The Movies We Love: Goodfellas

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Today in “The Movies We Love”, I’ll be discussing Martin Scorsese’s incredible gangster classic, Goodfellas.  What makes Goodfellas so special?

Spoilers ahead
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.

From cool and collected to sweaty and paranoid, the pacing of Henry Hill's story is brilliant.

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.

What I see in my head whenever I hear the piano solo from "Layla"

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?


30 Comments

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30 responses to “The Movies We Love: Goodfellas

  1. Very nice write up John.

    I can still hear the sound of that knife going into that dude in the trunk of the car in the opening….it is a sound that will go with me to the grave!!

    Reading any write of this film makes me want to dig out my dust DVD of it!!

    Thanks for sharing matey

  2. I definitely need to see it again. Great movie!

  3. I think AMC is showing it some time this week (if they haven’t already). Of course, that’s not the same as watching the unedited version. Come to think of it, it’d be a hard one to watch edited.

  4. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I love that movie. Something about the constant narrator in Goodfellas and Casino. Also, I kind of see the beginning as glamorizing the Mafia and Scorsese just gradually breaking down that wall throughout the movie. Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito could not have been played by anybody else. Another actor in that role and you might not be writing this blog today.

    • Yeah, I think that’s kind of the deal. It starts off with the kid version of Henry Hill acting just like people like us- glamorizing the mafia. And then Scorsese systematically rips it to hell over the last hour, hour and a half, what have you.

      I guess Keitel could’ve played Tommy- and I’m dead serious when I say that- but it would’ve been a very, very, very different role. Totally different movie.

      • The guy who met Kevin Meany

        Keitel, while also a short Mafioso-type, seems to be much more serious in his delivery. He doesn’t really have the same Napoleonic complex that makes Joe Pesci so memorable in that role. You’re right, it would have been a very different role. I think Keitel could have played DeNiro’s character easier than Pesci’s.

  5. Yo John!
    I first saw Goodfellas in the theater when it was released in 1990. Then I saw it again in the theater. And then guess what? I saw it again! When Scorsese lost to Costner, I practically launched a vendetta against “The Academy”! This film so changed my view of the gangster film that I even grew to disparage The Godfather, and I recall many a Scorsese vs. Coppola argument “back in the day”. Thankfully, I have fallen back in love with The Godfather (I and II only of course) and would put them on equal footing. The Godfather is opera of the highest order while Goodfellas is Rock and Roll. Awesome awesome stuff!

    Great review!
    G-LO

    • G-LO! You had me worried for a second there when you said you’d started to disparage The Godfather.

      I’m not sure I could really choose. I’d sort of always assumed “The Godfather” but then I read Roger Ebert’s book about Scorsese where he gives a really convincing argument on behalf of Goodfellas (citing many of the things in what I wrote up there). Purely on its own merit, I think it’s probably Goodfellas. But I think The Godfather(s) have had much more of a lasting impact. I think you could argue that movies like Goodfellas wouldn’t exist if movies like The Godfather (and… well, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) hadn’t blazed the trail beforehand 10 to 15 years earlier.

      This is maybe something I should re-visit soon, comparing the two.

      • Comparing Goodfellas and The Godfather? That would be awesome! You could also do an article about Scorsese’s own Mafia trilogy, i.e. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. Although there was an escalation in the scale of the crimes in each of these films (street thugs and wannabe gangsters in Mean Streets, a bit more “organized” with bigger and broader reaching crimes in Goodfellas, crimes done on a national and corporate level in Casino), the central character in each of these films was an outsider. Could make for an interesting analysis. Then again, most of Scorsese’s films take an outsiders perspective.

        • I really need to re-watch his early stuff. I saw a lot of it when I was still kind of figuring out who he was/what he was about. I’d seen the big ones (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) but not much else.

          Ebert’s book talks about the common threads in all of his movies. Basically, the Madonna/Whore complex, outsider protagonists (almost always male), violence fantasies… I’d love to get a female perspective on him because he seems to be pretty unpopular with the ladies.

          • Alexandra

            As a lady who reads your blog, who has seen a handful of Scorsese films, I feel obligated to reply.
            What I like about him: The way he brings the audience right up into everybody’s grill–his protagonists feel very intimate.
            In some gangster movies (well, movies in general, I suppose), your basic gangster protagonist will be kind of aloof and you don’t really see him as a person, per se, but just another part of his dirty little gangster world. Even the Godfather is this way for me. Michael Corleone feels like a cardboard jerkass, and I don’t ever care what happens to him—except I’d really probably prefer it if he and whiny Diane Keaton would just get sent to jail. I don’t even care if Diane Keaton did anything illegal. Just get her out of here.
            However, even though I didn’t really enjoy watching Casino, and I thought Shutter Island was pretty by-the-numbers, I cared about what happened to the characters.
            What I don’t really like about him: the Madonna/whore thing gets old. Especially when the male characters get to be nuanced and interesting. Then we’ve got the one token girl character and she’s yucky or super. I guess that’s one reason Goodfellas is my favorite Scorsese movie (beating out The Departed, if that gives you insight into my movie taste). Karen Hill isn’t just one thing or another. She feels like an actual person, just like the male characters.
            PS—About the violence fantasies. They’re not my favorite thing to watch, but I don’t hate them. I never feel as though Scorsese’s gratuitous or downright masturbatory (cough Tarantino) with his scenes of violence. Violence onscreen can be cathartic and plot-enhancing and character-building and used to show the nature of man, etc., and I think Scorsese does all of these things well.
            PPS—Good review! I want some more “Don’t Watch It, John!” though.

            • This is awesome. Thank you so much for contributing. You’ve really hit on something re: the female protags in his films. Ginger (Sharon Stone) in Casino; Jodie Foster as an underaged prostitute; even in his comedy, After Hours, you’ve got Teri Garr nuttier than squirrel poo. He doesn’t exactly make his female protags very likable. And I couldn’t agree more about Karen Hill. She’s not at all the typical Scorsese female lead.

              I’ve got a potential “Don’t Watch It” in me and I’ll make it a point to get to it very soon. The readers shall have what the readers want.

        • The guy who met Kevin Meany

          The Godfather trilogy also follows the same escalation of crime as Scorsese’s Mafia trilogy. The Godfather was largely mob vs. mobs (five families) in New York City. Godfather 2 had the Corleones going bigger and international with the casino business in both Las Vegas and Cuba with a little of the old New York ties thrown in for good measure. In Godfather 3, Michael Corleone was an international businessman with International ties to the Italian Mafia and the Vatican.

  6. Erin

    This movie and Casino, are major Sunday hangover heavy hitters! They are awesome! They are always on on Sunday afternoons. The commericials and bloody people are good breaks for throwing up:)

  7. I agree with you that Keitel should’ve been in this movie. Then it would be Scorsese’s perfect cast; all his old friends together in one movie. But even without Keitel, it’s fucking perfect.

    I’ve noticed quite a decline in Scorsese’s career lately; not that he’s making bad films; just that he’s making films that aren’t “Scorsese”. We had The Departed back in ’06, but when was the last proper gangster movie before that? Casino in ’98, I would say. It’s fine that Scorsese’s trying new things, checking out new genres, but I don’t think movies like ‘Hugo’ and ‘Shutter Island’ are what he should be making (particularly the former). But whaddo I know? So long as he’s having fun, I’m happy.

    • Shutter Island didn’t bug me too much because it sort of fit the bill of a lot of his movies. The outsider male, given to violence, period piece, the Madonna/Whore thing with his wife who starts off immaculate and winds up… well, I don’t want to spoil things but you know where she winds up. Hugo is sort of on another level, though. I have no clue how he’ll pull this off or what that movie is going to be.

  8. One of Scorsese greatest. Agree with the soundtrack, it’s really an integral part of the movie in immersing the viewer into the settings of the film. Sadly, that was also the highlight of Ray Liotta’s career. In everything he does, he is always Henry Hill to me.

    • Not Shoeless Joe Jackson?!?!

      It’s funny/weird to think that there was a time where it seemed like Ray Liotta was on the verge of stardom. Or… better-acting-roles-dom.

      Writing that synopsis on Goodfellas took about 20 minutes longer than it should have because I had to stop and listen to all the songs.

      • Agreed. Liotta was really interesting when he first burst onto the scene. He was particularly good in Something Wild. His last decent film was Narc.

        Interestingly enough, Timothy Olyphant reminds me of young Ray Liotta, but with alot more range. He has that menacing quality that Liotta had back in the day. Nice guy one minute. Kicking the crap out of you (and then some) the next minute.

    • John, you left out my favorite part of the soundtrack – Sid Vicious’ snotty, disrespectful version of “My Way” playing over the credits. The original is this kind of self-satisfied New Yorker looking back on his life and patting himself on the back for what an awesome life he lived. In the traditional mob-mythologizing movie, in the hands of a conventional director, the Sinatra version would play over the credits.

      But not Scorsese, no sir. This movie isn’t about idolizing the mobsters who kill and damage strangers and those around them. He goes with Sid Vicious’ version, where the strung out singer makes up his own words (I believe Sid inserts lines about killing a cat and fornicating with men) as an intention F-U to the self congratulatory establishment, as represented by Sinatra (and, I’d argue, the traditional mob-mythologizing movies). What a perfect send-off song for Scorsese’s take on this genre.

  9. rtm

    Um… sorry fellas, I haven’t seen this movie. And what Custie is describing is one of the reasons why :) This is an entertaining and informative post however, and perhaps I should brace myself and check this one out one day. I think the fact that I saw some of the really violent parts of The Godfather when I was a kid (my twin brothers watched those a lot!) might’ve put me off gangster movies, but I’m intrigued when you said ‘it doesn’t glamorize the gangster’ but shows its brutal nature.

  10. Fitting tribute top one of the greatest of all-time. You certainly captured the essence of the film very succinctly. Of course so much can be written about this masterpiece. The marriage of image, music, pacing, performances and editing are what makes it so spectacular to watch over and over. At 2 1/2 hours, it never gets boring because the tone of the film is constantly in flux. The thing I like best is the way Scorsese drops you in and out of the action. Characters are introduced and never gain seen, dialogue begins and ends in mid-conversation, time jumps from decade to decade and yet it never gets confusing. In the hands of lesser director, this would be a mess, but Scorsese has such a solid grip on storytelling that he doesn’t need to show us everything. The essence of the characters are developed so well, we fill-in the blanks for ourselves. Who can forget DeNiro’s look as the camera slowly tracks though the smoke-filled bar as Sunshine of your Love plays over the soundtrack? Nothing is said, but you know exactly what Jimmy is thinking and how it connects to scenes we see later. The menace is implied and understated. And the movie is brimming with scenes like this.

    • The scene where Jimmy sends Karen around the corner to get a free dress is so simple, and yet so excellent, because of all of the tension. It’s boiling over at that point.

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