“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.” -Henry Hill
There were a few years when I was a teenager where people would ask me what my favorite movie was, and I wouldn’t have an answer. At that time I was fairly obsessed with The Matrix (which I watched so many times on VHS the tape was starting to wear out) and the Lord of the Rings movies, but I had yet to see a movie that I could point to as one that stood above anything else I had seen.
But when I was 16, a saw a movie called “Goodfellas” on HBO.
I had heard of this movie before I saw it, anyone who has any connection to popular culture is at least somewhat familiar with it. But when I finally saw it, I was stunned. This movie had absolutely everything. A great story, engaging characters, awesome soundtrack, but the element I was mostly drawn to with this film was one I had never really noticed before: the directorial vision of Martin Scorsese, whose movies I’ve been obsessed with ever since.
The film, based on a true story, is about Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who for nearly 30 years was a member of a New York mafia family ran by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). We meet Hill as a 13-year-old child, and he becomes completely enamored with the gangsters in his neighborhood. Hill is stuck in poverty with blue-collar parents and a bunch of siblings, and he sees devil-may-care lifestyle of the mob as a perfect escape. Much to his parents’ horror, he gets offered a job running numbers for the family. He stops going to school, he makes more money in a few weeks than his parents probably did in a year, and he gets to know and befriend the other gangsters, particularly Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
The interesting thing about “Goodfellas” is that it is one of the only gangster movies that does not focus on the highest-raking members of the family. Henry, Jimmy and Tommy are essentially errand boys, so being in this family is like a 9-to-5 job for them. Even though it’s a job that requires killing people and stealing money from wherever they can get it. Henry does eventually meet Karen (Lorraine Bracco) a young Jewish woman who steals his heart, which leads to their tumultuous marriage.
“Goodfellas,” based on the novel “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-wrote the script with Scorsese), is a rise-and-fall story, a chronicle of a man who starts out with the world at his feet, and then devolved into a paranoid, drug-addicted wreck. and Scorsese employs a variety of techniques that make the movie feel almost like a documentary at times. The movie is heavy on voiceover narration from Henry and Karen. Voiceovers can be a lazy way to tell a story since it requires a character to talk about every single thing that is happening on-screen which can damage the audience’s involvement, but it is implemented perfectly here. Henry works as a guide through this foreign world of the mafia, and Karen offers her perspective as an unwilling passenger into this world. Gangster movies rarely focus on the women involved, but this movie does provide that perspective, showing how someone can gloss over the unsavory aspects of the mob life if it means having a comfortable lifestyle.
The characters are completely unromanticized. There is no attempt to apologize for the atrocities committed in this movie. Henry Hill is a charismatic screen presence, but he is still a thief who abuses and cheats on his wife and has no interest in living by a moral compass. It is a tricky balance for an actor to strike, but Liotta, who hasn’t had a worthwhile movie role since, does so admirably. De Niro as Jimmy is the same way. He is introduced as Henry’s closest friend, a smooth operator who does everything by-the-book, but deep down he is a monster who will do anything and everything to protect himself, even if he has to kill everyone he knows to do it. De Niro’s performance is a masterful exercise in restraint, since this role could’ve been overdone in the wrong hands.
But the film’s most memorable performance comes from Joe Pesci as Tommy. Tommy is short-tempered, homicidal and volatile, a man who tries to make-up for his short stature with barely-controlled rage. This scene is a perfect example of how Tommy can go from funny to terrifying in an instant.
But the biggest reason why this is my favorite movie, and the reason I became a cinephile in the first place, is Scorsese’s direction. The cinematography plays an important part in this movie. Not just because “Goodfellas” is beautifully shot (which it is), but because the camerawork plays an integral part in telling the story. The first half of the movie, which details Henry’s rise in the mob world, is shot with rich, exuberant colors, specifically the color red, a running motif through many Scorsese movies. Also, the camera glides through every scene. Scorsese has said in interviews that the camerawork in this part of the movie was done in a way to demonstrate how Henry is gliding through life at this point, that everything comes easy to him. That point is best demonstrated in the famous scene where the camera tracks Henry and Karen into the Copacabana, all in one take.
But in the second half of the film, when everything starts to fall apart and Henry becomes a drugged-out shell of his former self who decides to rat on his friends and leave the life forever, the movie changes. The visuals become more washed out and natural, and the camera, so elegant at the beginning, becomes more haphazard, moving around recklessly with a ton of quick cuts, to show the immediacy and paranoia of this section of the story.
The use of music is also crucial. “Goodfellas” has my favorite soundtrack, not only because it introduced me to Phil Spector’s music, and has selections from George Harrison, The Who, Henry Nilsson, and the Rolling Stones, but it is an example of how music can be used as cinematic language. When Jimmy becomes paranoid that his friends will rat him out after a heist, he starts killing them to keep the money for himself. The piano coda from Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” is used to dismantle every notion that this is a great lifestyle. It is an evil, desperate and sad way to live.
All of these elements coalesce into a masterpiece. Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers this country has ever produced, with films such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Departed.” His film deal with people struggling with harsh societies and their own inner turmoil. “Goodfellas” is his most complete masterpiece, combining his gift for analyzing these types of characters and his incomparable directing style. It helped me discover that movies were more than just moving pictures, they are visions of artists, which inspired me to see all of Scorsese’s other films and directors like him. It that isn’t the definition for what makes a movie someone’s favorite, I don’t know what is.
Bonus: The following is a fan-made tribute to Martin Scorsese. I love watching these, but this is by far the best one I’ve ever seen, due to how beautifully made it is. Enjoy.