Indulge me, if you will. When I was at film school, still studying to be an editor, I became a bit obsessed with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. I’d watch it, then I’d watch it again the following day and then I’d watch it again. I’d watch it for its performances, camerawork, production design, music and, particularly, its editing.
Once, while cutting a project I’d been assigned, I even had Goodfellas playing in the background on the computer while I did my work (if you’re studying to be an editor DO NOT DO THIS). That the style of editing seen in the film found its way into my student short shouldn’t be at all surprising. Scorcese’s film is nothing short of fantastic and I’ve learnt more about editing technique from it than I have from any other film. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that Goodfellas is my Bible.
I’d be embarrassed about my obsession with the film if I hadn’t seen director Frank Darabont talk about it in a similar manner in the Made Men special feature on the Goodfellas DVD (a great watch in itself, with filmmakers like Joe Carnahan, The Hughes Brothers and John Favreau talking about the film.) Darabont says he watched Goodfellas everyday during the shooting of The Shawshank Redemption. Purely for the inspiration. It’s that kind of film.
Prior to making Goodfellas, Scorcese felt that there wasn’t any point in making a film about the mob, particularly in light of The Godfather. It was only once he got his hands on the galley proofs for a book called Wiseguys, by Nicholas Pileggi, that Scorsese saw the potential for a film set in the world of organised crime.
It’s clear that The Godfather and Goodfellas, while tackling very similar material and themes, are two very different kinds of films. The Godfather is a film about a king and his princes; Goodfellas is about the footsoldiers, the guys who sit lower down the Mafia hierarchy. The Godfather is a tragic opera; Goodfellas is a rock concert (in a sense, it even asks that most Rock ‘n Roll of questions: “Is it better to burn out than to fade away?”).
Goodfellas is based on the true story of Henry Hill (who died earlier this year at the age of 69). As a boy, Hill admired the men who he saw outside his bedroom window, the men who did as they pleased and didn’t allow themselves to be constrained by the laws of society like everyone else. Soon, he went to work for them and the film follows his journey as he works his way up the ranks, joined by Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito (changed from DeSimone for the film) and Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway.
It’s interesting how Scorcese never puts us in a position to judge these people and the lives they lead. Far from it, we’re entertained by them and the things they do, and Scorcese shows us how easy it is to be tempted and sucked into that lifestyle. We’re caught up in the heady rush of living lawlessly. We find ourselves entertained and in awe of the things they get away with. There are scenes where we can’t help laughing and just when we’re caught up in it, Scorcese shocks us with sudden violence, reminding us just what kind of people we’re watching.
The scene with Joe Pesci and the gang at the restaurant in an early scene on is a case in point. We laugh at Pesci’s story about “a bank job away in Secaucus.” Then we laugh again at the “How am I funny” bit. Great stuff. What a cool bunch of guys to hang out with. And then the restaurant manager comes over to remind Pesci’s character about his outstanding bill. Pesci responds by smashing him over the head with a glass and we remember that these people are hardened criminals and very dangerous.
The film, while being extremely violent at times is never really wall-to-wall violence. There is, however, the sense that violence could erupt at any moment. The threat of it pervades almost every scene. It’s Scorcese’s way of putting us in the shoes of the characters. This is what life is like in the mob. You never know when you might have a gun aimed at your head or if your partners might have it in for you. You’d be having the time of your life but constantly worried about being whacked. Hill says on one of the dvd commentaries that the lifestyle was incredibly stressfull. Yes, the money was good and there was no doubt a freedom of sorts that came with it. But you’d need to keep a constant eye out for enemies and for enemies claiming themselves to be your firends.
What’s also great about Goodfellas is how well it nails the behaviour of people who have money but no class or taste whatsoever; how it captures that aggressive manner so specific to the lower classes: the loudness, the posturing and the constant showing off. I’m not from the Bronx. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa and I still recognise that behaviour. I’ve seen people acting just like that (though, for most part, without the violence on display here). Watch the scene where Lorraine Bracco’s character goes to a hostess party with all the other mob wives and you’ll see what I mean. The language and accents might be different but the behaviour is exactly the same.
The performances are what’s obviously important in this regard. Goodfellas gives us so many great characters. You like these guys despite the fact that they are thieves and killers. They’re “Good Fellas”. Ray Liotta fits his role like a glove. He has that look about him of someone who has made it into a life he loves and he is enjoying the hell out it. He comes across as a kid just having a good time. De Niro manages to be charming and menacing. The scene showing him watching a character, with it clear just from the look in his eyes that he is planning to kill the guy, is frightening if only for the cold and calculating look on De Niro’s face.
Of course, it was Pesci who was the stand-out performance, his efforts eventually winning him an Oscar. Pesci is shorter than his real life counter-part, Tommy DeSimone (who stood at about six foot tall and lifted weights). He does however capture that feeling of a person who is a complete psychopath and who is constantly on the verge of another act of violence (one story of the real Tommy DeSimone has it that one night, while out walking, Hill and De Simone passed a man in the street, a complete stranger. De Simone took out his gun and shot the man, explaining his actions by saying that “I’m a mean cat.”) It’s incredible that we can find ourselves laughing at the character only to be offended mere moments later by his violence and cruelty. He’s the kind of character who can beat the hell out of someone, shoot them and then stop off at his mum’s place and have a full dinner.
Lorraine Bracco does so well playing Hill’s wife, portraying a woman who is at first shocked and repulsed by the kind of people she finds herself surrounded with, only to be drawn into the lifestyle, unable to resist its pull. When we first see her, she is an innocent, the kind of person who is shocked by the violence her boyfriend is willing to perpetrate in her defence. By the end, she’s nursing a coke habit, and flushing drugs down the toilet as well as stuffing a gun into her underwear when the cops show up. And it’s easy to forget Paul Sorvino, so measured and reserved as Paul Vario. Dignified and quietly menacing, his performance brings so much to the film even if it is the least showy of all
Scorcese’s use of music is also a lesson for any filmmaker. It’s used to bring colour, tone and energy to the film. Look at the scene where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter a club through the back entrance, the famous Steadicam shot. The camerawork, the production design and performances give so much energy but try to imagine it without The Crystals’ And Then He Kissed Me and you’ll see how much it loses its gleeful fizz. Or try to imagine De Niro’s Conway smoking his cigarette in Slo-mo without the menacing edge provided by Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love.
But for me, it always comes back to the editing. Goodfellas is a film that moves like a runaway train. The film is a textbook example of how to keep a film moving at a thrilling pace without descending into incoherence. A film’s energy comes from the performances, the music, the visuals, the dialogue, the movement of the camera and the way the shots are cut together (that’s pretty simplistic, but I don’t want to go too in-depth). A really good filmmaker knows how to use those elements, how to play with them (often simultaneously) to turn the volume up or down. Martin Scorcese is far more than just a really good filmmaker and watching Goodfellas is like watching a master composer using all the tricks in the book. But Scorcese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker also deserves credit and it’s clear the results seen in Goodfellas (along with many of Scorcese’s other films) owe much to the working relationship between Scorcese and Schoonmaker.
Watch especially the sequence toward the end of the film with Henry racing around, trying to pass off guns, then making a drug deal, then rushing off again to prepare a family dinner all while keeping a paranoid eye out for a helicopter he is convinced is following him. It becomes absurd (it’s meant to reflect the crazed state of Henry’s life at that stage) but it is never less than completely watchable.
The camera moves around, the shots cut in a frenzy, there’s always something happening and the sequence is constantly pulsing with music, jumping from one track to the next (off the top of my head, I can recall Harry Nillson’s Jump Into Fire, George Harrison’s What Is Life, The Who’s Magic Bus and Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy. I’m missing a few others though and this is just one sequence I’m talking about.)
Most directors have a film that is a perfect example of their output, combining all their themes and their style into one piece. For Spielberg, it’s arguably Close Encounters of The Third Kind (or E.T.). For Oliver Stone, it’s JFK. For Michael Mann, it’s Heat. For Martin Scorcese, that film is Goodfellas. It’s also the best film he has made and it’s doubtful that he will ever better it (though I’m happy to see that he hasn’t given up trying).
Goodfellas is an incredible piece of cinema; thrilling, frightening, funny, tragic. It’s a film I never get tired of watching and a film that’s completely deserving of being revisited over and over and over again.