Yes, GoodFellas Is Still Martin Scorsese’s Best Film
At 78 years young, Martin Scorsese is a masterpiece machine. Three decades on, GoodFellas remains his crowning work; romantic and intoxicating, disquieting and mordant, the definitive portrait of gangsterdom at the movies.
Amorality breathes in his oeuvre: Taxi Driver’s manic vengeance on a city woven with prejudice and scum; the harrowing price of justice in Cape Fear; the rage, the horror of passion in Raging Bull; the Wolf playing the public like hapless, pocket-dipping fiddles on Wall Street; the unflinching punishment of roaming religion in Silence.
Yet despite the ice-cold, gestured mechanics of its world, GoodFellas pops with explosive razzmatazz, ruminating with a rich warmth, somehow relishing the glitzy allure without succumbing to its spell. As films go, it’s irresistible.
One must remember, this is a post-Godfather world. The Mafia’s heyday had been mined for Oscars. Clandestine deals, ritualism in the everyday, offers one can’t refuse; these were familiar to audiences far and wide.
Scorsese, who’d offered his two cents on the seductive organised crime of Little Italy in Mean Streets, knew this more than anybody. Then, he was handed a copy of Wiseguy, a non-fiction book by former reporter Nicholas Pileggi, chronicling the highs, lows and woes of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill.
He’d found his next picture. The filmmaker even phoned the author to say, ‘I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.’ If only he knew it would define his entire life.
Scorsese said he wanted GoodFellas to ‘begin like a gunshot and have it get faster from there’. Aptly, bullets squeeze in between a stabbing and slammed boot in the opening minutes. Cue the iconic line – ‘As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ – plus Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches, and we’re off to the races.
It’s not lust, nor wishful recollection, but on following with Henry’s fixated eyes, the affection is clear. Staring out onto his seemingly mundane Brooklyn street, he longs for a sense of belonging, ‘being somebody in a world of nobodies’. We may not relate to getting whacked, but we all feel that ambition.
It’s never as clear-cut as heroes and villains, but the first half is certainly an origin story. We watch Henry (Christopher Serrone, later Ray Liotta) rise up the ranks as an errand boy for the mob – from punting stolen cigarettes, to parking Cadillacs, to ‘popping his cherry’ with his first pinch – spearheaded by the all-knowing, laconic Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a boss who knows the beauty of communication, or rather, the lack of it.
There’s a shift with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), a feared gangster with Irish roots, an aptitude for stealing and a tough stomach for painting houses; the kind of guy ‘who rooted for the bad guy in the movies’.
De Niro, holding a cigarette with a slight grin, taking a draw to the riff of Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love, is a soft reminder of why we too fall for the fiendish and the cruel: charisma.
He also brings Tommy (Joe Pesci) to the fore; a wise-cracking, sweary thug ‘with too much to prove’. As the chaotic vehicle behind the film’s most terrifying moments, he would go on to win the Academy Award for his role. ‘It was my pleasure, thank you,’ he famously said, punctual and earnest.
Liotta never quite equalled his work here. What a shame that is, as he’s pretty remarkable, embodying a baby-faced psychopathy and frenzy that stands apart from his fellow wise guys. He rarely dishes out the violence, only offering soft come-on’s if it gets too heavy. Naturally, they go unheard; he’s complicit in the game.
Scorsese earlier described the film as a ‘staged documentary’. While spruced up with jazzy camerawork – zipping around jovial suburbia, especially propulsive in the climactic sequences as Henry’s drug addiction overflows into his hectic, crime-ridden schedule – it’s an accurate statement.
Just as The Godfather‘s wedding lent a certain realism, GoodFellas feels lived-in: the blinding shine of shoes; the little nods to background characters, like Jimmy Two-Times; the circling clouds of cigar smoke; the constantly stirring pots of sauce, the aroma of chopped garlic, cold cuts and gargantuan trays of meat. Feeling stuffed? Forget about it.
Its influence on the genre is undeniable. Just look at The Sopranos, a series with GoodFellas in its DNA (Michael Imperioli is in both, here playing Spider, ill-fated at the hands of Tommy).
The dialogue, written in part by Scorsese and Pileggi, was mostly improvised on-set, with the director simply choosing the best lines to come out of any number of takes.
These men and women are down-to-earth and believable, with nonchalance, vivid tempers and casual potty mouths (300 uses of f*ck in total). For example: ‘Who the f*ck cares? I’ll dig the f*ckin’ hole. I don’t give a f*ck.’ That’s top swearing.
Testifying that rolling ingenuity, one of the most indelible scenes in the film was a spur-of-the-moment triumph. Pesci recalled a story to Scorsese in which he annoyed a man for saying he was funny, paving the way for ‘Funny how?’, with enough raw tension to turn soup to gazpacho.
Then there’s the opulent, one-take parade through the Copacabana, with Henry and Karen (wonderfully, fiercely played by Lorraine Bracco) strolling in the backdoor, past the staff, through the kitchens to their custom-delivered table, all to the swooning, swaying rhythm of The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me.
It’s not just a technical showcase – one of pure happenstance, as the crew weren’t allowed access in via the front – but the best scene in the whole film for what it represents: Henry’s whole life is ahead of him, around people who smile, nod and serve at his behest, propped up on tips, charm and control.
Henry’s seduced, we’re seduced and Karen – later verklempt and wide-eyed as envelopes of ‘start-up cash’ surround her wedding dress – is in love with the money, the power, the security. After Henry beats their neighbour to a pulp with a pistol and asks her to hide it, she says, ‘I gotta admit the truth, it turned me on.’
But what Scorsese manages to do, rather brilliantly, is counter that euphoria sharply and firmly. For his trademark use of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, there’s the elegiac coda of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla. For the cackle of ‘Now go home and get your f*cking shine box’, there’s a grim resolution.
Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s acclaimed editor, sets a compelling pace. For the rush of the gangster excess, there’s a harrowing restraint in the kills. The camera stops, the dialogue settles, blunt and remorseless, echoing the clinical dispatches of The Irishman. ‘It’s what it is.’
It’s fascinating to watch now, particularly in the wake of 2019’s Netflix epic. The latter is a mature reflection on the gangster life, more attuned to the grave mortality and guilt that comes with the gig, swapping the Copacabana for a grey care home doubling as limbo.
The original, the king, doesn’t forgo those observations. GoodFellas lets us feel the rush of the ride, as much as the precarious glory of the life.
GoodFellas is available to purchase on-demand from Amazon Prime and other providers.
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