“You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.” You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys.” – Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)
As promised when I reviewed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for my 100th post, I’m back with another one of my all time favourites for this, my 200th blog post.
Based on writer Nicholas Pileggi’s own experiences in the mob, Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) who gets involved with the mob at a young age, eventually taken under the wing of Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), pulling numerous high-stakes robberies alongside associate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry soon settles into and enjoys the benefits of the criminal life, going on to marry Karen (Lorraine Bracco), but when numerous complications arise involving the murder of a “made man” as well as Henry’s growing narcotic addiction, the good times look set to end as friends soon become enemies and the “goodfellas” are relentlessly perused by the authorities.
Although it could be argued that the “rags to riches” story of a mobster, enjoying the high life for a while but then getting in over his head, finding themselves in trouble with the law has been often imitated, few attempts will come close to matching what Goodfellas has achieved; it is very much the seminal mafia movie, on par with The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America, and with Scorsese’s passionate hand at the wheel, it is a film that is still as exciting and bold today and is arguably his magnum opus. It is quintessential Scorsese as it showcases bold, uncompromising violence, a whole boatload of f-bombs and an exciting, colourful script brought to life by unbeatable direction and also the film’s stellar cast.
Since it was based on real life wiseguy Nicholas Pileggi’s own book and co-written with Scorsese, Goodfellas has that undeniable air of truth about it as it is based around real people and events and together, Pileggi and Scorsese have a script that is vibrant, razor sharp and filled with memorable dialogue that flies off the page. It is similar to The Wolf of Wall Street in that, for the most part, we’re watching these bad people get richer and richer but since it’s all done with such energy and exuberance, it’s utterly riveting to watch and ultimately, we don’t care at all that they’re bad people, we just have so much fun going with them on the journey.
Arguably his greatest ever role (it’s tied with GTA: Vice City!), Ray Liotta is ideally cast as the film’s main character Henry Hill, going from a fresh-faced wannabe gangster to a drug-addled, paranoid wreck. Liotta is likeable in a warped, anti-hero kind of way, his considerable energy helps keep the film afloat and he does well in providing the constant voiceover narration. In all honesty, this isn’t exactly one of Robert De Niro’s most memorable or fully developed roles but he’s still clearly right at home here doing what he does best; essentially the head honcho, he goes from being a fast moving, wiseguy hustler, facilitating all the business to growing far more suspicious and paranoid, becoming increasingly unhinged and menacing.
Elsewhere, Lorraine Bracco proves to be much more than the simple mobster wife since she makes the role her own and is ultimately a passionate character who is often conflicted about whether she wants to stay with Henry or not, finding a certain thrill with his lifestyle but also wary of the danger that her family is in. Frank Vincent is also noticeably nasty as the smug Billy Bats and Paul Sorvino is commanding as the unique Paulie; he is the most careful, level-headed character, moving and talking slowly, having a cool head on his shoulders.
But of course, all are often outshined by the Academy Award winning performance of Joe Pesci. As Tommy DeVito, he is fast-talking, unpredictable, manic and just so entertaining to watch. Pesci brings Scorcese’s words to life amazingly and despite being a mad dog of a character, we constantly smile and grin at his wicked sense of humour, even when he’s smashing bottles over heads and frantically shooting into the floor like a cowboy. And of course, there’s the legendary “How am I funny?” scene which demonstrates how he can eerily switch between being an excitable storyteller to an imposing, dangerous force who may just snap at any time.
All in all, the film has a large bunch of unique, distinguishable characters and are all infused with a considerable amount of zeal by its ensemble cast, a certain number of which would later go on to star in Cop Land and/or The Sopranos, such as Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore and Frank Vincent.
Goodfellas has an impressive, expansive soundtrack that cleverly mirrors the changing of the decades; kicking things off with Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches”, the early scenes feature some great rock and roll/easy listening tracks from artists such as Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and The Crystals, their “And Then He Kissed Me” providing an ideal accompaniment to the iconic two minute long tracking shot of Henry and Karen going through the kitchens of the Copacabana club. Later on in the film, the soundtrack includes more rock/blues infused tunes as it showcases songs by The Rolling Stones, Cream, Harry Nillson, Muddy Waters and The Sex Pistols; overall, Goodfellas‘ soundtrack provides a near constant supply of lovingly well-chosen tracks that keeps things lively and compelling.
And on a related note, the exquisite “Layla (Piano Exit)” by Derek and the Dominos is used in a truly phenomenal montage scene and then again during the end credits; I don’t know exactly what it is but that particular track in this particular film remains one of my favourite uses of music in film because it is used perfectly within the story and . . . it just hits all the right notes. Magnificent.