There is no denying that director Martin Scorsese helped to change cinema. His movies going back to the early 70s stand out as milestones, ushering a new wave of filmmaking. Scorsese took risks when few others did, presenting the horrors of society in a stark, brutal beauty. Since his first breakthrough success Mean Streets, through to the claustrophobic classic Taxi Driver, the filmmaker presented violence as an artform, a necessity. While this may have caused controversy, his style is undeniably brilliant. He has a gift for creating the anti-hero protagonist, turning the murderer into his film’s dominating figure.
In recent years, his mojo for creating groundbreaking works may have waned slightly, but he still knocks out an impressive film. His most memorable from this century are The Departed andThe Wolf Of Wall Street. Even last year’s overlong The Irishman is an engaging watch. But his best work, and a precursor to everything he has accomplished since, lies in a movie that is 30-years old, the 1990 smash Goodfellas. All the techniques that make Goodfellas the epic that it is can be seen in every Scorsese flick since.
The genius of Goodfellas is not simply down to the acting performances, although they are startling, and in the case of Joe Pesci Oscar-winning. Instead, it is in how Scorsese frames the scenes, using cinematic techniques to tell a story, and of course the pace of the movie. All that is against a banging soundtrack which reflects the urgency of the narrative and even the emotions of the characters perfectly. Moreover, Goodfellas is the perfect story for the director to execute, and he lets loose with a fearless precision that made him famous and a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.
Set in Scorsese’s playground of New York, Goodfellas follows the true story of criminal Henry Hill, the son of an Irish-American father who rose through the ranks of the Italian mafia. It follows the young Hill move from petty crime to impress his mentors, to murder out of necessity. Eventually Hill finds himself having to turn-on those he respected for his own survival. The character of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, cleverly narrates the movie throughout, and lets the audience deeper into the underworld where he exists.
Throughout Goodfellas, Hill is aided by Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), the unhinged Tommy DeVito (Pesci), and mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Also vital to the movie is the suffering wife of Hill’s, Karen (Lorraine Bracco). At times she is a neglected character in the grand scheme of the film, but also she gets the opportunity to narrate similar to that of Hill. Through the eyes of Karen we get an outsider view into the criminal world, and how a naive, shy, Jewish girl became an accomplice to her drug running husband. At the same time, she is important in showing the honesty of how quickly a person can fall under a spell, turn a blind eye, and become enamored with the lifestyle that crime can bring.
Breaking down Scorsese’s powerful cinematic techniques explains the depth the movie has. One example is found in the opening scene. A flash forward to the midpoint of the narrative, it carries consequences. It acts as an introduction to the characters within a tense setting.
As slow tension builds within the confines of a car, the audience is shown these three main characters commit the brutal murder of a fourth man who is locked in the boot. The whole sequence acts as an overture to the violence that is contained within Goodfellas, a lesson to the audience that they should not love, or admire these men. However, it also gives a glimpse into the motivations of the characters, and their ease for killing.
Another technique is that framing of a scene which lets the audience into the mind of a character without using dialogue. One of the movie’s more famous scenes is the one in which De Niro’s Conway is stood, smoking, by a bar. The way in which the camera moves slowly against the tones, the eyes, and the facial expressions of De Niro is stunning. Straight away, it becomes apparent that Conway is willing to murder all involved with a heist before splitting profits. And then the Cream classic “Sunshine Of Your Love” erupts.
This song, particularly as it is played at this time is vital, and hints at how important the soundtrack is. Martin Scorsese is a wannabe rock star, shown since the late-70s and his concert film The Last Waltz. It is as if he tries to incorporate that same musical texture into his movies. Of course the music used is not original. When Robert De Niro first enters Mean Streets he is heralded by The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” The director uses rock music to bring a slick cool element to Goodfellas. A collage of sounds speeds up the pace and mirror the drug-fueled paranoia of Henry Hill as he tells the story of how he got busted, and why he betrayed his friends.
Bookended by violence, Goodfellas‘ opening scene is mirrored by its closing, and the gun-toting figure of Joe Pesci shooting at the camera. This scene mirrors how, even though violence in the movie has finished, the threat still remains. While it becomes apparent through the narration that Henry Hill is no longer involved in the gangster lifestyle, he misses it.
The central theme lives on after the closing scenes. It is in some respects a twisted version of the American dream: acquiring wealth and power by doing very little. It seems that mutual respect is the key element that binds peoples, even in the face of murder. Losing that respect, in the case of Henry Hill, is a punishment worse than death itself, and that is the message of Goodfellas: don’t be a rat.