Thursday, March 31, 2016

Watch This: Goodfellas

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Goodfellas (1990)
Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
                                                                 -- Henry Hill, Goodfellas

There is no denying that the gangster has been one of the most compelling and appealing personalities in American culture.  There has long been a widespread fascination with real-life organized crime figures like Al Capone and John Gotti, and films like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983), as well as television series like the groundbreaking The Sopranos (1999-2007), have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans.  The life of a gangster is undoubtedly dangerous and often immoral, and yet this lifestyle, at least as depicted in popular culture, has a powerfully seductive allure.  Perhaps it is the possibility of attaining power and influence over others, or the notion of living outside of mainstream society's laws and accepted norms.  Whatever it is, the gangster lifestyle, in particular that of the American Mafia, holds a strong attraction for many Americans, and no film captures that lifestyle better than Martin Scorsese's mid-career masterpiece, Goodfellas.

Based on the book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi (who also co-wrote the film's screenplay), Goodfellas tells the true story of Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who joins the ranks of the local Mafia gang as a teenager and works his way up to become a mid-level gangster.  Henry narrates the story in the first-person, offering us a detailed insider's glimpse of everyday life in the Mafia as he hustles, steals, and commits all manner of other crimes alongside his fellow mobsters Jimmy "the Gent" Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, in an Oscar-winning performance).  Early in the film, he meets a young Jewish woman named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and the two date and eventually get married.

Karen is enamored with Henry's charm and influence, as evidenced by a virtuoso early scene in which Henry escorts her through the staff entrance of the Copacabana nightclub, through the service corridors and kitchen area, and into the main showroom, where a table is set up just for them in front of the stage.  She is frightened by the violence of Henry's lifestyle, yet also turned on by it, and after a while, she even begins to appreciate his criminal activities as proof of his enterprising ambition and commitment to providing for their young family.  However, things begin to turn sour after the fallout from a robbery sows the seeds of distrust and betrayal among Henry's peers, and after Tommy's short temper leads to the death of a high-level mobster.  Henry's marital infidelities strain his relationship with Karen, and his drug smuggling activities put him on the outs with mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino).  Overcome with guilt, regret, and fear, Henry is forced to make a difficult choice in order to ensure the safety of himself and his family.

One of the factors that makes Goodfellas stand out is its unusual narrative style.  Most films are either heavily-plotted or episodic in nature, but Goodfellas doesn't really fit either of these descriptions.  It doesn't have a plot, it tells a story, and its storytelling strategy might best be described as a progression of sequences rather than scenes.  While there are certainly a handful of scenes in the film that are allowed to play out over the course of a few minutes (Tommy's famous "What do you mean I'm funny?" scene is a prime example), the film is primarily composed of heavily-edited sequences which pull together key moments related to the voiceover narration.  This strategy allows the story to emphasize the countless details and glimpses of mob life that make the film such a pleasure to watch, and also gives the film a tremendous sense of nostalgia and memory.  This narrative style is especially potent in the long, frantic sequence late in the film that follows a paranoid, cocaine-fueled Henry over the course of a single day, as he rushes hurriedly back and forth trying to traffic drugs, visit his mistress, pick up his disabled brother, and cook dinner for his family, all while a surveillance helicopter seems to be following him around.  The frenetic editing and camerawork, combined with the sound and voiceover narration, create an almost palpable sense that the walls are closing in.  Rarely has a film done a better job of putting the viewer inside the mind of its protagonist.

There is so much to praise about Goodfellas that it is difficult to squeeze it all into just a handful of paragraphs.  The editing by the great Thelma Schoonmaker is masterful, Michael Ballhaus's cinematography works perfectly to communicate the director's vision, and the all-time great soundtrack, featuring the type of popular music that Martin Scorsese has used so well throughout his career, contributes immeasurably to the film's mood and sense of nostalgia.  The performances are uniformly great, and although Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his performance as the explosive Tommy, it is easy to think in retrospect that De Niro's measured, less showy performance as the charismatic, dangerous Jimmy, may have been the more deserving of the two.  Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is in making these characters, who commit so many despicable acts over the course of the film, so very likable and even enviable.  There is an admirable sense of camaraderie among Henry and his friends, and the gang is like a big family (at least until they begin murdering one another out of distrust and greed).  It is easy to relate to Henry's desire to become a gangster, which is as much about economics as anything else.  His voiceover quote at the start of the film, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," is followed immediately by Tony Bennett's song "Rags to Riches," and it feels like Henry's wish to join the ranks of the local gang is just another variation on the American Dream.

There are many who would say that The Godfather is the best gangster film ever made.  It is undeniable that The Godfather is probably a better film, and it is difficult to understate The Godfather's lasting cultural impact (even those who have never seen the film know the expressions "sleep with the fishes" and "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse"), but I would argue that Goodfellas is without a doubt a better gangster film.  The Godfather is more about the corrupting influence of power and the relationships within one single family than the day-to-day existence of a gangster, and it tells its story in a much broader social and historical context.  Goodfellas, on the other hand, focuses on the everyday life of a gangster, and not a high-level, wealthy mafioso like The Godfather's Vito and Michael Corleone.  The characters in Goodfellas are blue-collar, low-level gangsters who work long hours to hustle and rob their way to a level of power and financial well-being that never even approaches that of the Corleones.  Goodfellas is all about what it is like to be a gangster, not just an "average nobody," and it is this insider's attention to detail that makes the film so memorable.  Who can forget the scene in the bar where Henry's narration introduces us to gangsters like "Freddie No-Nose" and "Pete the Killer, who was Sally Balls's brother," or the way Paulie Cicero uses a razor blade to slice garlic in preparation for cooking dinner in prison?

The real Henry Hill has stated that the film is 95% accurate in its portrayal of mob life.  Perhaps this authenticity is what really makes the film's details stand out.  Of course, much credit should also be given to director and co-writer Martin Scorsese, who was also very familiar with the film's character types and milieu, having grown up in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood watching the local gangsters from his windows.  In any case, Goodfellas is a pure joy to watch, and it remains perhaps the best film made yet by America's greatest living director.

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