It’s easy to remember the films that sparked your own love of film at one point of your life or another, and during my early teens, one of those films was none other than Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. As an impressionable teenager who was pushing myself to watch more films in general, I remember first watching this on a television broadcast and I’ve been watching it again and again every chance I had; whether it be on subsequent reruns or at my own home to that point where every beat had been rooted so deeply in my head. And although it may not be my favourite Martin Scorsese film, it still encapsulates everything that I find to be what makes his work so wholly wonderful.
Telling the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his life within the mafia, GoodFellas starts on the most fitting note, with Hill driving together with Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and the volatile Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) stopping by the side of the road, killing someone who has been stuffed into the trunk of their car. This is where Henry soon narrates, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Detailing decades into his life, with his budding interest in joining the local mafia as a child to his climbing through the ranks as an adult, GoodFellas is a film that seduces one into this world, indulges into the feeling of taking part in a life of crime, before you witness everything spiralling out of control.
It all seems to start so promisingly, when you first hear Henry Hill narrating his life about what it felt like to be a mobster. It pulls you into the criminal lifestyle for it’s a world that Martin Scorsese shows that he knows in and out, and it succeeds in making you feel everything that one would imagine from the glamorized life of being within the mafia. It feels great, it feels wonderful, but also wrecks you with guilt that follows you after the scope of the damage that has been done continues to hit you. It’s a film that feels horrifying in that same sense it presents itself as highly delightful for one’s own sensibilities to take in, because it simply felt good for Henry Hill to find people whom he felt he had belonged with.
Scorsese makes you feel like you’re part of a family the more you spend time with Henry Hill and his associates, as characters come into the story at a casual pace and are continually weaved throughout the film. At times funny, at times frightening, GoodFellas never lets up with encapsulating what it felt like to be a part of the mafia. Even the slightest interactions between every character feel almost like you’re invited to become a part of their conversations too, but it also shows how much research have Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi put into creating an accurate portrait of what it felt like to be a part of that lifestyle too. It soon comes down to the film bringing forth a subjective point of view through the narration of Henry Hill, clearly resentful of where he’s come from, but from what he offers of what his life in the mafia had done to him on the whole, you still feel he has only lived a life of emptiness through and through – none of that glamour ever was anywhere near as true as it felt.
Henry Hill’s narration isn’t the sole narration that carries the story forward, but his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) still plays an integral part in capturing that subjective perspective of the glamour within the mafia lifestyle. At first, she is shown to be resentful of the way in which Henry lives, but comes to be seduced into his own charms. Her perspective is never overshadowed by those of the men that surround her, but it’s also one important part in emphasizing what it felt like to be around these people who have always carried clout with them, being able to find a sense of meaning wherever they went. As Scorsese shows his audiences, Karen is clearly in love with the glamour of the criminal lifestyle but where she finds her place in Henry Hill’s story is best summed up by the emptiness that comes forth, with betrayals hitting in one after the other.
Of the many great American gangster movies that have been canonized all throughout film history, GoodFellas captures what it felt like to be within the moment unlike any other. This isn’t so much a film all about one way of experiencing the mafia, despite telling a true story but what makes it so wonderful comes the way in which it brings you into this world and plays around with you. Mixing dark humour with perfectly timed tension, GoodFellas still remains every bit as fresh as it was the first day I saw it as a teenager – it’s without doubt one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining movies, but also a work of brilliance from start to finish. With every revisit I always find myself taken aback by how much more I realize I love about it; and in my eyes it still remains one of the highest points of Martin Scorsese’s large body of work.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi, from the book Wiseguy by Pileggi
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
Release Date: September 19, 1990
Running Time: 145 minutes