsider who observed everything, and there is a scene early in the film in which a young Henry Hill looks out the window of his family’s apartment and observes with awe and envy the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street, and while the memory may come from Hill and Pileggi’s book, I also feel that in some small way that this is a memory which also belongs to Scorsese as well.
Now like “The Godfather,” GoodFellas is a long movie, with the space and leisure to expand and explore its themes and it isn’t about any particular plot most of the time. It’s instead simply about what it felt like to be in the Mafia – the good times and the bad times and with one of the many good times there is an astonishing shot in which the point of view follows Henry and Karen on one of their first dates to the Copacabana nightclub. Indeed, while there are people waiting in line at the door Henry takes Karen in through the service entrance, past the security guards and the off-duty waiters, down a corridor, through the kitchen, through the service area and out into the front of the club, where a table is literally lifted into the air and placed in front of all the others so that what we are ultimately given here is the impression of the world seemingly unfolding for these guys and that this is true power we are witnessing firsthand.
Now from the first shot of his first feature, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” (1967), Scorsese has loved to use popular music as a counterpoint to the dramatic moments in his films. Indeed he doesn’t simply compile a soundtrack of golden oldies; he finds the precise sound to underline every moment, and in GoodFellas, the popular music really excels in its attempt to help explain the transition from the early days all the way through to the frantic later days of Hill’s mob career. Yet I feel it must also be said that in all of his work, which has included films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Scorsese has never done a more compelling job of getting inside someone’s head as he does in this film, but particularly in one of the concluding scenes of the film in which he follows one day in the life of a coked-up and paranoid as hell Hill. Indeed, this is one of the sequences that imprinted me so deeply with the mood of the film because it’s not a straightforward narrative scene, and it has little to do with plot. Rather it’s about the feeling of walls closing in, the guilty feeling that the walls are deserved, and yes the counterpoint is a sense of duty, and compulsion and through all of this we soon see that Henry’s life is careening wildly out of control.
Now actors have a way of doing their best work, or at the very least work that lets us see them and their talent much more clearly, in a Scorsese film. Indeed this is definitely true for 2 of this film’s cast as we got to witness Robert De Niro emerge as the best actor of his generation in Taxi Driver, and Joe Pesci create a performance of comparable complexity in the 1980 boxing drama Raging Bull. Yet while both De Niro and Pesci are just as excellent here in “GoodFellas,” they are essentially playing major and very challenging supporting roles to Liotta and Bracco, who establish themselves here with 2 very fine and top-notch performances of their own as we see Liotta managing to create and become the emotional center for a movie that is not about the experience of being a Mafioso, but rather about the feeling and Bracco playing Hill’s wife and who becomes just as blinded by Mafia life as he did. Indeed, it is their situation that is at the heart of this film because although yes they made their lifetime commitment, it was nevertheless to the wrong life and now they’re trapped with little to no wiggle room in sight. Honestly though if nothing else, GoodFellas is about guilt, but not so much that it becomes a straightforward morality tale, in which good is established and guilt is the appropriate reaction toward evil, but rather having Hill feel guilty for not upholding the Mafia code and therefore being guilty of the sin of betrayal with his punishment being banishment into a world where nobody’s name or reputation truly matters.
All in all though while The Godfather felt more graceful and placed more emphasis on subtlety to make the violent scenes have more impact when they happened, GoodFellas is sharp around its edges. Also while The Godfather was violent, it also did offer insight into the human aspects of the criminals and the reasons they murdered for business, but that sense of sentimentality is nonexistent in GoodFellas. Instead this movie chooses to offer you a bare bones, raw look into the crooked lives these criminals were leading and when you bring all of this together you get a story that is as sharp as a knife and one that when it hits you know you’ll never forget it. On a scale of 1-5 I give GoodFellas a 5 out of 5.