“For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, that was better than being President of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world.”
Ah, yes, the gangster movie. It’s an art form originating in 1927 with Underworld that soon found its way into popularity in the 1930s with films such as Scarface, Little Caesar, and many others. There’s something fascinating about the life of a mobster that has always attracted directors to tell their stories. One such director is Martin Scorsese, who has made his way into film history primarily by telling the true stories of criminals. Goodfellas is often considered his greatest work, and there’s certainly evidence for such a claim. With an all star cast of spot-on talent, Goodfellas is an extravagant thrill ride through the rise and fall of a real life set of gangsters, and it has always been a personal favorite of mine.
This movie is about as Scorsese as it gets. The glorification of the life of crime, the snappy energy from beginning to end, the narration, the tracking shots – oh God, the tracking shots. It’s cool to see a film like Wolf of Wall Street and note such similarities to Goodfellas 25 years after its release. To me, Scorsese’s greatest skill as a director is his ability to tell a serious, gritty story and make it all seem so fun. The upbeat music between and underneath the scenes, the playful camerawork, the unapologetic narration – it always helps us root for the amoral protagonist. We’re along for the ride as some nobody off the streets rises to the top and then loses it all due to some fault of his own. In Goodfellas, it’s Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta. There’s this passion in Henry’s voice as we hear him discuss what it’s like to be a gangster and have this sense of invincibility. We don’t criticize him for his choices. Rather, Scorsese makes Henry and his gangster buddies out to be fun guys (if a bit too reckless), so we want to see them get rich at the expense of others. It’s all a matter of tone, which Scorsese has mastered. These characters can do no wrong.
If you check out the movie poster for Goodfellas, you see Robert deNiro in the middle with Liotta and Pesci out to the side. Yes, this is probably a marketing ploy to exploit the star power of deNiro, but I think it’s also because this movie isn’t about Henry Hill. It’s about the three of them, among others too. We don’t hear Henry talk much, with other characters remaking on how silent he is. It’s a sort of Great Gatsby story where the protagonist admires some idol of his and gets involved in his world. Though rather than becoming a disgusted Nick Carraway figure, Henry Hill falls in love with the gangster life, and only ends up ratting out his buddies for self-preservation. It even horrifies him to do so, despite the clear indication that his friends have turned their back on him. Liotta, Pesci, and deNiro move the film along through their strange mutual friendship and aspirations to achieve great things. I also have to give special recognition to Joe Pesci, who I find to give the most talented performance in the film. His loose cannon attitude keeps you on the edge of your seat, and despite his reckless attitude, you still feel for him when he meets his demise. He kept things interesting. This is a film about what an insane life these guys live, and nobody gives off that vibe more than Pesci.
In the past, I have often told people that I like this movie more than The Godfather to try and convey my respect for it. I guess I would still say the same, but I’m starting to understand the two movies are great in different aspects. The Godfather launched mafia movies into a new age and established the norms for what they would look like in the future. The idea that the mob was made up of complex characters who looked out for each other like family was never explored to such an extent as in The Godfather. However, it’s a pretty gloomy film. Goodfellas is a sort of go-to movie for me, one that I can bust out at any time and enjoy. The vision behind it is livelier, and watching Goodfellas is always more of a guaranteed good time. I’m always in the mood to watch Goodfellas, but it takes the right mindset to really take in The Godfather. That’s my opinion, at least. I think stories can have a stronger impact on an audience if they include these more upbeat elements with a strong sense of humor, something Scorsese has strongly incorporated into his work. The Godfather is clearly a masterpiece of the genre, but Goodfellas took that same greatness and put a smile on its face. In the end, they’re different.
There isn’t much to say about Goodfellas that hasn’t been said in the past. It’s smart, thrilling, and wildly entertaining. Scorsese has a clear attachment to these crime stories that results in passionate works of film. The film gives us a real sense of who these guys are and why they did the things they did. It’s always amazing to wrap up a Scorsese film such as Goodfellas and remember that it’s all a true story. He crafts these films in such a way that it seems like it all had to be a Hollywood creation. It’s all just too wacky to be true. But that’s what makes Goodfellas so fantastic, the absurdity of it all and how it all comes out in such a fun way. It’s a splendid film that I’m sure will hold a place among my favorites for years to come.
Films Left to Watch: 973