Goodfellas: adapted by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese from Pileggi’s non-fiction book Wiseguy; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert DeNiro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), and Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero) (1990): One of Martin Scorsese’s three or four masterpieces is also the last truly great film he directed, though he’s remained interesting to watch and more accomplished than the vast majority of American directors. It’s also far and away his most popular film, though that sometimes seems to be because some people respond to Goodfellas as if it were a light-hearted comedy despite the seemingly endless wave of brutal, unglamourous killings in the movie.
Goodfellas works as a groundlevel, non-romantic response to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. It’s also clearly the father of The Sopranos: David Chase’s great HBO gangster epic goes where Goodfellas went before, only with a lot more time and space to flesh out its often toxic but recognizably human characters.
For the most part based on a true story, Goodfellas follows the New York crime adventures of half-Sicilian, half-Irish Henry Hill from his childhood in the 1950’s to his exit from the Mob life in the early 1980’s. Ray Liotta is terrific as Hill, who acts as co-narrator of the movie along with his wife, played by a sharp and sympathetic Lorraine Bracco. The rest of the main cast gives us a focused Robert De Niro, an award-winning Joe Pesci, and a quiet and brooding Paul Sorvino as Hill’s three main Mob connections.
Among all the supporting actors who would go on to roles in The Sopranos and later mob movies and TV shows is a young, skinny Samuel L. Jackson; Scorsese’s mother also appears with a winning cameo as the doting Italian mother of Joe Pesci’s monstrous but loving son.
Pesci’s showy role steals a lot of scenes — he’s the world’s most dangerous clown, a sociopathic chatterbox with almost no fuse at all. De Niro’s role is quieter and trickier as the seemingly genial James Conway who, though valuable to this segment of the Mob, can never become a “made man” because, like Hill, he’s not fully Sicilian. Joe Pesci can be made, though. Boy, can he be made.
Scorsese’s camera swoops and dodges and sometimes comes to rest, unflinchingly, on the grotesque aftermaths of assorted murders. Popular hits of the times rise and fall on the soundtrack; different singers at the favourite hang-out mark the passage of time.
Scorsese even nods to a famous scene from his Taxi Driver which the censorship board required him to overlay with a red filter because the violence was deemed too bloody. Here, that overlay now comes from something within the film world — the tail-lights of a parked car. And there’s very little blood to be seen. That all comes without colour overlay in other scenes, without any masking of the ugliness.
One of Goodfellas’ great accomplishments was to make the appeal of crime as visceral as its horrors, and then to up-end all the chummy associations as the movie comes to its climax. Henry Hill’s love of organized crime may come from the camaraderie and the financial benefits, and from the way it makes him a man who can get into any show or any nightclub whenever he wants. But the movie strips all that away as things tighten up. In the end you’re a man alone, with everyone gunning for you. The honour of thieves is an illusion born of good times.
Is this Scorsese’s best film? I suppose my other candidates for that position would be Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Goodfellas offers a more expansively novelistic world than either of those movies, and it certainly offers a slightly lighter touch in many scenes. Really, it’s a toss-up — the films supply such markedly different experiences that it’s almost impossible to judge them in relation to one another. Highly recommended.