“As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Cue Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches. Zoom in to face. Freeze frame. Roll credits. I remember being hooked already and all I had seen was a few minutes of the film, featuring one gruesome murder, some out of context dialogue and one to the point voice over narration. That one line hit me like a hammer though. Who wants to be a gangster from childhood? What kind of person would rather idolize criminals than movie stars or athletes? Goodfellas isn’t just one of my favourite films, it’s one of the best films of all time.
Back when I was a teenager, I had an usual fascination with true crime, especially when it came to organized crime syndicates. So thus, in turn, gangster films were my obsession. Whether it was the straight up class of The Godfather to the glorified excesses of Scarface. But I had yet to see a film based on true events, let alone one done by the legendary Martin Scorsese. Until I saw Goodfellas that is.
The film is a biographical account of mobster Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, the half Irish, half Italian New York mobster whom we watch grow from teenage hood in the 50s all the way to paranoid drug addict in the 80s. Along with his buddies Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci, winning the Oscar for his foul mouth, ad lipped performance) they navigate the wise guy mafioso underworld, rising to power and wealth and pulling one of the largest robberies of all time (the Lufthansa heist of ’78) before they naturally begin their downward spirals.
So what did a youngster from New York see in being a gangster? What inspired him? This movie, along with the equally great and under appreciated A Bronx Tale taught me there is a difference between fear and respect, a running theme in a lot of organized crime films, where the line between the two get blurred and muddled. These men crave the respect that crime brings, being able to get away with just about anything, not having to wait in line, having people acknowledge you on the street, etc. Henry desires these things more than anything, regardless of consequences to others. He learns this early on when the neighbourhood postman gets violently threatened by his mafioso peers for delivering a scolding letter from his school, resulting in a furious beating from his father.
I think this was the first movie I had ever seen with voice over narration. To this day, critics loathe narration, seeing it as a cheap way to tell the story. And quite often they are right. But the first person narration in Goodfellas gives reason and context to the actions throughout the movie, sometimes in lengthy monologues which serve as a unique and absorbing storytelling device. It felt as if Henry was sitting down across from me, telling his story to me and me alone. Next thing you know, almost three hours has passed and the movie is done. I kid you not, this movie does not drag.
Scorsese’s unique film style is also evident here, with long shots, dolly zooms and freeze frames giving the film a vibrant flare. I’m a personal sucker for the dolly zoom and Goodfellas can still take comfort in having the best one in cinema. As Henry realizes his life is crumbling around him, the perception of the world literally becomes distorted and changes perspectives. The long shot is equally impressive when you bear in mind that every single extra and minute action had to be timed perfectly for it all to sync together.
Another Scorsese trademark that plays a heavy hand here is the music. It captures each decade of the film perfectly, as well subtle references to the characters or scenes, going from the playful doo wop music of Henry’s youth to The Rolling Stones during the drug phase. Arguably one of the best scenes in the movie is the “Layla” scene, which features a montage of death and glorified accomplishment, accompanied by the rocking upbeat piano portion of the Derek and the Dominos’s track. Upon further viewings, one notices the scenes are actually edited to line up with the beats and bars of the music.
The film was, not surprisingly, a huge success and a critical one as well, garnering multiple award nominations. It is arguable one of the best films ever made and certainly one of the best, if not the best true crime film. In the hands of most other directors, it could have been a simple biopic telling a story, and it would probably have been a really good movie. But Scorsese’s use of music, camera techniques, voice over and great acting elevated this to a whole new level. If you haven’t, add it to your watch list.