From the Vault #10: GOODFELLAS (1990)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from April 26th, 2014, revisited with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman having landed…

David Chase, creator of hit HBO series The Sopranos, once described Goodfellas as ‘my Koran’ and it’s very easy to see why. Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama about the rise & fall of Henry Hill, and through him the mythology of the ‘gangster’, truly is a remarkable piece of cinema from start to finish.

What Scorsese does is paint a vivid, kinetic portrait of a descent into fame & fortune, glamorising the so called ‘wise guy’ without oddly enough ever making it appealing. In adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s book about Hill, Wiseguy, Scorsese manages in many respects to tell a cautionary tale about the perils of, as Henry himself puts it from his very first line of a continuous narration, ‘always wanting to be a gangster’. Goodfellas shows that while it may in some respects be a charmed life, it’s also a hollow existence fraught with unexpected danger, paranoia & viciousness that can destroy the souls of men.

Scorsese shows that in magnificently entertaining fashion, both visually, through a sublime screenplay, and some peerless acting.

It’s told, as stated above, from the point of view of Henry himself – an omniscient narrator after the fact – and Scorsese is unafraid to keep that narration constant, almost in every scene, making Goodfellas feel much like a bedtime story unfolding on screen; it feels like we’re sitting with Henry as he regales his life story, and oddly enough it never once feels intrusive, indeed it feels a natural extension of the texture Scorsese paints.

We see the full scope of Henry’s rise, from a teenager in the mid-1950’s in awe of the Italian gangsters who waltz around in flashy suits, splashing cash & gaining the respect of everyone around them–through fear of course–epitomised by Robert de Niro’s Jimmy Conway, in many respects a signature role for the actor. Scorsese throws Henry head long into ‘the life’ and by the time he’s Ray Liotta, he’s in the sharp suits himself. Liotta has probably never been better than as Henry, depicting a character who rarely tips into the kind of violence Jimmy is capable of, but in many ways starts to become him – with a hint of Joe Pesci’s vitriolic Tommy DeVito; and if there’s a performance in Goodfellas you’re likely to remember, it’s Pesci’s Oscar-winning, exuberant & manically violent turn that keeps everyone on their toes. The piece hangs largely around this trio and they’re all magnificent, Scorsese & his tight script getting the most out of them.

In a male dominated picture however, the director never forgets the influence of the female on the Mob, and through Lorraine Bracco’s wife Karen he explores the cost on the wives of the men in this life, explores their devotion & sacrifice & pain; Bracco even gets to share the narration at times–further reinforcing the idea they’re both telling Henry’s life story after the fact–and she’s terrific, as strong as the male players, creating a vivid female presence as Karen alongside the men, with great chemistry alongside Liotta.

Much of Scorsese’s kinetic approach revolves around their tumultuous dynamic, with the director taking us on a freewheeling ride into the Mob world; he employs fast cuts, zoom ins, freeze frames, all of which keep us on our toes; he fills each frame with action, detail, keeping our eyes busy in every scene as Henry becomes further immersed into the lifestyle; and when the violence explodes it’s bloody, brutal and hells teeth is it tense – moments such as Tommy shooting the waiter or his encounter with Billy are riven with a kind of ominous expectation few do better than Scorsese.

We feel the passage of time too, feel these people getting older as the world changes around them – from the small world charm of the 50’s to the coke swollen paranoia of the 80’s, by which time Liotta in particular becomes a cauldron of neuroticism & Scorsese utterly beats down his characters. It’s a head rush that never feels like it stops for breath, reflecting the life of Henry in many ways – both his success and inevitable decline.

So many imitators have tried to replicate the Goodfellas formula, but how many can really match Martin Scorsese for the levels he reaches? He gets not only into charting the Mob world in fascinating detail, touching on its rules & codes & practices, but he does it all through a personal prism via Henry Hill–always an outsider looking in to a degree, peering behind the veil of a shallow life of men who believe money is the key to power & being ‘made’. Scorsese taps into character so well, via a brilliant script that keeps the audience on its toes while telling a rollicking story, all set to a marvellous soundtrack of hits & songs that often reflect the action or the emotion being felt at the time.

It’s an epic, it’s powerful, it’s funny, it’s tough, it’s rough and by God is it cool. Goodfellas may not make you want to be a gangster, but it’ll make you wish every film was as great as this.

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