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Great Movies Roundtable: Goodfellas

#91 on AFI’s 100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is the 1990 gangster classic ” Goodfellas.”

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”  This film follows the life of Henry Hill, an actual gangster, from when he was a kid idolizing the gangsters across the street in Brooklyn up until the point he testifies against his friends and joins the witness protection program.  Along the way, he befriends the voilent, short-tempered Joe Pesci, and the more measured, calculating, but equally ruthless Robert De Niro.  He lives the high life for a while, spends some time in prison, and gets involved with drugs, with ultimately leads to his downfall.

General Thoughts?

CRH:  In 1990 Martin Scorsese reinvented a somewhat tired genre. He managed to find a new story. The gangster movie was usually  a slow prestigious investigation of the human soul like the classic “The Godfather” or a vulgar violent rush to oblivion like “Scarface.”  Instead Scorsese will tell the story 30 years of life in the mafia. Ray Liotta gives the performance of his career in this movie. The cast is utterly perfect. I mean this movie is nearly a perfect movie. It chronicles the most American story;  the story of rise and fall, proving F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American life. Even for gangsters.

The film is violent, classy, dramatic, and incredibly entertaining. A slice of life for a gangster. It’s a life that’s ruled by violence. It tells the story of the men who have chosen violence. I think this movie has a good possibility of being Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus. I mean it is just so good!

WK: I love everything about this film.  I love the performances, especially Joe Pesci and Lorraine Braco (who plays Liotta’s wife.)  Martin Scorsese in one of my top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Spielberg and Hitchcock) and this is my favorite Scorsese film. There are so many great scenes in “Goodfellas,” but what makes it a fantastic movie is the pacing, and the score.  It’s so dynamic and entertaining.

For lack of a better way of saying it, I also love the morality of “Goodfellas.”  A lot of gangster flicks glamorize the subject matter; even when the gangsters die, it looks like a glorious, glamorous kind of death.  Scorsese doesn’t; from the very beginning, he lays in the sense of menace, of danger and unpredictability that goes with this kind of life, and when Henry Hill washes out, it’s terrible.  It’s anything but glamorous.  You get both from “Goodfellas;”  the sense of why the gangster life is attractive, and a clear picture of why it’s a really, really bad life choice.

I also think it’s interesting that Scorsese has basically remade “Goodfellas” twice in his career – first, with “Casino,” which is Goodfellas set in Las Vegas, and then, most recently with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which is Goodfellas with bankers.  Both are good movies, but the law of diminishing returns seem to be in effect – neither approach the energy and brilliance of the original movie.


What Works?

WK: Well, I think basically everything works here, but I’d want to highlight the pacing.  It’s kind of amazing how much happens in this movie, and it’s so seamless in it transitions. Using pop music and stitching together several short scenes with one song playing over them has become a Scorsese trademark, and I don’t think he’s ever used it to better effect than he did here.

CRH: I agree; everything in this movie works. My favorite thing about the movie is how it shows unglamorous and simultaneously glamorous the gangster life is to the viewer. It has a documentary realism but an energy and originality which can’t be beat. “The Godfather” is opera but “Goodfellas” is rock and roll!

What Doesn’t Work?

WK: I have heard that this is a guy movie, what most women don’t enjoy it as much, and even that it’s basically a male fantasy (which I think ignores the fairly complicated morality that I mentioned above – surely no guy wants to end up like Henry Hill at the end.)  It’s true that there aren’t many women in the film, and their almost always seen as trophies or nags – though I think that’s probably a fairly accurate depiction of this particular community. And perhaps I protest too much, but Lorraine Bracco is honestly one of my favorite parts of the movie. She is strong and smart and won’t take crap from anyone.

CRH: It definitely kind is a guy’s movie but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Lorraine Bracco as Ray Liotta’s wife it’s phenomenal! Her story is complex and nuanced. We get to see her go from a normal young woman into a desperate mob wife. It’s phenomenal. I can see the complaint, but I don’t agree.

Favorite Scenes? 

WK: Joe Pesci’s “funny guy” scene is so amazing and memorable. And it kind of encapsulates the whole movie for me.  Here are these guys, laughing, drinking, having a good time, kings of the world, and then on a dime, and for no reason at all, suddenly it’s become dangerous and violence hangs over the whole scene. It’s chilling.

And,while it’s more of a sequence than a scene, I really love the helicopters scene that opens the third act. The sense of stress, and paranoia, is so palpable.  Has there ever been such a stressful scene committed to celluloid?

CRH:  Another scene that deserves mention is the scene where Billy Batts is severely beaten down by Ray Liotta Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. This is a scene of horrific violence and all to the gentle new age tune of Donovan.  That scene amazes me with its juxtaposition of the music and the violence. A perfect choice by Scorsese.
I also really like the dead body montage to the outro from Eric Clapton’s Layla. It perfectly shows the mundane presence of death in this movie. People are shocked by the Red Wedding (in “Game of Thrones”) but I was shocked by that scene. All these characters are portrayed very humorously just moments before and now they’re dead. I guess that’s life as a gangster.

Buying or Selling:

WK: Definitely buying. I’m actually kind of annoyed that it’s this low on the Top 100 list.  Another great Scorsese film, “Raging Bull,” is at #5 and I think these two movies could easily switch places.

CRH: Oh it’s definitely staying. I think this movie should rise on the list. I think it should be number 5. If you haven’t watched this movie: watch this movie!

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, Lists, The Classic Movie Series.

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  1. One of the best classic movies I ever seen.
    Watch Goodfellas online.

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