It is hard to know where to begin when talking about Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus. It is a crime saga that demonstrates the themes of pride, family, and power while chronicling the real life story of the person it is depicting. Also, because of how the filmmaking is such perfection and so distinctive, other films have tried to copy its style like American Hustle, Boogie Nights, and even I, Tonya which was hailed as the “Goodfellas of figure skating” by Kevin Jagernauth of The Playlist. But while those films are amazing homages to Goodfellas, it’s hard to beat the real thing.
Goodfellas follows the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his life as a gangster going to back when he became one as a young boy. The film also follows his turbulent relationship with his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and how he and his fellow associates, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), try to climb on their way to the top. But as they do so, they realize that all kings eventually become dethroned.
As the man who would be king, Ray Liotta delivers the best performance of his career as Henry Hill. While Henry Hill may not be the most likeable guy, Liotta still manages to make him watchable by demonstrating his flawed ambition and how he goes from being a kind family man to a power hungry gangster whose pride becomes his downfall. As the film progresses,his idyllic home life becomes disrupted by his occupation and Liotta lets his facial expressions show his desperation to keep his family together.
As Karen Hill, Henry’s devoted wife, Lorraine Bracco is a fiery presence. Even though the character itself is quite broad, Bracco is able to let us see the vulnerable cracks hidden underneath. Particularly, in a scene where she confronts her husband’s mistress, Janice Rossi. As Karen pounds her finger on Janice’s apartment buzzer and barks into it, calling her a whore, her sad eyes and cracking voice still show that she’s a woman desperately trying to hold her family together.
Of course, when talking about the great performances in Goodfellas, it would be a crime to not talk about Joe Pesci’s Oscar winning performance. As the short-tempered and unpredictable Tommy, Pesci is a complete scene stealer. I mean, the film’s famous “Funny how?” scene where he’s menacing before humorously turning on a dime is a perfect demonstration of his unpredictable nature.
Along with the actors, the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker manages to fire on all cylinders as well. With its constant freeze frames, long takes, and zooming shots, Schoonmaker structures the film as if it is a drug high. But it works because the frenetic editing is a parallel to the drug habit that Henry develops and it captures our main character’s chaotic fast rise to the top before he hits rock bottom.
The editing is what gives the film its distinctive style along with other techniques that subsequent films have used like the use of voiceover narration which provides both exposition and insight into the consciousness of our main characters. Of course, another technique is the music. Anyone who follows Martin Scorsese knows that his soundtrack is a major trademark and not just the Rolling Stones. Sometimes, the songs are used to accompany the storyline like the film’s opening song, “Rags To Riches” by Tony Bennett which demonstrates Henry’s rise to power. There’s also “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals which plays during Henry and Karen’s first date at the Copacabana over the course of the scene’s famous long take. Other times, songs will be used to contradict the film’s gruesome nature like the piano exit of “Layla” by Derek And The Dominos that plays over the montage of dead bodies being shown.
A flawless, adrenaline-fueled crime saga, Goodfellas is more than ‘Good.” It is phenomenal. It may have lost Best Picture to Historical Avatar…ehr, I mean, Dances With Wolves. But its timelessness and the impact it has had on amazing filmmakers it has influenced will allow it to live on for years to come.