#7 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
I’ve often wondered at the popularity of certain films based on my own personal model of storytelling. In my model, there are four major elements of storytelling (character, plot, style, and theme) which every story contains in different amounts. Part of taste is based on preferences for the different elements, and I’ve figured that most of the mass audiences prefer plot over the other three. As long as there’s a heavy plot, then audiences will be open to the storytelling presented. Goodfellas, being #18 in the IMDb’s top 250 movies of all time based on audience rankings, has virtually no plot whatsoever, though. What it does have, though, is a relentless pace. This two-and-a-half-hour film zips by at a clip because of an aggressive shooting and editing style that keeps the action moving.
This is the film that has come to define Martin Scorsese’s career. When the phrase “Scorsese movie” gets uttered, the speaker usually is thinking of Goodfellas as a base. Vastly different in style and tone from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, and The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas has had such a large cultural impact over the last thirty years, more so than any other film Scorsese has made, that every film he has made since has been compared to it, even when he’s worked in completely different genres. It sort of makes sense, though. When Goodfellas is your primary entry to the world of Scorsese and you love it just so very much, you want Scorsese to be making other movies like Goodfellas, not prim and proper adaptations of Edith Wharton novels like The Age of Innocence.
The genius of Goodfellas is partially in its pacing, but not because it’s fast. It’s genius because it gets the audience feeling like they’re part of this consequence free existence that Henry Hill grows up idolizing and then living, that we are having the same fun time as Henry moves from smaller duties as a boy (parking Cadillacs, blowing up cars) to, as a young man, organizing heists. Set to a rollicking soundtrack of music from the era, the movie is outright fun while we watch a monster being born, for Henry Hill ends up a terrible person.
He’s not alone, of course. Along with him are his two best friends, Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Conway’s older than Henry and Tommy, so he has a cooler head, but he’s just as open to violence as a solution as any of them. Tommy, though, is a wild dog. His introduction as an adult (we see him briefly as a teenager), is one of the movie’s most famous scenes, but is also a key to introducing the dynamics of the world in which they live. Tommy’s telling a story that’s making everyone laugh, and Henry makes the comment that Tommy’s a funny guy. Everything goes quiet as Tommy challenges Henry about the comment. One of the important things about how the scene is shot is that Scorsese keeps the back and forth in a medium shot with everyone around the two principle actors in focus. It’s not just Henry getting warry at Tommy’s attitude, everyone around them is obviously getting nervous as well. When the tension finally breaks and Tommy makes it clear that he’s just joking, everyone bursts into laughter at the same time, but that tension around Tommy’s next action feels very real. He really could suddenly start shooting because of an innocuous comment.
That scene gets mirrored later at a poker game after Tommy had shot the kid who was getting the drinks, Spider, in the foot because Spider didn’t hear Tommy ask for a drink. Spider’s back to work, and he’s feeling ballsy, so he tells Tommy to fuck himself. Shot in the same way as the funny scene, in medium shots, Tommy sits quietly in the middle of a bunch of raucous laughter breaks out around him. Jimmy even goes so far as to slap a hundred dollars on the table for Spider because of his bravery. That all ends instantly when Tommy pulls out his gun and shoots Spider a few times, uncaring about what he just did and happily accepting the responsibility of digging the hole the body will lie in.
None of these people are good people.
Henry brings into this life his wife Karen. She enters the life as a young woman when they marry, and she gets sucked into the insular world and learns to simply accept it. She may only be surrounded by the same women with bad skin who hated their kids all the time, but it ends up feeling just natural. Insulated from the real world for so long, she no longer knows how to function outside of her bubble. When Henry gets sent to prison for several years, she’s spent so long just existing on her husband’s inexplicable money source that she simply goes broke while he tries to figure things out in prison. When Henry decides to get into the drug business, behind his don’s back, Karen can do nothing but go along. The permissive culture infects everyone, and Jimmy and Tommy are brought into the drug business just as easily (going through the opening deal just outside of Jimmy’s parole officer’s office with complete impunity).
The tenuous existence that Hill has lived through his whole life ends up coming crashing down, seemingly inevitably. Far too many people around him have suddenly turned up dead for him to not realize that it’s a possibility for himself if even there’s a perception that he’s going against the business’s interests. After the famous Lufthansa heist, Jimmy kills several of the chief perpetrators who made their involvement obvious by buying extravagant things right afterwards with Henry barely squeaking by without much notice.
The final major sequence of the film is Henry’s last day free. High on coke and full of paranoia, he feels the same level of importance to making a meat sauce as he does selling some unwanted guns and securing his next cocaine shipment. The movie flies through this sequence with the same energy as the rest of the movie, getting the audience to care about the sauce as much as the cocaine, and when things finally come crashing down, the movie finally begins to take a breath. The music dies away, and scenes begin to take longer as Henry figures out that his only way to stay alive is to turn on his lifelong associates and friends.
This is Scorsese’s La Dolce Vita, the movie that could be viewed as a celebration of excess and immoral behavior, but ends up condemning it. The consequence free life of the gangster is presented as fun, for a time, but it can’t end well. You will end up dead, in prison, or hiding from everything you loved because you got out. That the movie successfully brings the audience into the world and gets them to cheer on monsters is to the film’s credit because of its concentrated view of the consequences that do eventually catch up. The terror of never knowing which mistake will be Hill’s last, but also the knowledge of the business’s procedures so that when the hit does come due, Hill can recognize it and get out.
Goodfellas is a movie that both extreme moralists and unrepentant gangsters can love at the same time. It makes the gangster life look amazingly fun, but everything comes crashing down in the end at the same time. Also, it moves at such an incredible speed for so long, that it’s no wonder it has become so widely popular and the expectation around Scorsese’s work is defined by it.