Should I Watch..? 'Goodfellas'
What's the big deal?
Goodfellas is a crime drama film released in 1990 and is an adaptation of the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film follows the life and times of Henry Hill - a young man enamoured by the gangster lifestyle and his criminal career working for New York mob boss Paul "Paulie" Cicero. The film stars Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. The film was released to critical acclaim with some calling the film the best of Scorsese's career and it would go on to be nominated for six Oscars, winning one for Best Supporting Actor for Pesci. The film would go on to earn more than $46 million in the US alone and has since become imitated and parodied in dozens of other projects. Together with The Godfather, it remains the benchmark for all other gangster films.
What's it about?
The film opens in 1955 where juvenile delinquent Henry Hill begins neglecting his high school studies in order to begin working for Paulie Cicero, a mob boss working in New York. Together with Paulie's associates - truck hijacker James "Jimmy The Gent" Conway and psychotic criminal Tommy DeVito - Henry begins by fencing stolen goods before slowly graduating towards more violent crime. His girlfriend Karen is initially reluctant to support Henry when she discovers what he's been up to but over time, she too becomes seduced by the money and power that comes their way as a result.
In 1970, Henry is caught up in the murder of a member of a rival Mafia family - Billy Batts of the Gambino's. After Tommy and Jimmy murder Billy, Henry is called upon to help bury the body as the murder of a 'made man' like Billy has deadly consequences for all three of them. As the years go by and their involvement with crimes gets ever deeper, Henry soon begins to struggle with cocaine addiction as well as possible guilt. Suddenly, the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself - a proposed raid on a vault at JFK Airport with a possible $6 million up for grabs...
Robert De Niro
James "Jimmy The Gent" Conway
Paul "Paulie" Cicero
Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese*
Release Date (UK)
26th October, 1990
Biography, Crime, Drama
Best Supporting Actor (Pesci)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Bracco), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing
What's to like?
Goodfellas is a film unlike almost any other, save for The Godfather. Instead of a shadowy world filled with shady characters, this is a living and breathing look at ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances. It glamorises the lifestyle of a gangster with epic parties, sordid affairs and enough coke to give Scarface nightmares. Combined with a typically brilliant soundtrack (a hallmark of most Scorsese pictures) and it makes you appreciate why someone would fall into the trap of wanting to be a mobster. But the film does have several stings in the tail - as the film goes on, the tension seems to ratchet up a notch and the threat of violence or even death is never far away and as the final reel begins, the brutality of the narrative starts to catch up with them.
Liotta has struggled to escape the role of Henry Hill ever since, demonstrating how he completely inhabits the character. But this is Pesci's film - he is without peer in this movie as Tommy, a tightly-wound ball of dynamite ready to explode at the slightest provocation. You cannot take your eyes off him from his first scene, the oft-copied "Am I funny to you?" sequence. What really surprised me was that despite the scope and the film's epic feel (once again heightened by the soundtrack) was how much easier it was to identify with compared to The Godfather. The characters feel like old friends as we watch them grow up, in spite of their reprehensible crimes. The pace of the film rarely lets up and there is a horrible, queasy feeling in the back of your mind that this is potentially based on true events if Pileggi's book is anything to go by.
- Al Pacino was originally offered the role of James Conway but turned it down as he didn't want to do another gangster role. Ironically, he found himself playing a gangster in Dick Tracy - a decision he later regretted.
- Henry introduces a character in the bar called Fat Andy who was played by former NYPD officer Louis Eppolito, whose father, cousin and uncle were all in the Mafia. Eppolito himself would be jailed for racketeering, murder and extortion and sentenced to 80 years in jail in 2005. But he wouldn't be the only crook on set - according to Pileggi, numerous mobsters appeared as extras in scenes although it is unclear how they were paid.
- The 'f word' is used throughout the film a total of 321 times, just over twice a minute. At the time, it held the record for the most profanity in a film although Scorsese himself beat this record with The Wolf Of Wall Street. Because much of the dialogue in Goodfellas was improvised, the amount of swearing increased exponentially.
- According to Pesci, the "Am I funny to you?" scene came about because of a real-life incident when Pesci (while working as a waiter) told a gangster he was funny, to a cold response. Telling Scorsese the story, the scene was added but nobody in the cast knew what Pesci was about to do to make their reactions genuine.
What's not to like?
My problem with this film can be summed up in one word: taste. It's the same with The Godfather: two excellent films that both offer a chilling insight into organised crime with fantastic performances and an astonishingly level of detail that makes the film all too realistic. I respect both The Godfather and Goodfellas enormously but would I choose to watch them again? No. I'm simply not invested in the story or interested in the subject matter enough to care about the film, even though I can appreciate the skill behind the camera and talent in front of it. I'm not being some moral crusader who thinks that these films celebrate or glamorise criminals and murderers - I simply can't identify with any of these characters in the way that Scorsese clearly can. And that's no fault of the film.
Other issues which might complicate your viewing experience is the sheer unbridled level of profanity in the film as mentioned above and the possible insensitivity of depicting Italian-Americans as nothing more than cold-blooded gangsters in pin-stripe suits. I also preferred the overall narrative in The Godfather - seeing the gradual erosion of Michael Corleone's soul was more compelling than Henry Hill's story. But bear in mind that despite comparisons with arguably the greatest gangster movie of all time, this film more than holds its own and that should tell you just how good a film it is.
Should I watch it?
Goodfellas could easily have been another tired retread of gangster cliches and stereotyped characters. Instead, it becomes an engrossing and authentic look at life inside the Mafia with its twisted sense of honour and blinkered view of needless violence. Pesci's barnstorming performance is the cherry atop of this beautifully crafted picture which not only walks the walk but talks the talk as well.
Great For: lovers of all things gangster, Italian Americans, Pesci's career, pizza companies
Not So Great For: Francis Ford Coppola, anyone under the age of 18, breaking down racial stereotypes
What else should I watch?
For reasons that should have been made obvious by now, I have yet to see either sequel to The Godfather - primarily due to a lack of interest. The Godfather Part II is widely considered to be the equal, if not the superior, film to the first movie as it looks back at the founding of the Corleone crime family in New York as well as the efforts to maintain the 'business' of the current Don, Michael Corleone, after an attempt on his life. Sadly, the same cannot be said of The Godfather Part III which Coppola himself describes as an epilogue to the first two films.
So what other gangster films are out there? Well, Scorsese has been a regular to the genre over the years and he later followed up this film with Casino, a big and glitzy drama set in the Mob-dominated casinos of Seventies Las Vegas. After finally scooping a Best Director Oscar for The Departed, Scorsese's latest work is due for release later this year - The Irishman stars De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (coming out of retirement) and is a hugely expensive and ambitious look at the life of Frank Sheeran, a labour union official with suspected ties to the Bufalino crime family. Other mob-related films worth your consideration are LA Confidential which looks at the link between police corruption and celebrity in Fifties Hollywood and Sergio Leone's epic crime drama Once Upon A Time In America.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox