Sunday, September 19, 2010

 

As far back as I can remember, I always loved Goodfellas

NOTE: Ranked No. 8 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


By Edward Copeland
Some films' excellence hit you so hard with their greatness that once the end credits roll, you know that you will have to see the movie again — and soon — as you float out of the theater in a state of euphoria greater than a high any drug could produce. This feeling consumed me the very first time I saw Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, which premiered 20 years ago today.


In 1990, I already had been a fan of Scorsese for quite some time, having seen every new film he made in a theater since The King of Comedy, including having to travel four hours to Dallas and stand in a long line in the rain to see The Last Temptation of Christ since my backward-ass state legislature actually passed a measure to prevent the film from playing here. Of Scorsese's films between 1983 and 1989 that I'd seen in a theater, After Hours was my favorite, though I felt Taxi Driver was his best, even though I'd only seen it in a cropped video version. Then Goodfellas came into my life and it changed forever. What grabbed me was not that I'd just seen an incredibly well-made, well-acted, well-written and well-directed film that provided one helluva entertaining time at the movies but that it seemed to me that hidden inside Goodfellas, Scorsese disguised a film school that all could attend. If you wanted to explain to any non-cinephile about any aspect of filmmaking, you could find a great example within Scorsese's gangster movie to illustrate to them simply and wonderfully what it was, be it a tracking shot, a pan, types of editing, great cinematography, use of music and sound, etc. It truly was a wonder to behold.

When I recently marked the 25th anniversary of After Hours, I noted that in the DVD extras Scorsese mentioned that part of what attracted him to that film was his negative experience of living in the lower Manhattan area of Tribeca and it seems to me that while Scorsese can't not be a talented filmmaker, no matter what the material is, what lifts some of his films above the others is an unmistakably personal connection and that's most decidedly the case with Goodfellas. He may never have been in the mob, but he grew up on those Brooklyn streets in that time period, so he knows it well. After the brief prologue previewing the murder of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and the initial Saul and Elaine Bass opening credits, with its zooming words braking from side to side before stopping in the middle, the very first shot he gives us is a close-up of the eye of the 13-year-old Henry Hill looking out his window with wonder at the wiseguys across the street at the cabstand. The eyes may as well be Scorsese's, even if the narration belongs to the adult Henry (Ray Liotta). Though they like to call the three films an unofficial trilogy, this is why Mean Streets and Goodfellas are great and Casino doesn't work. Scorsese relates to the worlds of Charlie and Henry Hill, but the world of Ace Rothstein is an alien one so, combined with the familiar and unimaginative casting, Casino just plays like an uninspired retread.

When I was a kid, it was not unusual for me to go see films I was crazy about multiple times in the theater. Most were the usual suspects such as the original Star Wars trilogy, Grease — movies that I'd see again and again with new companions or relatives or even by myself. However, as I grew older and started reviewing (and tried to review just about everything out there, heaven help me), once was enough. Goodfellas became a glorious exception as I saw that four times in the theater in its original release, dragging new people to it to share in its wonder (usually following the film with an Italian meal). In the years since, it's become one of those films that if I flipped past it on TV, I'd inevitably watch it despite the cropping and censoring. Sitting down to watch the DVD of it for this piece was the first time in a while that I'd seen it unexpurgated and in its proper ratio. It excited me in a way that cut-up partial viewings had failed to do. It always was great, but it renewed in me how magnificent an example of moviemaking it remains.

It's also fascinating to watch the entire film again in the wake of The Sopranos which, let's admit it, probably never would have existed without Goodfellas. Granted, no one in Scorsese's film seeks psychiatric help, but it sets the template of the balancing of domestic life with criminal life. At one point, Henry's wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) actually says in voiceover on their wedding day that it's like Henry had two families, the exact theme of the original Sopranos promos. One big difference though concerns lifestyle: While the real-life gangsters whose story Goodfellas tells always have money, they don't live like rich suburban kings the way they do on The Sopranos. I think that's one reason the HBO series references The Godfather films more frequently since the Corleones resided in mansions. Even Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the boss of the Goodfellas family, resides in a rather humble abode compared to a Tony Soprano or Johnny Sack. When Karen Hill says that none of it seemed like crime, it just seemed like their husbands were regular, blue collar guys, her words contain more than a grain of truth. I do think a drinking game could be invented out of watching Goodfellas though: Take a shot every time you spot an actor or actress who later appears on The Sopranos. A cursory check of IMDb (until I got too tired) discovered 17 in parts of all sizes. For the record, the first one to spot is Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos) who plays one of the wiseguys who get out of the car and go into Tuddy's cabstand as young Henry watches from his window.

THE CAST

Since I've brought up Bracco, the performer with the most prominent roles in both Goodfellas and The Sopranos, this does make it as good as time as any to point out the unusual role of Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Until Karen enters the film, Goodfellas basically functions as a first-person account of Henry Hill telling us his story through voiceover. When Karen arrives, suddenly we have a second narrator, something that's unusual for a film, though not unprecedented. At first, having a second disembodied voice tell the story jars the viewer a bit, but it doesn't take long to get used to it. The dual narrations don't really contradict each other, but it's interesting to hear both points-of-view during a conversation. (In a way, it's reminiscent of the subtitles translating Alvy and Annie's small talk in Annie Hall.) Though Bracco earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination, she doesn't get the praise she deserves, especially since this came two years after her great work in Someone to Watch Over Me. It also goes without saying how many light years of difference there is between Karen Hill and Jennifer Melfi. Goodfellas gave her the opportunity to stretch her acting muscles much further than the television series, especially as it dragged on and found it harder to keep involving her in the story. In Goodfellas though, you get to see her euphoria as she twirls at her wedding and takes in the new universe she's entering as well as her anger of Henry's cheating, to the point that she pulls a gun on him, though she admits in voiceover she could never hurt him if she couldn't even leave him. That scene leaves her sprawled on the floor by the bed, screaming she's sorry. Bracco proves pretty amazing. As great as Melfi was, it would be nice to see her get a role this rich again.

Ray Liotta, so great as Henry, hasn't had the career he deserves. Since his breakout role as Melanie Griffith's psychotic ex in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, which was followed up soon after by Goodfellas, he really hasn't had a chance at another great role to live up to those early successes. He's so good here and he more than holds his own with Robert De Niro's Jimmy Conway, one of the last times De Niro turned in a performance that wasn't over-the-top or just seemed as if he's going through the motions; and with the scene-stealing, Oscar-winning turn of Joe Pesci. I checked IMDb to see what Liotta has been up to since the most recent movie I recalled Liotta appearing in was his role as the cop in the twisted mess Observe and Report with Seth Rogen. One of Liotta's most recent credits includes portraying the principal on an episode of TV's Hannah Montana. How depressing. Early in the run of The Sopranos, reports claimed that he turned down a two-season part. I'm guessing because of the length of the role and the time I read the report that he might have been Ralph Cifaretto, but could anyone picture someone other Joe Pantoliano in that part now? Still, it's puzzling how someone as talented as Liotta hasn't earned better roles after Henry Hill. He perfectly played his ability to charm his way out of problems, to laugh at the horrors he witnesses but still maintain the ability to be shocked when they go too far. He even gets drug addiction to boot. As the first person narrator, the weight of the film's story falls on his shoulders and he carries it with ease, fun and grace, yet somehow Liotta gets left out of the film's acclaim.

Which brings us to Pesci, who not only won a well-deserved Oscar as Tommy Devito, but really provides most of the moments of the movie that resonate throughout pop culture, even by people who have never seen Goodfellas. In fact, though he appears in the pre-credit prologue, the first time we see a grown Tommy and Pesci gets dialogue of any length it is the infamous, "What makes me so funny?" bit at the Bamboo Lounge. It's not only entertaining and a classic moment in film history, it quickly establishes Tommy's unstable nature and Pesci's frightening ability to change demeanor in a split-second. First, he's being scary, then he admits he's joking, then he's terrorizing the restaurant's owner (Tony Darrow) and a waiter and then it's back to kidding around with no pauses in between. While you do see a bit of the adult Henry in the young Henry (Christopher Serrone), the young Tommy (Joe D'Onofrio) gives no such clues, though I suspect that may have been intentional. While Pesci's performance can be thought of just switching between the frightening and the funny, he does give Tommy other shadings as well. You see that when he does explode in unjustified rage, as he does against Billy Batts or the poor bartender Spider (Michael Imperioli), it stems from insecurity. (Of course, Imperioli got to pay homage to getting shot in the foot in The Sopranos' first season episode "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" when Christopher feels similarly slighted by a clerk at a pastry store.) You also see the pride when he believes he's about to be made. We don't know what Tommy's upbringing was like, but we can guess that he's someone who craves praise and only knows how to earn it through comedy or bullying. You also see that moment of realization when he enters the empty room to be made and knows his life is about to end. He also loves his mom, so we're probably safe in guessing that it's his never-mentioned father who left the emotional scars.

Pesci provides so many of the movie's memorable moments, that I'd feel remiss (if only to myself) if I didn't single out the middle of the Billy Batts sequence. The attack proves brutal enough, though it's beautiful in its own way as Pesci and De Niro punch, pummel and kick Frank Vincent to the sounds of Donovan's "Atlantis." Actually, the film history of Pesci and Vincent amuses on its own. Pesci basically had abandoned his plans for an acting career but had made a 1976 film called The Death Collector, which is what Scorsese spotted and led him to cast him in Raging Bull. In that film, he beats Vincent to death. In Raging Bull, they needed an actor for a part where Pesci's character lashes out and does some physical damage so the first person they thought of was Vincent. When the Billy Batts part came about for Goodfellas, they thought why not let Joe do some damage to Frank again? Vincent did get his revenge in Casino though, playing the character who kills Pesci's character. Anyway, with Batts in the trunk, Henry, Tommy and Jimmy stop at Tommy's mom' house to get a shovel. His mom, played by Scorsese's real-life mom Catherine, wakes up and insists on feeding them. She interrogates her son as to why he can't be like Henry and get himself a nice girl. "I get a nice one almost every night," he replies. She corrects herself that she means to settle down and he again says, "I settle down almost every night, but then in the morning I'm free." Then his mom brings out one of the paintings she's been working on and I don't know why, but it always has struck me and a former friend of mine as tremendously funny. As Tommy describes it, "One dog's looking east, one dog's looking west and the man's saying, 'What do you want from me?'" It cracks me up every time. The movie also sprinkles a lot of throwaway lines, some barely audible, some by minor characters that are very funny that viewers should keep their ears peeled for such as Tommy arguing with Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) about Frankie never being able to hit a certain number. Another great aside comes when Tommy's girlfriend (Illeana Douglas) brags to Jimmy's wife Mickey (Julie Garfield) that she's serious — if Tommy even caught her looking at another man, he'd kill her and Mickey meekly smiles and replies, "Great."

De Niro received an Oscar nomination in 1990, but it wasn't for his great work as "Jimmy the Gent" Conway, but for Awakenings. Put those performances side by side and, honestly, see which film you think he really gave the best performance in. It's not that De Niro has been turning in bad performances, but the amazing work of the hungry young actor certainly hasn't been present much in the past 20 years or so. The following year, re-teaming with Scorsese, he gave an entertaining but scenery devouring turn in the Cape Fear remake. Really though, since Goodfellas, I'd only count Heat and Wag the Dog as truly impressive work by De Niro (and I'm being generous) but it came alongside embarrassments such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. In other films, he turned in fine, workman-like performances that smelled suspiciously as if they were being done for the money. This wasn't the case with Goodfellas where De Niro took a role that could have seemed routine for him and infused it with freshness and perfectly completed the film's male triumvirate. De Niro shows Jimmy's aging over the 25 year time span subtly and without the hindrance of any awful makeup. He's a welcome contrast to hothead Tommy, though he can be just as brutal if you get him started, but he holds himself back because he's marter and more cool-headed; when he kills, it's just business. One of the most impressive things De Niro does here (and in other films) and that most of the greats do is the way they manipulate props. Just watch him pour ketchup from a bottle or slightly tilt his drink and head while telling Batts that he did insult Tommy a little or something as simple as the way he lets his eyeglasses slip as he tries to get information out of Karen over what Henry may have said to the police after his arrest — these touches aren't necessary but they make scenes even more realistic. I really miss the De Niro who put that much effort into a role.

While Goodfellas boasts an exceptionally large cast, there really is only one other character large enough to be of separate note and that's Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero, the boss of this particular Brooklyn crime family. One thing I've never quite understood about this film (or Casino for that matter) both of which were based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi, who in both instances co-wrote the screenplays, change the names of the real-life people for the movies with the exception of Henry Hill. Cicero, for instance, was really Paul Vario, Jimmy Conway was Jimmy Burke and Tommy Devito's real name was Tommy DeSimone. Still, most of the events described in the movie are true, though a few have been changed or omitted. Sorvino does well as the strong but quiet Paulie, though the movie's portrayal is at odds with descriptions of the real life Vario. However, he is integral as a representation of two important parts of the mob culture: the older generation's reluctance to engage in the drug trade and that food, oh that glorious food. Sorvino later had regrets about the portrayal of Italian Americans as gangsters (though he also played one in The Firm) and swore he'd never play one again before starring in a short-lived TV series about non-mob-involved Italian Americans called That's Life. Sorvino's moratorium didn't last long: a year later he appeared as a mobster again in the TV movie Mafia Doctor. I have Italian blood in my lineage, but I've never had the reaction some do to stories about the Mafia. It's just a historical fact: Italians made up the mob, but it doesn't mean that all Italians were in the mob and some Italian Americans just need to lighten up and remember that the person who started the anti-defamation efforts on behalf of Italian Americans was Joe Colombo, himself a gangster. In fact, Paul Vario was part of Colombo's anti-defamation group until he resigned because he feared it was drawing too much attention to their "business" activities.

GOODFELLAS' BEST PERFORMANCE

As you can probably guess, my answer to that heading is Scorsese himself, since I consider Goodfellas to be the director's greatest film in a career filled with great films. I think the timing proved particularly auspicious for him to make Goodfellas. He'd re-energized himself with After Hours and three years later finally realized his longtime dream to bring Nikos Kazantzakis' novel The Last Temptation of Christ to the screen. Except for the lark of "Life Lessons," his segment (the best one) of New York Stories, Goodfellas would be the very next film he produced and it seemed as if he were at the peaks of his powers. As I mentioned earlier, watching Goodfellas seems as if you are attending film school in about 2 hours and 20 minutes since he displays practically every filmmaking technique possible. More importantly, they aren't used to call attention to themselves. He employs them because they are the best way to illustrate the scene and story he wants to convey at that time.

The sequences that Scorsese concocts with his collaborators such as film editor Schoonmaker and director of photography Michael Ballhaus, the temptation for me would be just to show, not tell, but despite searching the Web far and wide, Warner Bros. seems to have done a good job at preventing people from embedding clips from the film. That's fine. In the end, I'm a man of words anyway, even if language can't do justice to what Scorsese has assembled. Take for instance what's probably the film's most infamous sequence: the heralded Copacabana tracking shot. It's an amazing, unbroken take that begins outside the club as Henry escorts Karen on one of their first real solo dates and, eager to impress, guides her past the long line of people waiting to get in through a basement entrance and a labyrinthine passage of rooms and the kitchen (where everyone knows him) until they find their way to the main room and the maitre'd sets up a special table for them right near the stage. An overwhelmed Karen asks Henry what it is he does for a living and he answers, "construction." She feels his hands and doubts his story to which he responds, "I'm a union delegate." This bravura sequence isn't just a stunt: It's a great piece of filmmaking illustrating how much power this 21-year-old man holds in this area and how enchanted his date is with his pull. Compare this to when someone such as Brian De Palma tries to do long tracking shots in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, which he admits he's doing to try to show Scorsese up, and it shows because those are stunts that add nothing to those films. In contrast, another talented director, Robert Altman, did a great eight-minute scene in one take, though not technically a tracking shot, to open The Player that simultaneously comments on tracking shots and the growing tendency of Hollywood movies to overwhelm images with cuts and avoid long takes. Back to the Copacabana scene for a moment. One thing that doesn't get mentioned is the great transition he uses to end the shot and move on to the next scene. The Copacabana tracking shot ends with Henny Youngman on stage performing his act then we move to Idlewild airport where Henry and Tommy are preparing to pull off the Air France heist and Youngman's jokes continue on the soundtrack as the transition between the two locations. It's brilliant. It's just one example out of many of inspired transitions he employs either by use of sound or visuals. Another favorite of mine is when Henry gives a pistol-whipping to Karen's neighbor who got rough with her when she wouldn't put out and then Henry gives Karen the gun to hide. Her placing the gun in a metal box segues immediately to a rabbi covering a glass with a napkin and the couple stepping on it, officially becoming married, joined together in the eyes of God and in the commission of a crime.

Of course, that's hardly the only bravura sequence Scorsese and crew conjures for this masterpiece. In the DVD extras for After Hours, Michael Ballhaus, told how Scorsese gave him a shot list, a list that came from pseudo-storyboards that Scorsese drew on the script itself. You know the phrase "the devil's in the details" but for Scorsese, it's the filmmaking and it's that attention to even the smallest bit that makes him one of our greatest. Take that early opening scene of young Henry watching out his window with fascination as the wiseguys pile out of their car to enter the cabstand for a night of cards or whatever. He doesn't have to add much to explain that scene, but he puts in the subtle little touches that bring it alive: Focusing on the pinky rings of the gangster's hands; watching as the classic car rises as the men exit it. Then there is the wonderful moment late in the film when a nervous Henry, after having been busted for his drug dealing, meets with Jimmy in a diner for fear he'd get killed anywhere else. It starts with a tracking shot from the diner's entrance to the booth where Jimmy is then Scorsese employs a reverse pan so that while Jimmy and Henry seem to stay where they are, the cars and objects outside the window seem to come nearer, as if the world is closing in. The middle of the conversation even tosses in a couple of freeze frames before reversing the reverse at the end again. Sequence after sequence, shot after shot, Scorsese simply takes your breath away in this film and it's part of the reason it requires repeat viewings: To appreciate it all: The story, the craftsmanship, the acting.

Then there is the food, that glorious food. Talk about scrumptious details. The entire prison sequence showing how Henry, Paulie, Vinnie (played by Scorsese's father, Charles) and others, prepare for meals that would make free people salivate. With the details of how Paulie slices the garlic, Vinnie makes his sauce ("Don't put too many onions in there!") — is there anyone wonder that every time I saw the film in its original release a trip to an Italian restaurant was not far behind? On top of that, the entire sequence is set to the background music of Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea." Another genius of Scorsese. There is no original score, but the film boasts nearly wall-to-wall music, appropriate for its time span of 1955-1980. I've already referred to the Billy Batts' beating being backed by Donovan's "Atlantis" (Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be), but I neglected to mention that the incredible Copacabana tracking shot was set to "Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals. To start with Tony Bennett singing "Rags to Riches" and end with Sid Vicious warbling "My Way" — that's one eclectic score. Some have referred to Mean Streets as the flip side of American Graffiti, given the age of the characters and the fact both came out in the same year, but really it's Goodfellas that is the gangster version of American Graffiti, it just doesn't have the conceit of the songs coming through car radios being introduced by Wolfman Jack.

As great a feat of movie magic as the Copa scene is, including its use of music, the absolute highlight of the film, at least in terms of using one piece of music, concerns the aftermath of the famed Lufthansa heist. Jimmy starts getting both nervous about the actions of the people who carried out the job (and greedy as well), so he finds it more fortuitous to cut all his ties by killing all of them. The sequence showing the discovery of the various corpses starts slowly, almost innocently, as some kids who appear to have been playing stick ball stumble upon a pink Cadillac. It's the same car Jimmy had chewed one of the men out for having bought on the night of the robbery and told him to get rid of. Then the music begins and it's the wonderful piano exit to "Layla" by Derek and the Dominoes (for the young'uns out there, Eric Clapton's old band) and you see close up the slain bodies of Johnny Roastbeef and his wife. The Cadillac's sales sticker remains on the passenger window. The song and Liotta's narration goes on as we see bodies falls in garbage trucks and discovered frozen in meat tracks. It's a perfect pop score for such a grisly sequence.

When I was in fifth grade, our music teacher assigned groups to create mix tapes that would splice together parts of different songs into some kind of creative collage. I'm not sure what inspired her to give us this project but that's how one of Scorsese's other great Goodfellas sequences plays, where he manages to depict about 16 hours of time in a day in 10 minutes of screentime with brilliant editing and constant changing of the music he's using in the sequence. It covers the last day before Henry's arrest on drug charges. He's drugged out on cocaine and convinced that a helicopter is following him. He has a busy day of errands: bringing guns to Jimmy, meeting his Pittsburgh drug connection to prepare a shipment that his nanny will take on a flight out of state, pick up his handicapped brother (Kevin Corrigan) from the hospital to bring home for dinner, help prepare dinner and placate his mistress (Debi Mazar). It's a daylong frenzy and it feels like it. The first time I actually timed it, I was shocked to realize that it only took 10 minutes because so much is going on at such a manic pace, it seemed an impossibility. With his use of so many different songs in the sequence, it's almost like one of those radio contests where they play short snippets of songs and callers have to identify them for a prize. Maybe that's where my music teacher got the idea.

I could go on endlessly about this film because for me it's as infectious to talk or write about as it is to watch. Pretty much without options, Henry and Karen Hill had to become government witnesses and go into the Witness Protection Program. They later divorced. During the trial sequence, as Henry testfies against Jimmy and Paulie, Scorsese even breaks the fourth wall, having Henry step off the witness stand and speak directly to the camera. He admits that what he misses most is the lifestyle. He later got into trouble again and was kicked out of the program. In the film, his last line is that he'd be forced to live the rest of his life as a schnook. Twenty years later, that is very true for Henry Hill. You can befriend him on Facebook. I wonder if he plays Mafia Wars. The real Jimmy and Paulie both died in prison as old men.

The movie about Henry Hill's life will outlast him by many, many years, as will the name Martin Scorsese. One of his quick final shots pays homage both to the gangster movies of the past and the infamous opening of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery of 1903. That's why Scorsese is such a master. He doesn't just know how to make great films or how to relate to them personally, he's like an encyclopeda of film history. He's also more than willing to dive into something new, which he will be doing tonight as he becomes executive producer of a dramatic series for television for the first time and directs the pilot for HBO's Boardwalk Empire starring Steve Buscemi. (I've seen the first six episodes and it's very good.) That's why I love him and that's why I love Goodfellas.



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Comments:
Boy, that was a fun read. Thanks for the effort.
 
Thanks. I've been working on it a long time since it means so much to me and I was beginning to think I made it too long and no one was reading the whole thing since there weren't any comments.
 
Fantastic review of a brilliant movie. Goodfellas has been one of my all-time favs since I first laid eyes on it, it introduced me to the genre and firmly embedded the name Scorsese in my head forever - good work!
 
Awesome tribute to this film. And length was not an issue at all as you passion for this film came through, big time.

This is a great film and one that I can watch again and again. It is just so alive and bursting at the seams with energy and conviction. So many classic scenes and memorabler lines of dialogue. And what about that cast? Aside from the main leads you have a good chunk of future SOPRANOS cast members filling things out in the margins, each getting little moments to do their thing.

Great film. Man, now I wanna watch it.
 
Great stuff, Edward, the best piece I've ever read on this film, which may be my favorite Scorsese picture too. I saw it on its first day of release with my parents when I was 20 and we all thrilled to it. Back then it was the adrenaline rush that hooked me; today I still get jazzed by the movie while seeing its darker meanings. Most movies are about character or theme; "Goodfellas" is about a lifestyle, a pretty tricky thing to capture on film, but Scorsese is up to the challenge.
 
I would argue that DeNiro is great in Jackie Brown, especially with the small touches and prop work that you speak of.
 
You are right. Somehow I always seem to forget about Jackie Brown and that he was in it. Where did Bridget Fonda go?
 
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