Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas turns 30 but hasn’t aged a bit
There is no dust on GoodFellas. Thirty years old on September 19, it still sprints along as if Martin Scorsese had made it yesterday, at first with the bouncy step of youth, then slowing slightly to account for greater gravitas, then going into coke-fueled turbodrive before a relatively sedate final sequence, and then Joe Pesci — representing the movie as well as the ghost haunting all wise guys — fires his gun right at us. I hadn’t seen the movie in its entirety in years — contenting myself with watching favorite clips — so I’d forgotten how evenly it flows, except when (by design) it doesn’t. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth over whether this is Scorsese at his best. Let’s say it was his doctoral thesis at that point; it was a 47-year-old master taking everything he’d learned and watched and putting it into his most personal film to date.
Towards the home stretch, we’re told — in narration by our guide, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) — that gangsters referred to each other as good fellas. Not only does that phrase never appear in the movie until Henry mentions it, it doesn’t appear in Nicholas Pileggi’s source book Wise Guy, either. But for various reasons, Scorsese couldn’t use the book’s title, so GoodFellas it was. We all hardly notice it now, but that’s a weird title, especially stylized with the capital F. Anyway, the title is one indication among many that GoodFellas was actually fairly radical. All its idiosyncrasies are part of the canon now, part of film language. But Scorsese wasn’t just pinching from classical cinema; he was importing bits from French new wave and avant-garde. It’s the only way he could fit so very much stuff in one movie, even a movie just south of two and a half hours.
Henry, half Irish and half Italian, always stands slightly apart from the Sicilian crime family he falls in with. He is with them but not of them, and the same is true of skilled Irish thief Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who like Henry works for neighborhood goombah Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Squint at GoodFellas and you might see it with fresh eyes as the story of an Italian boss who never should have trusted Irishmen. Jimmy is shrewd, but he inadvertently helps dig the hole to hell in some ways — he fails to keep a lid on the Cicero family’s most mercurial button man, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a butcher with the mouth of an insult comedian. Never happier than when he can bounce his contempt off of a dense colleague or underling (alas, poor Spider), Tommy has a quick, almost imperceptible tipping point to homicidal pique. If you weren’t there in 1990, even after Pesci was in movies for about a decade, it’s hard to imagine what a concussive blast Pesci’s performance was — hilarious or terrifying, and then switching places on subsequent viewings. Pesci’s Tommy is the mob’s corroded soul, though occasionally a lonely note of morality does pipe up; “You’re tryin’ to make me think what I did here,” complains Tommy, oddly, after he has shot the gofer Spider in the foot.
That line — possibly ad-libbed, as so much else in the film was — haunts me. If you kill for a living, you don’t want to think what you did here. GoodFellas exists to prove that thesis, though it starts all fun and games, with Tony Bennett blaring as young Henry stares out at the mob guys hanging out at the cab stand. To us they look like meatheads, but to Henry they’re a ruling class, heedless of laws or government or even school. The first hour or so is a tale of dark enchantment, dark as wine or blood. Henry and his new bride Karen (Lorraine Bracco, imposing loud and welcome womanhood onto a movie otherwise populated either with mothers or “hoo-ers”) are swept into it. It’s terrific fun. For a certain type of toxic masculinity, it’s the party that never ends. When Henry and Karen are ushered into the Copacabana in that famous tracking shot, if we look closely we can see the fishing line pulling them to their table, the lure baited with a thick wad of hundreds.
After that first hour, GoodFellas pumps the brakes a little; a violent event and its tragic consequences dim the mood considerably (I will leave them unspoiled for the newcomer). Michael Ballhaus’ camera still swings and swoops with nimble gaiety, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing still stitches everything together gorgeously, but the movie has slowed its excitable forward momentum. (Even before that, the aftermath of the Lufthansa heist and its “Layla”-scored viewing of corpses have shown us, with bleak tragicomedy, where crooks can expect to end up — hanging up in a meat truck, say.) Then Henry gets into cocaine, dealing and snorting, and takes on a second girlfriend on the side, and Scorsese makes a mini-movie about having a coke-induced heart attack — at least it feels that way to us. It’s a ferocious stretch of filmmaking, and when Scorsese finally stops it, it comes as an abrupt relief, like a rapid cessation of pain.
So we return to my earlier question: Is this peak Scorsese? I’d like to think he’s made other films just as good, in very different ways, in the three decades since. Just in the past few years, Wolf of Wall Street was amazing, Silence was powerful, The Irishman an elegant shroud over the mob life. But GoodFellas feels to me like the movie Scorsese was put here to make. And he made it accordingly.