|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Wednesday, 26 March 1997|
Unless something unexpected drops out of the sky between now and Dec. 31, ‘GoodFellas’ will rule forever as the single best film about organized crime to come out of the ‘90s. Indeed, it is one of the best films ever on the subject, making us feel as though we’ve lived through the outrageous events along with the characters. Director Martin Scorsese has explored the themes and characters of ‘GoodFellas’ before and since, but never with such immediacy. He manages to make these people thoroughly understandable without romanticizing them; we get why they are who they are without wanting to be them. It’s a tougher dynamic than it may sound, but Scorsese makes it work so that it hangs in the memory in a manner normally reserved for our own actual experiences.
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book ‘Wiseguy’ (the original title for the film), which is in turn based on real-life people and incidents, the screenplay by Pileggi & Scorsese introduces us first to our primary narrator Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who explains calmly that he always wanted to be a gangster. Growing up in East New York in the ‘50s, Henry sees the deference paid to the men who hang out at the cab stand and longs to be one of them. When he gets a job at age 12, valet-parking Cadillacs, he’s in heaven. As he gets older, more complicated, less ethical jobs follow. His parents are appalled, but Henry feels he has a life of adventure, wealth and a sense of belonging. His mind dexterously justifies theft, extortion and murder as business necessities inflicted on outsiders or transgressors. By the time he is 21, Henry is fast friends with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who kills only for pay but who mainly enjoys stealing, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his work here), who thinks it’s funny to shoot a waiter for slow service. A double date with Tommy introduces Henry and us to Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who thereafter shares narrator duties with her soon-to-be husband. Karen has the guts to assert herself with Henry, a Jewish background that sets her apart from the other wiseguy wives and just enough self-awareness for her to admit that at crucial moments, she knows what she’s getting into but can’t bear to leave. Eventually, Henry’s world starts to come apart, not because of any special brilliance on the part of law enforcement or internecine gang warfare, but because of greed, paranoia and betrayal.
Given Henry’s perspective, the denouement has a satisfyingly ironic quality. In his case, the punishment can truly be said to fit the crimes. Scorsese uses a variety of cinematic tricks, especially freeze frames, for emphasis, creating a shorthand so that we’re readily mindful of important details. He also has some camera moves that echo Henry’s thrilled state of mind. Viewers unfamiliar with the film may want to pay special attention in Chapter 12. When Henry takes Karen to the famed Copacabana night club, the camera follows them from sidewalk through service entrance, kitchen, corridors, gauntlet of well-wishers and finally to the table without ever cutting away. When we’re caught up in the scene, it is breathtaking on its own terms; when we step back to consider the technical accomplishment, we’re left breathless (and wishing for an audio commentary track from Scorsese here more than anywhere). The red hues in which the director bathes scenes of violence provides an extra emotional dimension without ever seeming overly surreal.
‘GoodFellas’ has an expertly chosen soundtrack of songs ranging from Sinatra to ‘50s pop to ‘60s rock to the especially apt Sid Vicious rendition of "My Way" over the closing credits. The mix is very clean, allowing the music to register strongly without ever interfering with the dialogue track. The widescreen picture is sharp and handsome. Viewers should note that the disk is encoded on both sides, with Chapters 1-19 and the supplemental material on the A side and a second set of chapters numbered 1-15 on the B side; make sure the A side is up to avoid starting the film in the middle.
The cast performs in best ensemble fashion, with everyone on the same wavelength. Liotta never judges Henry but doesn’t pitch for our sympathy, either, so that we see all of the faces that Henry provides - to mob higher-ups, friends, victims - and how he sees himself while still able to form our own opinions. It’s a splendidly-realized characterization. Bracco has such ferocity that we understand how her Karen coped without either freaking out or fleeing. De Niro, as expected, is excellent as the quipping, calculating Jimmy. It’s no surprise now that Pesci makes a great, dangerous weasel, but the work is still a revelation.
While ‘GoodFellas’ is not unduly long - only 146 minutes - but it has the epic feel of an engrossing novel and an impact that seizes the imagination. It is simply a great movie.