If gangster films are your thing, then you’re in luck. Because #5 on the 40 for 40 is the best gangster movie ever.
Directed by a visionary at the peak of his powers, and starring a trio of charismatic actors that have more than left their mark on Hollywood.
Highs and lows. Helicopters and tomato sauce. This one has it all.
Just don’t forget your shine box…
#5. Goodfellas (1990) Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
In my opinion, Goodfellas is easily the greatest gangster film ever made.
A big statement, yes. But I stand by it.
Where The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II knocked down the door, in 1990, having already directed classics like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese took the ball and ran with it.
With Goodfellas, Scorsese modernised the gangster film. Much more than The Godfather, the movie feels like it’s occurring in the real world, rather than a romantic period piece.
First of all, the film is incredibly fast-paced. Even the opening credits whizz by with the sounds of speeding cars, perhaps foreshadowing the cocaine-laced finale.
Goodfellas also opens with one of the most engaging and simultaneously-shocking scenes in Hollywood history. Coupled with the immortal line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” the movie immediately lets you know what’s in store.
If watching a film in which three said-gangsters violently finish off another (already mortally-wounded) enemy in the trunk turns you off your cannoli… then maybe Goodfellas isn’t your kind of movie.
But if it is, then boy are you in luck.
Right from the early flashbacks, young Henry is smitten with the mafia lifestyle. We see how easily he’s seduced by the romantic nature of the local gangsters and the businesses they run. He sees the world the way it should be (to him) and from then on, only ever wants to live that particular way.
Local boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) soon takes Henry under his wing. As Liotta’s narration explains, at fifteen, he’s shown making more money than most of the adults on his block. Not to mention, that even when he is first arrested, Paulie and the others embrace Henry for ‘popping his cherry’.
Liotta and Pesci are as good an on-screen pairing as you’ll find, and Pesci more than deserves all the accolades he’s received over the years. As does De Niro. But make no mistake; Liotta is just as brilliant as Henry. For me, it’s his best role, hands down. He portrays Henry as so taken with the lifestyle, even the obvious and frequent day-to-day violence seems like a game. At first.
Early in the film, Henry’s reaction to violence is simply to laugh – with that now-iconic Liotta cackle.
Tommy breaking the bottle over the restaurant manager’s head, Jimmy strangling perennial pain-in-the-ass, Morrie (Chuck Low) with a phone cord, both make Henry laugh. It’s a game to him, one that doesn’t begin to take its toll until a little later.
The first real incident of violence we see involving Henry that he doesn’t find funny is when he takes retribution for girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) being almost-molested by her handsy neighbour. Liotta’s now-famous ability to project instant-rage shines through in this scene, where he barely uses any words, yet lays the guy out with the most brutal pistol-whipping you’ve ever seen.
And Liotta’s well-rounded performance turns the corner later in the film, after his first stint in prison kicks off a serious drug habit. Scorsese does a masterful job of letting us know that this is Henry’s downfall. Despite Paulie’s insistence, Henry continues to deal and partake in cocaine, surrounding himself with excess to the point of madness. His clothes, his house, all of it soon becomes possible thanks to his ‘sloppy’ drug running.
Scorsese is perhaps at his stylistic best with Goodfellas. With clever camera cuts, we certainly see cars doors open and we see cars doors close, yet rarely the journey in-between. It’s a crafty trick that lets the viewer’s mind fill in the gaps and saves time for the all-important stuff to come.
Scorsese’s love of long takes are also heavily prevalent in this movie. None more exemplary than the infamous Copacabana shot. It’s one of the best long takes (if not the best) ever shot on film. As Henry and Karen start out on the street and move into the clandestine side entrance…
… where they continue through the maze-like corridors of the club…
… through the busy kitchen…
… and finally, past the ushers and out onto the stage show area of the club, where a table is literally added specifically for them.
This is only one of many memorable scenes Goodfellas has to offer. There are so many, but three really stand out to me…
Firstly, who can forget the “You’re a funny guy,” scene, where Tommy seemingly takes offence to Henry’s off-hand compliment.
Pesci is so superbly-intense in this scene. It’s the epitome of his character. Laughing one minute, murderous the next. I love that the tension ramps up to a point where we really don’t know what’s going to happen, until Henry finally catches on to the ruse and just like that, we’re all laughing again.
Next up, you’ve got to chuckle at the “F*ck you, pay me,” moment. I watch that scene with a sense of irony, as Paulie, Henry and the crew essentially swindle the (albeit) naive restaurateur out of his business with a series of sketchy dealings, before burning it down to collect the insurance money. Truly, the mob at work.
And of course, last but not least, the shine box scene, where made man, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) taunts Tommy to the point where Tommy can no longer take it. In a dark version of the previous, “Funny Guy” scene, this time, Tommy can’t handle the jokes or disrespect, as he and Jimmy take down Batts, while Henry watches on from within his own establishment.
At this stage of film is when Henry no longer finds the violence funny. This first murder-by-association silences him for a while. As Tommy and Jimmy enjoy a nice midnight dinner at Tommy’s endearing Italian mother’s, Henry seems to finally understand what it’s like to get your hands dirty.
Billy Batts’ death begins a chain reaction that ruins Henry, Tommy and Jimmy’s ‘perfect’ lifestyle, since the shine box scene is perhaps the trigger that begins Tommy’s downfall. But in the meantime, we are treated to Pesci’s Academy Award winning performance. As Tommy, he’s funny, acute, and quick to anger.
This is perhaps no more evident than in the scene where Tommy first shoots and then later kills young bartender, Spider (Michael Imperioli) in anger, simply for being the butt of a joke. Pesci shines in this scene not for what he says but for what he doesn’t say for once. His silence is an eerie warning that something horrible is about to happen. And it does.
But, like all great characters of Tommy’s nature, he of course, receives an appropriate comeuppance. In another shocking scene, Tommy realises all-too-late what’s in store for him and he’s killed (in retaliation for the earlier Billy Batts murder).
Despite his nature, it’s sad to see Tommy go, but what’s even more heartbreaking are the reactions of both Henry and Jimmy. They know they can’t do a thing about it. Retribution is impossible, since Tommy’s death was itself in retaliation to killing Batts. Such are the rules of the lifestyle they find themselves in, and again, Scorsese is the master of getting this point across.
Speaking of Jimmy, Robert De Niro gives a rather understated performance in this film. The perfect middle between Henry and Tommy. He’s charming like Henry, but yet ready to do what’s necessary at a moment’s notice like Tommy.
The aforementioned Morrie commercial incident comes to mind when thinking about examples of Jimmy’s sudden fierceness, but nothing showcases his do-or-die mentality more than the ‘Layla’ sequence.
De Niro expertly projects Jimmy’s frustration with his crew, as several members arrive at the celebratory dinner flashing the spoils of their score, including Cadillacs, fur coats and jewellery.
I love that Jimmy’s greed and paranoia is what sets in motion the pivotal turning point in the movie, where former ‘business partners’ become paranoid co-conspirators, eating each other to stay alive (and out of prison).
In keeping with the movie’s style, the slow zoom in on Jimmy as he plots to take out Morrie and all those like him who talk too much, is a brilliant way of getting into the mind of this character, who it seems, has found his breaking point.
As I mentioned, the ‘Layla’ scene, in which body-after-body is revealed, is a chilling mix of brutal mob violence, set to one of Eric Clapton’s greatest ever songs. With more sweeping zooms and long takes, it’s also – dare I say – vintage Scorsese.
Holding her own against the breakout star of the film, Liotta, and two powerhouses in De Niro and Pesci – is Lorraine Bracco as Karen.
Bracco is terrific in this movie, and it’s hard to accept that she lost the Best Supporting Actress award to Whoopi Goldberg for her role in Ghost. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ghost too, and yes, Whoopi was excellent… but come on. Better than Bracco in Goodfellas?
Anyway, Karen probably has the greatest character arc in the whole film. While we see Henry and Tommy and Jimmy over the course of a couple of decades, they don’t really change that much. Only the situations around them differ.
But Karen goes from naive, strictly-Jewish-boy-dating girl-next-door, to complicit cocaine dealer in the course of two hours. It’s interesting to see her relationship with Henry develop, especially since it’s her ‘wiseguy’-like ballsiness that wins Henry over. He isn’t interested in her until Karen confronts him for standing her up – in front of all his cab-stand colleagues, no less.
Then, after letting Henry make it up to her, she sees exactly who he is and the power he wields on their first proper date (the previously-mentioned Copacabana scene), where just like the adolescent version of Henry, she is also beguiled by the lifestyle.
As she says – after a while, it all became normal. “It didn’t seem like crime at all.” But all-too-soon, the side-effects of the life catch up with Karen. When she tracks down Henry’s mistress and even points a gun into Henry’s face, we fear the worst might become of Karen. But as the ever-even-keel, Paulie in steps once again to remind us of the ‘family’ nature of things.
Separately, they’re great in Goodfellas, but together, Liotta and Bracco bring the film to new heights.
Especially in the movie’s final sequence, where a coked-up Henry runs guns all over town, while trying to secure another drug run and organise a family dinner. All the while, he’s keeping an eye on a helicopter that seems to be following him and dealing with his overly-confident-yet-superstitious drug mule (who manages to do exactly what he tells her not to).
Liotta’s voiceover in this scene is perfectly erratic. The camera cuts and zooms in a frantic (Scorsese) manner, building to Henry’s eventual downfall. All set to more classic tunes.
Bracco portrays Karen’s panic flawlessly as everything falls apart as Henry gets ‘sloppy’, puts his faith in the wrong people, ignores the advice of Paulie and Jimmy and is soon left with no choice but to do the unthinkable – rat out his fellow gangsters to save himself.
The aptly-named Aftermath shows how loyal the so-called family is when pushed. It even seems that Jimmy is about to have Karen whacked at one point until she cleverly realises what’s up and bails. As Henry tells us, when you’re part of a crew, no one tells you they’re going to kill you. Scorsese once again uses the camera to convey Henry’s uneasy meeting with Jimmy by using the classic, dolly zoom effect.
For a movie that early on, denigrates the idea of squealing to others to save your own skin, Goodfellas really turns the tables on itself when Henry becomes an FBI informant in order to get into witness protection.
What goes around comes around and although Henry rats out Jimmy and Paulie to save himself from prison (and mob retribution), his ultimate comeuppance comes when he’s forced to live as a normal guy – or as he laments, ‘an average nobody’.
The Sid Vicious cover of My Way playing over the end credits perfectly sums up the lives of Henry and those involved in the film. Also, seeing Tommy one last time (a vision from beyond the grave?) blasting his gun into the camera gives one final, sinister caveat to the now ‘safe’ Henry Hill.
Did it all really happen? As a great man once said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
And that’s what Goodfellas is; a good, no, a great story. Since its release, in my opinion, no other gangster film has managed to surpass its brilliance. Even Scorsese’s own attempts, Casino and The Departed, while both excellent, still fall short of Goodfellas.
It truly is a film for the ages, and remains one of my all time favourites.
So, c’mon… make that coffee to go…
Rating: 5 out of 5 razor-thin slices of garlic.
Favourite Moment: “Helicopters and tomato sauce...”
Honourable Mention: Billy Batts and the shine box.
Next week: #4 – “I’m not wearing hockey pads…”