Gangster films have been around for a long time. In the 1930’s, James Cagney appeared in the controversial gangster film “The Public Enemy,” and Paul Muni starred in the original “Scarface.” The mafia movie genre was given a jolt of life in the ‘70s, with the films “The Godfather” and “Mean Streets.” Since then, countless classics such as “Scarface” and “Casino” have left their mark on American cinema and the crime genre. None of which have been able to capture the magic and grittiness of mafia life since Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime film “Goodfellas.” While in preview screenings of the film, audiences hated it. They thought that it was too dark and violent. It had one the lowest approval ratings for a movie made by Warner Bros. at the time. Since then, people have recognized how truly magnificent “Goodfellas” is.
As some of you may know I have a rather strange fascination with mafia movies. I believe it has to do with what I call “the three V’s of mafia movies:” vice, virtue, and violence. I believe that seeing a man doing corrupt things makes the whole story even more compelling because at the moment its perplexing but deep down we know that their sins will lead to their downfall in the end. But you also have to consider what makes the characters honorable. Take for example the character Paul Cicero. While he is the head of the mob; he truly cares about his friends and would do anything to help them out. The violence comes into play a lot in a mafia movies and I feel that it’s good to show violence because it shows how dangerous gangster life really is. In Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime film “The Departed,” they used violence as a way to show that this kind of life isn’t all that it seems to be made out to be. Due to the interactions and choices of multiple characters, many are killed by either cops or mob members. Another great example is the toll booth scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s hit 1972 film “The Godfather,” in which Sonny Corleone, in an attempt to rescue a woman from her abusive husband, ends up getting ambushed by over a dozen men with Tommy guns that are pointed right at him from all directions.
Martin Scorsese is truly a great filmmaker. He’s one of the few directors still working today that I can actually watch. Unlike Zack Snyder and Guy Ritchie, Mr. Scorsese knows what he’s doing. He is able to use the camera to show the scene from a character’s perspective. Whether it be the scene where Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy, viciously beats a man or the scene in which Henry and his fiancée get married. His use of camera angles and movements in “Goodfellas” is polarizing. He is able to create this atmosphere in which you can have fun watching “Goodfellas” but feel very uncertain about what’s going to happen next. If you have ever seen his 2013 hit “The Wolf of Wall Street,” then you know what I’m talking about (remember the scene where Jordan Belfort gets interrogated by FBI agents on his yacht? That’s pretty much how this move rolls). I also love the way this film looks. Colors are bright and vibrant when they need to be and in some be dimly lit to perfectly capture the moment.
The editing of the film is also superbly done. It’s like David Fincher’s 2007 thriller “Zodiac” in which a long time period spreads through several decades and yet the transitioning through the years is so seamless that its mesmerizing and it left me wondering how it was done.
Ray Liotta portrayal of Henry Hill is perplexing. Martin Scorsese took a big risk with Ray Liotta. While he had some experience with acting, he never had a role as big or as important Henry Hill. Henry Hill is essentially a member of the mob that has been involved in the illegal activities since he was just a teenager. We see him steal and sell cigarettes to workers on their breaks, burn cars, and even try to cover up a man’s gunshot wound. We then watch him climb up the ranks of the mafia and bear witness to everything he did. We get to see him at his most vulnerable and at his worst. We see him have an adulterous relationship even though he has two kids and a loving wife at home, become involved in illegal substances, picks up another girl (he’s a player basically), and threatens a man by holding him in front of a lion in a zoo in Tampa, Florida. This guy shouldn’t even deserve the audience’s respect yet his character is done so masterfully that we can help but care about what happens to him, for better or worse. Another thing that makes his role the more delectable is when he has to contemplate “ending” Morris to make sure the details behind the infamous Lufthansa heist don’t accidentally spill to anybody that shouldn’t hear that information.
Martin Scorsese seems to have to this strangely awesome fascination with mentally unstable characters. Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and Rubert Pupkin from “King of Comedy” (definitely Martin Scorsese’s most underrated movie; I highly recommend it) are very good examples of this. Yet none can come close to Joe Pesci’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Tommy DeVito. It’s never good for an organized crime syndicate to keep a loose cannon alive. After witnessing Tommy’s psychotic episodes, one can only understand why Tommy had to be whacked. The man is insane. We see him kill several people just because he was slightly insulted by what they said. He shoots Spider repeatedly only because Spider told him (jokingly, but profanely) to basically leave him alone. We also so see him brutally beat Billy Batts, by pistol whipping him, to the point where blood is all over the place and the revolver Tommy was using gets destroyed. Even though he’s the most psychotic of the bunch, he is the primary source of dark comedy. Take for example, the scene where Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy (more on him later) have to move Billy Batts’ body so that some of their rival won’t uncover the aforementioned body when they break ground for their brand new condos. While Henry is regurgitating by the sight and smell of the decaying body, Tommy is cracking jokes about it. “Do you want an arm or a leg…How about the heart?” He even goes as far as making fun of what Henry’s mother-in-law said about Henry and his friends. “She’s right Henry. This isn’t normal! What kind of people are we?!”
Robert DeNiro is a true blessing. He is such a great actor. From “Raging Bull” to “Ronin” and even the critically acclaimed comedy “Meet the Parents,” he is definitely the best part of any film that he is in. “Goodfellas” is definitely one of his best movies. Robert DeNiro plays the Irish mafia member Jimmy Conway, or as everyone else calls him “Jimmy the Gent.” This guy is definitely the most respectable person out of everyone in the group. No joke, this guy is such a great person that people willingly help Jimmy out when he’s stealing their product and some will even turn a blind eye to his illegal activities. I love the part where you see a truck driver help take cigarettes to Jimmy’s car even though he’s stealing them and then a cop car pulls by … only to ask Jimmy if he has anything good in which they receive a box of the said product and just drive away. He even goes around just giving men twenty dollar bills just for doing their job. When he first meets Henry he crams a twenty into Henry’s pocket just for getting him a drink. I really liked that Robert DeNiro was able to show that not every single person in the mob is a total jerk. Also, I love that Mr. DeNiro can perfectly capture the emotions Jimmy had when going through all of these events. For example, in one scene you can perfectly tell that one characters death was a hard-hitter for jimmy. He ends up trying to restrain his tears and kicks a phone booth several times out of pure rage.
Lorraine Bracco is also really good in this film. She plays Henry’s wife, Karen, and she is a wreck. She hates the whole mafia life (except the goods you can get from all of the money they accumulate) and even hates Henry once she realizes he’s cheating on her. Yet, she still loves him deeply. Jimmy even points that out after she sticks a gun in Henry’s face. “She won’t divorce him…She’ll kill him but not divorce him,” and when Henry gets thrown into jail, Karen is the one who sneaks him food and other supplies and is there for him when he is released. Lorraine’s talent was a genuine surprise for me. She was rather intriguing during the parts where she sticks a gun at Henry or when she screams outside the apartment building in which the girl Henry is cheating on her with lives. She should’ve been nominated for best supporting actress; I don’t know how her performance got so overlooked.
Paul Sorvino as head mob boss Paul Cicero is rather different. He’s an old, beaten down man but he isn’t like Don Corleone from “The Godfather.” He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty if he has and will even send out his “employees” to inflict tons of pain and threaten to do horrible things to the person. Yet, at the same time we also see the more gentle side to him like we saw with Don Corleone when he’s playing with a little girl toward the end of “The Godfather.” He cares deeply for Henry and the others and risks his neck by giving Henry a job to get him out of jail. You also see his vulnerability and the hurt on his face at the end when someone becomes a snitch to avoid jail time for all of his sins. I especially like the part where Paul seems to be overwhelmed with joy when Henry brings in a ton of money he got from a simple robbery. It shows how proud he is of Henry and wants him to succeed in the mafia and doesn’t feel threatened by the possibility of him becoming even more powerful.
Samuel L. Jackson is also in this. Let’s see … Samuel L. Jackson is a member of the mob… rings a bell doesn’t it “Pulp Fiction?” He did alright in the film considering he has only about eight minutes of screen time. His final scene is pretty awesome though with all of the slow-mo going on.
The romance between Henry and Karen is actually really well done. In a lot of movies, romance is rushed to where no one in real life can connect and fall in love that fast. Unlike following certain conventions, “Goodfellas” takes time for their love to blossom. We see them go on a rather dreadful first date and how they grow to love and care for each other and end up getting married even though they hit a few rough patches.
I will say that while the scene where Tommy asks Henry how he is funny is both rife with tension and comedy, it is not my favorite part of the whole movie even thought that particular part gets a lot of recognition. But rather the scene Henry and Jimmy violently interrogate Morris as to when they’re going to get their money.
There are very few movies that I would consider to be absolutely phenomenal and a great piece of art (like “Hacksaw Ridge”) but there’s only one movie that I would dare to truly say is perfect…and that one film is hands-down, without-a-doubt…“Goodfellas.” From the phenomenal directing and editing to the powerhouse performances to the sometimes charismatic characters, it’s hard to find a single flaw in “Goodfellas.”