Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a joy to experience. That’s a strange phrase to describe a movie as profane and violent as this one, but I can’t help but smile watching America’s greatest director at the top of his game. No other director can claim as many masterpieces as Scorsese (although Hitchcock and Kurosawa come the closest) and this is arguably his best movie. Many people refer to it as the last of Scorsese’s “Big 3” with 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1980’s Raging Bull being the first two.
“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster” Goodfellas follows the story of the half-Irish Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his attempt to rise in the ranks of the New York mafia from the mid-1950’s through the late-1970’s. Being half-Irish is an important component in Henry’s story because it prevents him from ever becoming a “made guy”, as only those with 100% Italian blood can ever be “made guys”. The same hurdle blocks Henry’s mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as well. However, as a child Henry is paired with the sociopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who as a full blood Italian could one day rise to made status. The three friends begin to pull different jobs to try and make a name for themselves, including the infamous Lufthansa heist.
Henry soon meets a fiery Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and impresses her by taking her to the Copacabana but instead of going in the front door, he goes through the kitchen and comes out right in front of the stage as a table is placed there for them (this is where the famous tracking shot takes place, commonly considered the greatest of Scorsese’s career). Karen, taken aback by the treatment Henry receives asks him what he does for a living, “I’m in construction” Henry says without missing a beat. They’re quickly married and soon Henry has gained a mistress, begun the selling (and intaking) of cocaine, and has to deal with the repercussions of Tommy’s violent quick-trigger temper.
Goodfellas has the distinction of being easily the most watchable movie in Scorsese’s brilliant catalog. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci provide wonderful portraits of these psychopathic characters who do what they do (steal, kill, etc.) because they enjoy it and not for any other psychological or sociological reasons. Lorraine Bracco gives a great performance as a wife adjusting to a mafia marriage, which is a nice character to see Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi take advantage of, as the “wife” is usually ignored in mafia/crime movies. The use of period music and subtle aging makeup allow a believable journey through the years with these characters.
In addition, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus deserve infinite praise for their work on the editing and cinematography, respectively. Ballhaus’s roving camerawork helps us feel personally involved in these people’s lives, and Schoonmaker’s propulsive editing makes the movie feel alive with energy and easily the quickest 2 ½ hours in movie history. The most obvious examples of Ballhaus’s great work is the famous tracking shot in the Copa, and the great camera work during a certain section of the movie scored to the piano section of “Layla”. Schoonmaker’s genius in particular shows during a bravura sequence where Henry spends a frantic, paranoid day where he believes an FBI helicopter is following him as he dashes all over town running guns, tries to organize some drug trafficking, and attempts to cook dinner for his family (“don’t let the sauce burn” he repeats).
That said, some people may be bothered by both the language (the “f” word is used an alleged 300 times in the movies 145 minutes) and the violence. These characters are not nice people, and the fact that they show no remorse for their actions may also disturb some. The movie is not overly graphic in terms of gore, but there is no shortage of violence depicted on screen.
Many people try to compare Goodfellas with The Godfather, which is unfair to both movies. Goodfellas focuses on a few guys at nearly the lowest level of involvement in the mafia (not yet, or ever, “made” guys), while The Godfather focuses on the guy at the absolute top. The movies go for different atmospheres as well, The Godfather the operatic changing of power within a family, Goodfellas the blue collar ascension of a few guys working their way through the ranks. Both, however, are brilliant.