Goodfellas: Revisiting a Classic Film

With Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s multiple escapes from prison recently compromising our daily news notifications on our phones, Americans have rekindled the fascination with gangster life that Goodfellas glamorizes. Martin Scorsese uses every technique in his disposal to showcase the highs and lows of being an Italian gangster. Goodfellas succeeds thanks to stellar acting that only falters due to an improperly realized love triangle.

Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill who grows up admiring Italian gangsters, becomes an Italian gangster, and ends a “schnook” as he so elegantly calls it. Hill is played by Ray Liotta (Something Wild) who brings a stunning amount of charisma to the role. With him doubling as narrator for the plot and his own experiences it enables us to get in his head. Events that to those unfamiliar with the Mob and its techniques are given new, sinister light upon explanation. For instance, in a scene towards the end of the movie, Hill is offered an accompanying role to participate in a crime in Florida. To the viewer, this looks to be a reaffirming sign of trust between friend and mentor. When Hill begins to narrate the scene he pauses the action on the other person’s poker face to give us a stunning revelation: going to Florida is a subtle way of being murdered. I thought as I watched this, how would I have reacted? I would have been in someone’s trunk, never to have been heard from again.

Liotta isn’t the only shining point of the movie. Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci also have important roles, playing gangsters Jimmy “The Gent” Conway and Tommy DeVito respectfully. DeNiro’s Conway is wonderfully understated. His presence in a scene brings a sinister feeling that permeates the surround characters. When he shows up, you know that bodies will roll. Pesci’s DeVito is just as menacing, but in a comedic vein. Pesci does a wonderful job of portraying the unpredictability written into the character. Say the wrong thing to Pesci and you could end up six feet deep. What enables Pesci to successfully thrive in the role is the plain face he keeps before making a hasty decision. Liotta, DeNiro, and Pesci act as the triumvirate that carries the movie to its dark conclusion.

The cinematography by Micheal Ballhaus (After Hours) gives the movie a distinct, stylistic feel that becomes a character within itself. One of the most memorable sequences of the movie comes after the fallout of the Lufthansa Heist of 1978 where Conway comes to a realization that impacts his beliefs of his team. Over the next ten minutes, set to a chilling soundtrack, bodies of the crew turn up in unexpected places as we figure out the reason from Hill’s narration. In the infamous pink car scene, the camera opens up to a hot pink car and zooms in and around it, showcasing the bodies of two people. As simple as it sounds, the scene has great dramatic impact that makes you empathize with the dead. It doesn’t help that one of the next shots showcases Conway smiling, enjoying himself. The dichotomy of the suffering that gangsters cause and the enjoyment they derive from that suffering is a central part of the movie that permeates a majority of scenes, even up to the ending.

The tone of the movie is somewhat uneven in certain scenes. Whereas scenes involving gangster talk and activities have an action movie tone, scenes involving the love triangle of Hill, his wife Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) and his mistress Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo) give off a romantic comedy gone wrong tone. This isn’t done on purpose. The main problem with Henry Hill and his lovers stems from the lack of chemistry between characters. Hill and his wife look as if they are uncomfortable with each other. Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene where Hill confronts her boyfriend (before they’re married). After the confrontation, Hill attempts to woo Karen and it just doesn’t come off as genuine. Ironically, the chemistry between Hill and Janice feels more genuine. Since lust is at the center of their interactions, it would seem more apparent that their conversations flow together more smoothly. In normal gangster movies, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem because relationships don’t take a large precedence. But in Goodfellas the problem is magnified, being the only real blemish in the movie. The reason for this is that the love triangle, while it doesn’t receive that much screen time, is instrumental in moving the plot in a number of facets. Without revealing too much, the interactions between Hill, Karen, and Janice, all facilitate the climax and introduce an element of desperation to the resolution that doesn’t feel earned. That and the fact that one of his lovers all but disappears after the climax leads to speculation on whether she existed as anything but a plot device in the first place. A quick check of the source material, the novel Wiseguys by Nicholas Poleggi, shows that yes she did exist.

In the end, Goodfellas succeeds a lot more than it fails. For every scene involving a love triangle that we don’t care about, we’re given two explaining some minute detail about the life of a “wiseguy.” Ever since we’re introduced to Hill at the beginning of the movie as a child where we meet people that become major players, we grow to love and care for what happens in this world. When certain characters are tricked and deceived we are just as hurt as Hill, even if the reason that they are deceived is justified. Through Hill’s lenses we witness the prototypical rise to power and fall from power that feels fresh due to the players involved. While the setup may initially warrant disbelief, by the end of the movie you’ll be ready to find out what happened in real life since the movie ended. Scorsese proved his film-making prowess with this one. As stated before, the only thing that left room to be desired involved the love triangle. An interesting argument could be made about the importance of women in the Italian Mob culture but this could have just been an oversight in the creation of the film. All in all, I recommend this film to anyone who’s seen The Godfather and Scarface and is looking to fill that gangster itch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read Wiseguys.

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