GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese’s Best Gangster Film, Was Released 30 Years Ago Today
It’s impossible to imagine quite what modern crime films and TV shows would look like without the existence of GoodFellas.
Without Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece – which turns 30 today – we would never have had The Sopranos, a show that demonstrated, long before the boom of prestige television, that TV shows could be elevated as a higher art form; objects to critique and discuss and philosophise over.
We also wouldn’t have seen the immense popularity of Quentin Tarantino during the ’90s; his snappy, wise guy dialogue feeding our renewed appetite for criminals interacting in an underbelly world with its own rules and code of ethics.
I first watched GoodFellas in my early twenties, during a time when I was earnestly trying to tick off a number of ‘great’ movies that I hadn’t, for whatever reason, got around to seeing.
I was surprised by how much I liked it. Not just out of admiration for Scorsese, or because I respected its cultural significance in the grand scheme of things, but because it was so exhilarating.
Unlike many other brilliant mob movies before it, GoodFellas wears its brilliance with a lighter, more exuberant touch, free from the heaviness that all too often drags down movies about filthy money and filthier deeds.
At a meaty 145 minutes, GoodFellas never once feels too long or meandering. It earns every scene, remaining energetic and thrilling throughout every zippy exchange, every moment of jarring domesticity.
Part of the reason for this is that the story feels so very immediate. The cinematography alone provides a masterclass for future filmmakers on how to reveal character motivations with a lingering shot; allowing the audience to survey the beautiful clothes, the expensive food.
Perhaps the best example of this is the famous Copacabana Tracking Shot, which sees Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) leading future wife Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) through the service entrance of legendary New York nightclub, the Copacabana.
Set to the sound of Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals, the seamless one-shot scene follows Henry confidently leading Karen through the back corridors and kitchens of the club, a king in his domain.
And it’s through Karen’s overwhelmed eyes that we see the pull of this sort of power, no matter how shadowy it may be. We see how an ordinary person’s head might be turned by having a front-row table brought straight out for them, to be recognised and welcomed and feared.
GoodFellas never condones crime, but it allows us to see the mob world from Henry’s perspective, the man who ‘always wanted to be a gangster’, to be a ‘somebody in the neighbourhood that was full of nobodies’.
We see the lure of the glamour and the almost immortal, if ultimately false, feeling of being above the ordinary humdrum workings of the law. We also see the more human elements behind the callousness; the anxious mothers with their homecooked meals, the marital strains and cracks.
Even from a director whose films stay with you long after you leave the cinema, GoodFellas is memorable. For days after a rewatch, you will find yourself singing along to the unparalleled soundtrack, replaying traces of dialogue in your head.
You’ll find yourself marvelling at the stylish, daring use of freeze frames and quick cuts, at Joe Pesci’s chilling performance as the psychotic Tommy DeVito. You’ll want to taste the rich pasta dishes cooked by Paulie Cicero for the gang’s prison feasts.
And, like me, you’ll look out for any excuse for the perfect excuse to watch it all over again – i.e. tonight – with a bowl of meatballs on your lap.
GoodFellas is available to rent or buy from Amazon Prime.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]