"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."
There are certain movies that you watch multiple times to gain a sense of their thematic weight and deeper themes. For me ‘GoodFellas’ was never one of those movies. I watch it time and time again not to revaluate its symbolism or obscure allusions. I watch it to be consistently amazed at how Scorsese uses his directorial skill to create this masterpiece. The way he etches such a vivid and real portrayal of the mafia world, the way he draws the audience in, places them within a specific time and location, how he conveys the characters sate of minds and emotions, their fears, desires and drives to the point where you have a complete understanding of the world this story occupies to where you are left with the exact same emotional reaction as the people at the centre of the movie. It is not about looking for details, it’s about feeling the emotions.
Chronicling the rise and fall of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he navigates his way through life in the mafia, working his way from parking the cars of mob bosses to organising heists, drug deals and executions.
The first scene of the film displays three solemn men, looking apprehensive as they drive down a lonely road. When they hear a knocking in their car trunk they pull over and kill the man inside the trunk. One of the men then closes the trunk, and then in the form of narration proudly announces “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”. As an audience there is a primal instinct that what we are witnessing and hearing in front of us is morally wrong, but Martin Scorsese has peaked our curiosity meaning that despite our own morality, we want to know who these people are, what they are doing and why they are doing it. Then the narrative flashes back to Henry Hill’s childhood of observing the mob bosses from across the street out of his bedroom window. Their actions goes against everything he has been raised to believe in, but he is curious and fascinated by their world, and he yearns to discover more. In less than five minutes Scorsese has made his audience identify with a character who “always wanted to be a gangster”. It takes a storyteller of true genius to pull that trick.
From that moment on, everything Scorsese does within ‘GoodFellas’ only draws you further into this world, only gives you a deeper understanding of its characters, their comradery and their twisted morals. At the risk of repeating an all too often used phrase, this film is not a story, it is an experience. You experience what it feels like to be in the mob, the narrative is not about events as much as it is about the characters emotions and how they relate to the world around them. When their business is successful the tone feels almost leisurely, but as Hill’s world crumbles around him, as his mind is fried by drugs and fears of the feds and rival gangsters set in, the levels of frantic tension and paranoia that Scorsese invokes are utterly palpable. It’s a scene that stands as one of the crowning achievements of Scorsese’s career, as the rollercoaster careens out of control we feel both powerless and involved within the scene at the same time, feeling each conflicting element of Hill’s rapidly disintegrating life, from the drug deals, to the pick ups, the family dilemmas and the constant fear of wacked or arrested.
Scorsese can accomplish this sense of atmosphere such apparent ease that you hardly even notice it happening. His use of music is so distinct and perfect to match the scene’s tone that it instantly allows the moment to absorb you and completely transport you. At times the music can make the moment feel nostalgic and at other it can seem horrifying. In many ways that is the easiest way to describe the structure of ‘GoodFellas’. The first half is about establishing the mafia myth, and the other proceeds to demolish it piece by piece.
One scene can establish an entire aspect of the characters’ lives so that when an event later in the movie is driven by that aspect, you feel as if you understand it perfectly. When Hill goes on a date with his eventual wife he takes her to a nightclub where instead of waiting in line they move around the side entrance, going through corridors, past the kitchens and by members of staff without anyone objecting, handing out giant wads of dollar bills to tip them as he goes, everyone greeting him enthusiastically, letting him bypass the ordinary customers. Tables are lifted and placed specifically for him, bottles of wine are bought by other tables as a sign of good faith all for the couple to enjoy the show in front of everyone else. We’ve just witnessed real power. We see the allure of the business, the appeal of their crime and why they do it. They very next scene however depicts an airport robbery and we are reminded of what it takes to gain this kind of power.
It is this portrayal of their unchallenged power that makes the gradual decline of Hill’s warpath even more riveting. The film tracks the mob for over 30 years, through three generations of mobsters but rather than feel repetitive the gradual shift of tone and style turns the film into an epic saga, one that feels fully cohesive despite its length due to how perfectly Scorsese introduces characters and plot elements that can be familiarised within one scene and wait hour before they begin to be developed. When certain characters meet their end they are not all necessarily given a massive amount of screen time, but their presence in the background as accessories makes them feel oddly familiar so that their absence if keenly felt when they meet their demise.
But the main characters are the heart of the story, and Scorsese knows that so he keeps the focus where it needs to be. Liotta’s performance is the one that the script requires to shift the most throughout the film, from a confident swagger to a paranoid wreck and eventually a guilt ridden survivor. He pulls them all off with equal conviction and brilliance, never faltering in his slow transgression. His wife Karen, played by Lorrain Bracco undergoes a similar sort of development. She too is entranced by the world of crime to the point where corruption and embezzlement become the norm for her lifestyle. Robert De Niro is on hand to serve as the epitome of the classic gangster as Jimmy Conway. He is there to remind us of the mafia world’s moral code and its sense of honour. But even that dream is shattered when his operation expands to such a point where he is distrustful of everyone around him and starts knocking them off one by one, so as to avoid the risk of being caught and have less to share the loot with.
But the standout might be Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. Here Pesci is not necessarily playing a complicated man but one that is prone to temperamental and explosive fits of rage. When combined with his absolute power this anger lashes out frequently and Scorsese uses it as a means to draw tension, remind the audience of how dangerous the mob world is and destroy the myth of glitz and glamour. Pesci's switches from humour to uncontrolled rage so quickly and easily that his outbursts never cease to surprise or shock the viewer.
What makes the character even more unsettling is when we get a chance to meet his mother, a kind natured elderly woman who is completely unaware of their business dealings. When Hill, Conway accompany Tommy to his mother’s house they gather round for a meal where they laugh, catch up and exchange pleasantries. What she doesn’t know is that the reason for their visit was to pick up a shovel so they can bury the body lying in the trunk of their car. Which brings us back to where we started with our questions resolved. But by now we have been drawn so deeply into this world that we could never turn away.
The finest film ever to be made about organised crime, summarising human lives, a country’s culture and the battle of morals.