Today in “The Movies We Love”, I’ll be discussing Martin Scorsese’s incredible gangster classic, Goodfellas. What makes Goodfellas so special?
For starters, it doesn’t glamorize the gangster. Other gangster heavyweights make mafia life look like a dream. Scorsese tears down that wall quite referentially to those other films. Henry Hill starts off just like the rest of us- “Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a gangster”. He looks up at the mafioso in the neighborhood with reverence and awe. And Henry gets in on the action. He has money, he has women, he has drugs, he has anything that his heart desires. But then it all completely unravels on him. He ends up spending years of his life in prison. He develops a drug problem. He fights constantly with his wife. He lives by the sword- mob violence- and very nearly dies by that same sword. Scorsese pulls no punches in depicting what happens when one lives a life wrapped up in organized crime.
There’s also the deft touch that Scorsese applied when making the movie. The pacing is a prime example. Early on, the plot develops at a languid pace. Painstaking time is taken to show off Henry impressing Karen in the tremendous early tracking shot. The deeper Henry gets into the muck, the deeper into the film the viewer gets, the more the pace flies out of control. By the time we get to the end, the languid tracking shot is replaced with frenetic editing detailing a paranoid, coked up mobster whose walls are crashing in around him. And then there’s Scorsese’s wonderful blend of cinematic history. He takes movements like Italian Neo-Realism- through the use of non-actors- and the French New Wave (the multiple freeze frames, voiceovers, directly addressing the camera, the long tracking shot) and mixes them all together with a uniquely American story to create something incredible.
It seems to me that the truly great films are deeply personal for their directors. Never is that more true than it is with Goodfellas. The aforementioned non-actors were people from Scorsese’s old neighborhood, up to and including his own mother. It was a story that took part in his world, the world he’d grown up in. When Scorsese was a kid, he was Henry Hill, peeking down onto 1960’s street corners to see larger-than-life mafiosos wielding their power. He knew the area and the people like the back of his hand. If anyone could take the real thing and spin it into something more grand, if anyone could forge that neighborhood into cinematic steel, it was Martin Scorsese.
And then there are the characters. The oh-so memorable characters pop off the screen with quotable line after line. How about Morrie, who has a hairpiece and whose weakness just happens to be that he loses his head at crucial times? Tommy DeVito (Pesci) is as memorable a character as you’ll find in a mob film. The mere mention of the name “Billy Batts” evokes the character and all that he stood for (and then fell for; and then got stuffed into a car trunk for). Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, Henry and Karen Hill, even the minor characters like “Jimmy Two Times”… they’re all part of a galaxy of unforgettable characters.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. Every single song feels like it’s used in the perfect way, in the perfect place, at the perfect moment in any movie ever made. Some examples: Donovan’s Atlantis as the gang beats Billy Batts to a pulp; The Ronettes’ Frosty the Snowman as the Lufthansa Heist members show up at a Christmas party having already put the gang at risk by spending the heist money (followed by Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home); and the piano solo at the end of Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla as the bodies are found.
So was this a good article? Did I amuse you? Was it entertaining? Like a clown? Did I amuse you? Entertaining how?