'Goodfellas' Review: With more beauty and cinematic brilliance in individual scenes
  • Platform: Netflix/Amazon Prime Videos
  • Release Date: 21/09/1990
  • Cast: Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco
  • Writer: Nicholas Pileggi (Book and Screenplay), Martin Scorsese (Screenplay)
  • Director: Martin Scorsese

Nicholas Pileggi wrote the book “Wiseguy” which documented 3 decades of the lives of an assorted mix of characters who were involved in organized crime. The book was a critical and commercial success but that was not all that Pileggi desired for his work. When he received a phone call from Scorsese who expressed his desire to make the book into a film, Pileggi finally had his long-cherished dream come true. He was elated by the fact that Scorsese was going to be the one to make the film as he believed that he was someone who understood the subject and the characters better than anyone and could transform the tale from the pages to the screen in the most organic manner.

Pileggi was so excited to see his book get the big-screen treatment that he agreed to do the screenplay with Scorsese who wouldn’t do it any other way. While Pileggi wrote the script, Scorsese sat with him constantly giving his inputs and even adding lines to portions that cued what music would put in those portions. While the book served as a great source material and the makers whole-heartedly believed in its merit, nothing could prepare the duo for the kind of critical acclaim and pop-culture success that the film received upon its release.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”, says Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in a  voice-over that would be peppered all over the narrative and would give us vital inputs into the psyche and functioning of the men that the film was all about. When Henry, still a school going kid, gets himself a job at the establishment run by the local enforcer Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), he kicks start a career in crime that would make him one of the most notorious gangsters in the city. Soon he meets Jimmy Conway (Robert Di Nero), a man who was already a legend and was feared for being one of the Mob bosses’ favorite hit-men. While Jimmy did the hits for business, what he really loved to do was steal. With the help of Henry and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), he pulled off some insane heists that went down as some of the biggest in the history of American organized crime.

Apart from their gang-related activities, Henry and his friends also enjoyed their lives to the fullest. They were either all married or at least had girlfriends whom they invariably gave the royal treatment. Henry had a few passing affairs that complicated his married life but he did share a strong bond with his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) who was a key operative in his drug business. There was also certain chaos and a sense of craziness in how Henry and his associates functioned. That I believe was something that came naturally with the knowledge of being untouchable.

What amuses me about Goodfellas is its entertainment quotient that just refuses to diminish. I have seen this film over 100 times and I wouldn’t mind sitting through the film right now again even though I know the story and the screenplay by heart. I believe the reasons for that are the performances, writing, direction, and the deft editing of Goodfellas. The characters are so effectively written and portrayed by the three major players and the world-building is so effective that it makes the audience a part of the narrative and doesn’t let them slip out of the world that the characters are populating.

Goodfellas is known for one of its early long shots through which we are introduced to a gamut of characters who would all go on to play important roles in the film. A similar shot is again incorporated in the sequence where Henry introduces Karen to his world. He narrates the characteristic of each of these players as the camera glides through a restaurant in an effortlessly fluid manner. Voice-over narration is something that we get from other characters too but it is used with such panache that it adds a dash of character to the storytelling and gives us vital cues about the emotions involved with the characters. Karen’s character is made to narrate her first encounter with Henry and how she couldn’t stand him and their then subsequent meetings wherein they gradually fell in love and ultimately married. As she is narrating these bits, we see them unfold on the screen with a beautiful score paying in the background enveloping us in its magic.

Even the bits of violence are portrayed with a penchant for visual flair and presentation and that’s what makes these portions more poetic and feel less violent at times. Having said that there are at least three violent sequences —one involving the brutal murder of a character named Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), the follow-up to the murder when the trio finds that Batts is not dead and they finish the job in the most bizarre manner possible and finally the sudden execution of Tommy — that would not be easy for most people to stomach. The thing about the violence here is that it either involves the character that we like or it is perpetrated by them and that adds a lot of shock value to it all.

Ray Liotta delivers his greatest performance ever as Henry Hill. Here is a man who is dedicated to the gang that he is a part of but is torn apart by the different ideologies and inclinations that the key figures of the gang have. There is the aging don, Paul Cicero who wants him to come out clean and not get involved in anything pertaining to drugs. At the same time, Paul is also not helping him get back to a decent life after serving a prolonged jail sentence.

On the other hand, he has an opportunity to make a fortune dealing in drugs and for that, he needs the help of Jimmy and Tommy who are absolutely delighted to be a part of it. Thus Henry, who doesn’t want to lie to Paul and is in fact afraid of the eventual retribution, gradually slips into the folds of Jimmy and Tommy, and the chaos that they bring with them. If one closely follows Liotta’s performance, it is easy to notice his progressive fall into a sense of disillusionment as he evidently isn’t comfortable dealing with what Tommy and Jimmy bring with their friendship but is left with no choice but to tag along with them. This duality and conflict in the character is brought out beautifully by Liotta whose act reaches a crescendo in one of the most exhilaratingly edited sequences where we follow Henry’s character through an entire day before he is arrested by the Narcotic department bringing an abrupt end to his exploits.

Robert De Niro starts off as an uber-cool and rich gangster who is not only revered for his earning abilities but is also loved for his extravagant lavish ways. Jimmy remains on a tight leash for a good chunk of the film but as his character ages, he starts getting increasingly cavalier. The fact that he was one of the most feared gangsters in the city and could still never be made was getting onto him and he increasingly felt the need of proving his authority by constantly pulling off big scores. We see how quickly he can lose his head when he actively participates in the murder of Billy Batts, a “made” man who should not have been touched. He not only initiates the hit on the man at the behest of Tommy whom Batts had insulted but also takes pleasure in kicking Batts’ face in.

Towards the end of the film Goodfellas, we see Jimmy a bad day away from whacking Henry as he grows increasingly restless and unsure about his own safety and future. De Niro has had some of his best performances with Scorsese and Goodfellas is one of his best performances. The fact that he slips behind the skin of Jimmy Conway so effortlessly only makes his performance that much more laudable.

Joe Pesci plays himself in every film that he is a part of. The man doesn’t change his mannerisms much but who will complain when he is this good playing himself. His performances here and in Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995) are almost similar sans the fact that in Casino, he is portrayed as the mob muscle and his character is a lot more violent and imposing. However, what Tommy lacks in violence and imposition, he more than makes up for with sheer craziness. There are multiple scenes in the film that document how sudden and ruthless his actions can be and how even a minor instigation can get him to do something unbelievably violent.

At the same time, he is the storyteller and joker of the lot and there are multiple sequences that show us how effective he is at making others listen to him and laugh. There is an entire sequence dedicated to these two traits of his character that we have no idea how it will end. Pesci is a terrific actor and he uses all the tricks at his disposal to make Tommy the most charming and hateful character in the entire film.

It must have been extremely difficult for Lorraine Bracco to hold her ground in the company of all these alpha males but her character Karen is so strong and willful that she is not only noticeable even when she is being muscled around or mistreated by Henry but also leaves a telling impact on the overall affectivity of the film. In a memorable scene, we see Karen point a gun at Henry with the clear intention of killing him as she learns that Henry is cheating on her. This scene progresses from Karen being in a position of power to her submitting to the wills of Henry is such a heartbreaking way that we almost feel bad for her character. Bracco leaves an indelible mark with her performance and it is even more noteworthy because of the company that she has to stand up to.

Paul Sorvino moves like a dream through the film. He has a smaller role as compared to the other three but his impact on the narrative is just as important. I loved how in the end, his character meets with the same end that he was trying to avoid for at least half of the film. The way he looks at Henry in that final courtroom sequence tells us what is going on in his mind.

Goodfellas is one of those rare films that don’t lose its charm and watchablity even after 100 viewings. Everything in the film fell in place and it was as if God himself sprinkled some fairy dust on it and turned everything magical.

There is an extremely informative documentary about how the film was made on the Warner Bros. YouTube channel. The documentary is complete with never seen before interviews wherein the cast and crew give us valuable insights into the film and Martin Scorsese’s manner of approaching its making. Frank Vincent, who plays Billy Batts tells the story behind how Martin Scorsese made him play that character when he originally wanted to play Paul Cicero. It might have been a few minutes long character but even after a career in which Vincent starred in at least 40 films, he is still recognized for playing Batts. Goodfellas is essential viewing for anyone who enjoys films. There is more beauty and entertainment here in a individual scene than there is in entire film.

Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)

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