“Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”
Goodfellas chronicles the life and times of real life mobster Henry Hill, from when he was an enthusiastic teenager just getting his start in the mafia, through his 25 year marriage, decline into drugs and eventual entrance into the witness protection program. Goodfellas, arguably one of the greatest gangster films of all time, paints a vivid and glamours picture of the gangster life, depicting it as one filled with great wealth and local celebrity status.
Goodfellas opens in the seventies to three men in a car, driving in the dark. After hearing a noise they pull to the side of the road where they open the trunk to reveal a bloody mess of a man, barley alive, who they immediately proceed to stab and shoot to his final death. “For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” Ray Liotta’s voiceover floats into the scene, taking us back to 1950’s New York. In an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, we meet Henry’s family and the members of mob he idolizes, whom he puts on pedestals above even the president of the United States. Hill eventually quits school to work for them, starting with running a cab stand and working his way up in ranks; ultimately living his dream.
Ray Liotta plays the charming Henry, alongside Robert De Niro as the ruthless Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci as the hysterically lovable Tommy DeVito. The trio create dynamic characters with flawless acting, especially Pesci’s performance which won him an Oscar. The rest of the supporting cast, including Lorraine Bracco as Karen, Hill’s wife of 25 years, and Paul Sorvino who plays mob leader Paul Cicero are also superb.
Director Martin Scorsese follows this colorful cast of characters for nearly three decades; through marriage, birth, death, happy times and bad. Giving a tour featuring personal every day aspects of life, Scorsese shows both the enticing allure of being a gangster, for which Hill fell for, and the havoc it wrecks on the minds and bodies of everyone involved.
Scorsese tells a violently beautiful narrative using freeze frames-emphasizing significant events in Hill’s life-and voiceover from Henry as well as Karen, which gives a unique perspective from the wife’s eyes. Karen reveals how she found Henry obnoxious on their fist date and talks about the gossiping, green eye shadow wearing, tacky mob wives and how all the families “did everything together”.
My favorite scene is when Henry leads a fascinated and as of yet oblivious Karen through the back of a restaurant. The camera follows them from behind, almost floating, as Hill hands $20 bills to every man he passes and ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals plays dreamily in the background. When they reach the seating area, a table is is brought in and placed front and center just for them. It’s an exquisitely made scene that shows just how much power Henry holds in the community.
After they successfully commit the Lufthansa heist, stealing 5 million in cash, Jimmy becomes increasingly paranoid and slowly kills off everyone involved until only he and Henry remain, which is depicted in another of my favorite scenes; an unsettling montage showing bodies being found in trash trucks, meat trucks and pink Cadillacs.
One of the last sequences in the movie follows Henry through the day of ‘Sunday May 11th, 1980’ where he has a number of tasks to complete. The frantic day of running around, all while being trailed by a helicopter, ends with him being arrested after which he spends some time in jail. The scene is so well done, making the audience feel Henry’s anxiety as if it were their own.
After his release, he believes that Jimmy now wants to ‘whack’ him. The fear for his life leads Henry to break the most important mafia rule, “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” He becomes an informant for the FBI, testifies against Jimmy and Paulie in court and joins the witness protection program.
Goodfellas is visually attractive and epic script-wise. The screenplay written by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi plays out with of-the-era costumes, an all at once jazzy, doo wop-y and rock and roll soundtrack and a distinct style of cinematography and production design.
With Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese crafts a perfect film (so perfect in fact, that I really don’t feel like this review did it justice). He gracefully intertwines a harsh and bloody gangster period piece with an enchanting love story that goes behind the scenes of the mafia. The end product is a riveting, emotionally charged roller coaster of a film that is both funny and sad, sweet and cruel and truly flawless.