Without a doubt, Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece “Goodfellas” is one of the most influential films of its kind. Not only is it constantly referred to as the best film of its genre, but also as one of the greatest films ever made period. 25 years later, it is still widely discussed and analyzed, but what is it about “Goodfellas” that has made it such an enduring film? Why is it still praised by the public, critics, and filmmakers across the globe to this very day? To find these answers, let’s start from the very beginning, with its groundbreaking storytelling.
As the film opens, we meet our three main characters: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They’re simply driving along a road late at night, when suddenly there comes a bumping sound that they’re unable to identify. They pull over, pop open the trunk to find, to our surprise, a man covered in tablecloths and blood. Tommy produces a butcher’s knife and puts a few more holes in him, while Jimmy makes sure the job is done by adding a few bullets. Thus, with just the first couple of minutes, Scorsese throws us into this violent lifestyle that these men so nonchalantly accept as their daily lives.
After this eye-opening prologue, we go back to the actual start of the story, where we learn how young Henry (Christopher Serrone) got involved with such people in the first place. He gets a job at a cab stand across the street, knowing full-well what kind of people they are, but as he infamously proclaims in the opening scene, he always wanted to be a gangster. We watch as he becomes more and more involved with what they do, going from jacking and selling cigarettes to stealing large cargo shipments. This is exactly the kind of life he always dreamed of, belonging to the kind of family that comes with a multitude of privileges, such as never having to wait in line and being able to do pretty much anything he wants. He even eventually finds himself a wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who falls in love with him, and curiously becomes even more taken after she finds out the kind of dangerous man he is. Everything seems to be perfect: lots of money, a loving wife, an enviable lifestyle, but as the basic law of physics (and gangster films) says, “what goes up, must come down.”
What makes the structure of Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s (based on the latter’s book, “Wiseguy”) screenplay so fascinating is that they start off by showing you directly how bad these people are. We don’t even know the context of why they’re doing what they’re doing, but we can see that they don’t shy away from violent means as a way of getting it done. However, when we go back to the beginning proper and see Henry’s rise, they switch to a kind of glorification of the life, where these crooks don’t seem like particularly bad people. Sure, they rough people up every now and again, but from the approach that Scorsese and Pileggi take, we almost feel like we want to be friends with these guys as we observe their everyday activities. This is what makes catching up to the opening scene a bit of a jolt, and even more of one when we find out that it was nothing but a silly little exchange of words that set the whole thing off.
This isn’t even to mention that the story is simply a thrilling ride in the first place. It’s true that we do start to care for these guys as we watch them carry out their various crimes, but even when things get hotter and more violent, like Karen, we the audience are drawn in to see just where it will go from here. Henry isn’t able to leave well-enough alone, causing him to play a more and more dangerous game that involves the messy business of drug trafficking, which leads to the film’s intriguing final act. Whereas most of the film involves jumping over periods of time, allowing us to see the important events that transpired over the years, the last part of the film mostly involves what occurred on one particular day, giving us every little detail of this day of Henry’s life. Of course, it’s an important day, but what makes the focus on it so particularly effective is that it gives us time to take in every bit of paranoia that Henry is feeling as he struggles to do about 20 things at once, half dealing with business, half involving family and dinner. Don’t be surprised if you have to catch your breath a little when you finally reach the end of this drug-fueled, fast-paced day.
Going right along with the film’s unique storytelling is the completely immersive quality of its portrayal of mobster life. Of course, classic mobster films had shown us bits and pieces of what it was like, but mainly in an over-the-top manner. “Goodfellas” tells it just like it happened, in a down-to-Earth and believable manner, just as Hill himself described it to Pileggi when he was doing research for the book. In fact, if I remember correctly, Hill is quoted as saying that the film is 95-99% accurate, meaning that the authors might have had to add in a thing or two, but it’s still truthful as to the criminal acts that Henry, Jimmy, Tommy, and their associates committed. It’s no accident that the audience gets swept up in the lavishness of the lifestyle presented here, for that was the exact intension, to pull you along as if you were just another one of the boys. It’s no easy feat to pull off this effect, but a master like Scorsese makes it look like just another day at the office.
Helping bring this story to life is an absolutely phenomenal ensemble that seems so at home in this environment that you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were the real deal. The cast features Ray Liotta (in arguably the one great role in his filmography), Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Oscar nominee Lorraine Bracco, and the great Paul Sorvino, among a large group of smaller supporting actors. It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Liotta in the role of Hill, and it’s rather fascinating to think that he actually had to convince producer Irwin Winkler that he was the man for the job. However, nobody had to be convinced that De Niro and Pesci would fit right in. De Niro had won his first Oscar for portraying a younger Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II,” going on to win his second by playing boxer Jake LaMotta in another Scorsese classic, “Raging Bull.”
Pesci had shown his tough side in the latter as well, which had earned him his first Oscar nomination, eventually going on to win one for his unforgettable performance in this very film (shamefully, the only Oscar the Academy would bestow upon the film). Bracco may not have been that well-known at the time, but her powerful performance here as a strong-willed wife earned her an Oscar nod, in addition to getting her more recognition (is it any wonder she landed a large role on “The Sopranos” several years later?). All of them bring something incredibly unique to the film, and it simply wouldn’t be nearly as impactful without them.
There are so many more great things that could be talked about with “Goodfellas:” Scorsese’s masterful direction of every scene (considered one of the best-directed films of all time on the prestigious “Sight & Sound” poll), Michael Ballhaus’ outstanding cinematography, and the usual Scorsese staple of having an unforgettable soundtrack (I still can’t think about this film without having Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” start to run through my head), but everything that’s already been discussed should suffice to explain the film’s longevity, with these just being even more incredible accomplishments to keep your eyes and ears peeled for. With all of these amazing attributes combined, it’s not hard to see why the film is still discussed and studied to this very day. It stands as the pinnacle of its genre, a film that many people look up to in hopes of being able to do even half of what Scorsese was able to accomplish with his cast and crew. “Goodfellas” has indeed graced our screens for 25 long years, but there’s no doubt that its legacy will continue on for another 25 years, and well beyond.
“Goodfellas” comes to Blu-ray for the second time in a fantastic 25th anniversary edition courtesy of Warner Bros., presenting the film in an all-new 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that has been remastered from a 4K scan. Having seen the film multiple times in various formats, I can say for certain that it has never looked as good as it does here. The picture is amazingly sharp and clear, making it look brand new again, and ensuring that you see every bit of detail that Scorsese and co. have laid out throughout the film. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio has been given outstanding treatment as well, allowing for the fantastic soundtrack to come through loud and clear, complementing the picture as Scorsese so meticulously intended. Overall, this masterpiece has been done wonderful justice, giving you an unbeatable experience as you revisit the film once more (or if for some reason you have yet to see it, for the first time).
36-page Photo Book: A hardcover book included in the set that contains a fascinating essay analyzing the film and its impact on other filmmakers.
Scorsese’s Goodfellas: A fantastic 30-minute featurette featuring interviews with cast and crew discussing their memories of the film and its legacy.
Getting Made: A 30-minute vintage making-of featurette that features interviews with cast and crew talking about the film.
Made Men: Another discussion of the film, this time with filmmakers such as Richard Linklater and Antoine Fuqua, who talk about the impact it had on them.
The Workaday Gangster: A discussion of gangsters featuring interviews with Henry Hill, Nicholas Pileggi, and more. It’s not a particularly interesting featurette, but some may find it worth a watch.
Paper is Cheaper than Film: A fascinating look at some of Scorsese’s notes and sketches for the film.
Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film: A feature-length documentary about the history of gangster films. If this is a genre that interests you, you may find it worth a look.
I Like Mountain Music, She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter, Racketeer Rabbit, and Bugs and Thugs: Four cartoons that have pretty much nothing to do with the film. Easily skippable.
Even after 25 years, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” remains the very apex of mobster cinema. No film before or since has been able to capture the lifestyle in such an immersive fashion so as to completely absorb the viewer into its world of lavishness and violence. Featuring top-notch direction from the incomparable Scorsese and an ensemble that only adds to the film’s immersive and absorbing effect, there is nothing quite like it, resulting in a film that has been profoundly influential on an entire generation of filmmakers. That’s only fitting, however, as there are few idols better to look up to than Marty and his genre-defining masterpiece.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates.