Written by: Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero
A lifestyle where everyone makes room for you and bows to your every whim would be attractive for anyone. The power of being a celebrity while also having the muscle to mess with anyone who tries to even be an affront allures the men of this feature to this lifestyle. Goodfellas grants us the opportunity to get firsthand experience of what being a gangster can provide while also hastily taking everything away with the pull of a trigger.
Ever since his childhood Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) wanted to be a gangster and from a young age he got the opportunity to work for well-known enforcer, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Now working his own deals while paying Paulie his due, Henry looks to maintain his lifestyle with the allure of a new type of contraband calling to him at the expense of him taking another breath.
Rewatching this feature for the review shortly after The Godfather trilogy certainly demonstrated some parallels in where honor lies in the gangster world, but also the types of substances they deemed unacceptable. Men who would kill for the smallest of invoncincies, but when even an indication of making money from drugs arises, suddenly everyone gets a conscience about the impact it will have on the community. In the end, this turn to drugs served a fundamental shift in the way making money became an integral for these groups of organized crime. However, as much as the legendary Francis Ford Coppola-led focused on a particular family, Goodfellas does a much better job of grouping together these misfits and creating a lovely bond.
Family-like bonds come together in such seamless ways in Goodfellas where you have half Irish and Italian Henry Hill, fully Irish Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and fully Italian Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) running together like they came from the same mother. Blood lines matter typically within these organized crime syndicates and the camaraderie built between these men and the others brings such a beautiful familial vibe. Yes, they do some heinous things, but they do it with a sense of honor and duty to each other one can admire while admitting their lawlessness. Nothing quite sums this up more than the prison scene where Henry and his cellmates lived like kings and made dinners for the men. A moment of familiarity and connection that explains why Henry would never want to leave this life, even with the existent danger at every turn. It only makes it so much more difficult to take when things inevitably begin to fall apart because of foreseeable issues.
Much of the insight of this world gets achieved through voiceover by Henry Hill. He makes all of the proper introductions and provides plenty of context to different events occurring. With most films, this could be seen as a negative but the way in which Martin Scorsese utilizes it here adds to the pacing and makes it more of an enthralling watch overall. It helps things move along and solidifies this story belonging to Henry Hill, even with the scene-stealing moments of Jimmy Conway and Tommy throughout. The biggest surprise of the voiceover use comes from Henry not being the only one utilizing, but also his wife, Karen (Lorrain Bracco).
Most mob movies focus on the perspectives of the men because they typically did most of the action, but this feature brings in Karen Hill and we hear her thoughts as the story progresses. Something so refreshing it came as a surprise on each occasion. She did not just serve as a worried wife at home, but it provided insight as to why she continued to stay with Henry even when knowing the illegal activity her husband engaged in and the rampant infidelity. She even mentions getting turned on by the work he does, which certainly does not make her an innocent bystander in the riches the lifestyle brought to her.
The biggest defining feature allowing this to remain Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece comes from the performances involved and the incredible range they exhibit. An underworld filled with wiseguys and each of them different in their own ways, these actors put on an absolute clinic and took everyone to class. At the center of it is Ray Liotta, who puts in a career-best performance as Henry Hill. From the bright-eyed beginnings to the succumbing of drug use, Liotta goes through the wringer as this character in such a fascinating and entertaining way. Truly working wonders with this character and allows Hill to be more than a two-bit guy to follow, because he carries the imperfections so well. Hill never stood out as the most fascinating or menacing person in the crew but the man could still hold the audience’s attention with such ease.
However, the person stealing the show easily is Joe Pesci as Tommy. Carrying a level of menace in his demeanor and unhinged behavior, it will always be hilarious Goodfellas came out the same year as the family-friendly Home Alone. Pesci manages to be menacing in both of them but what he achieves with Tommy reaches another level. Not having the stature of the other men around him, he creates such a high level of menace where he becomes the scariest character of them all, even if we follow a character who’s like a brother to him throughout the entire feature. Tommy could pop off at a moment’s notice, thus making him incredibly unpredictable. Pesci has so much fun here and I’m glad he nabbed his Academy Award for his work as Tommy.
Always a pleasure watching Martin Scorsese at his best and he just creates something special here. From the utilization of needle drops like no other, his direction absolutely fired on all cylinders in Goodfellas. He captures the paranoia as much as he does the glitz and glamour this lifestyle could bring someone like Henry Hill. The one-take shot through the Copacabana just lays it out plainly to demonstrate the celebrity status Hill gained from a young age. Scorsese, however, never loses sight of the morality factor of these men and how they ultimately represent a menace to society. A factor he ensures to make explicitly clear in all his features centered around bad men no matter how much people would like to disagree.
Truly one of the great films in film history, Goodfellas fails to disappoint on how it introduces the audience to this world with all of the glamour and danger that comes with it. It effortlessly flows throughout and allows the audience to see what it was like for Henry Hill to rise and fall much like everyone who chooses such a lifestyle. This film carries quite the spectrum of emotion but ultimately it makes the message clear about what it means to live as a gangster. Everything eventually will come crumbling down.