Release Date: September 21st, 1990 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Debi Mazar, Samuel L. Jackson
n Brooklyn in 1955, young Henry Hill idolizes the classy act of the gangsters that run the town and he’s anxious to take part in the lifestyle. After snagging a job parking cars for the “wiseguys,” he quickly works his way into stealing, scamming, and heisting towards the big bucks. He gains all the connections and everyone knows him, including mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), master thief Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), and partner-in-crime Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry takes whatever he wants, no one messes with him, and he gets royal treatment in every establishment he sets foot in; he couldn’t be happier or wealthier. By the ‘60s, Henry (Ray Liotta) rockily dates and then marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl who slowly grows accustomed to her husband’s unique method of earning money. In time, for both of them, it seems completely legitimate.
In New York in 1970, Tommy gets in a particularly heated argument with Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), a “made” man (of 100% Italian descent and one of the top guys in a competing family), resulting in Jimmy and Henry aiding in the opposing gangster’s murder. Disposing of the body proves to be a tricky task – one that will haunt the trio for some time. But the special treatment of these particular crooks doesn’t stop even when Hill is sentenced to 10 years in prison for playing loan shark and roughing up the wrong guy – one with a sister working for the FBI. Comedically, “Goodfellas” trivializes incarceration; convicts with money and connections don’t have to spend time with the general population. Instead, Henry wiles away his days consternated over the amount of onions in the sauce for the steak dinner in their private detention center, while Karen smuggles in fine scotch. He serves a mere four years, getting out early, only to start dealing cocaine, which becomes more lucrative than any of the criminal enterprises he previously pursued. This leads to the Lufthansa heist, the largest cash robbery in history.
A dual narration by both Henry and Karen is the start of the unique methods of storytelling for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” a brilliantly witty rise-and-fall tale of high-class, exclusive gangsters. Though it questionably glamorizes the hoodlum lifestyle, it’s undeniably fun to see, masterfully infusing laugh-out-loud comedy with graphic violence and quirky crime. Murder is an accepted element of wiseguy activities, along with paying off cops, coping with search warrants, and contending with scrutiny from law enforcement. Feuds with other families and infidelity similarly pepper their routines. Consequences are ignored with a striking, above-the-law attitude, yet “Goodfellas” is crafty enough to examine the stresses on marriage and familial stability (notably with mistresses), the potential for friends to spontaneously get whacked, and growing paranoia (partially from drug usage), without sacrificing the jubilantly rebellious tone. Scorsese knew the appeal of his subject matter and wished to reveal specific elements of that attraction – from the riches to the freedoms to the sway – before also chronicling the anxiety and the decline. For Hill, his greatest fear is being removed from the assemblage of swanky thugs that give him power and prestige.
The soundtrack is incredible, with jazzy beats, classic numbers, and memorable melodies transitioning every scene. When one song ends, another smoothly begins, reminiscent of “American Graffiti’s” narrative governance through continuous tunes; the background music essentially never terminates. It’s hip, lighthearted, and perfectly contrasting of the generally dark material found in gangster epics, tying into the brilliance of the editing, which makes use of famous tracking shots, freeze frames, improvisations, slow-motion, and cutting between past and present events.
From the soundtrack to the dialogue to the brutal violence, everything is coated in humor – an uncommon but wonderfully wry style to impart on a movie with such serious, tragic, and intense themes. It’s a biopic, based on the true story of Henry Hill and his assortment of gangsters and influenced and advised by real life wiseguys, which gives the mood and scripting an impressive level of authenticity – many of the exchanges were entirely improvised. Oftentimes considered one of the greatest movies of all time, “Goodfellas” received outstanding reviews and critical acclaim during its initial release, garnering nominations for 6 Academy Awards and winning Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci. Rarely does it place any lower than second on lists of mob movies, and in 2000, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance.
– Mike Massie