Blog Directory CineVerse: A symphony of violence and vice that still plays perfectly – 30 years later

A symphony of violence and vice that still plays perfectly – 30 years later

Friday, September 25, 2020

Plenty of films made within the last three decades have been memorable, entertaining, and resonant. But few have been as influential as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which first hit movie theaters 30 years ago this week. To better appreciate this magnum opus on mafiosos, we held it up to the CineVerse magnifying glass and made the following discoveries.

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it has so many elements that combine to make for a great viewing experience: fantastic performances by a top-notch cast, a riveting episodic narrative structure that is constantly moving, brilliant directorial and editing choices, a wonderful soundtrack of carefully curated popular music, meticulous attention to detail of each year depicted, and quickly shifting tonality that takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions; one moment we're laughing at the exploits of Henry and his friends, and the next we’re shocked by sudden violence and brutality, later feeling somber and melancholy at the unexpected deaths of even small characters we’ve come to appreciate.
  • The movie’s infinitely quotable lines of dialogue have certainly helped it stand the test of time.
  • It still matters, too, because it manages to tell multiple stories exceedingly well. There are two voiceover narrations and two points of view: Henry’s and his wife Karen’s. There are also two tales woven into this picture: the first tale, which introduces us to Henry’s profession and the people in his life, told in a nostalgic way that romanticizes his good fortune and privileges; and the second tale, which arguably begins when Tommy shoots Spider dead, which could mark a turning point for the audience by showing the negative side of this lifestyle and its violence and inhumane repercussions.

In what ways was this film innovative or influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While this movie didn’t invent or introduce any new techniques, it is noteworthy for containing an array of memorable shots and cinematic approaches that collectively make for an exceptionally creative endproduct.
    • The film opens with a flash-forward that is later repeated – a scene where Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy stop their car in the dead of night, open the trunk, and reveal a victim of their violent vocation.
    • It contains two extended and unbroken tracking shots where the camera follows Henry into two different clubs, with each of the sequences demonstrating Henry’s clout, entitlement, and accepted inclusion among an elite group. The second unbroken shot lasts an impressive 184 seconds.
    • When Henry testifies in court, he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience briefly; the last shot of the film also shows Tommy firing a pistol directly at the camera.
    • The camera seems to be regularly in movement throughout this story; complemented by smart and sometimes daring editing choices, Goodfellas feels like a frenetic car ride that never stops, which is fitting when you consider the opening credit sequence by Saul Bass that features words and names that quickly zoom by horizontally like speedy automobiles.
    • Martin Scorsese briefly apes Hitchcock in the diner scene where Henry agrees to meet Jimmy; we see a glimpse of the disorienting dolly zoom Vertigo effect.
    • Helping to immerse us into Henry’s world, the film features several memorable POV shots, including the gun in the face, the upside-down view of the lion’s den, and the two tour de force tracking shots into the clubs.
    • Curiously, there are several close-up shots of smaller objects – some are weapons, like guns, and others are shown as additional tools of the trade, including keys, restaurant checks, and doorbells. 
  • The list of works this picture has inspired is impressive: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; Donnie Brasco; Casino; The Usual Suspects; Boogie Nights; The Sopranos; American Hustle; Requiem for a Dream; 54; Blow; Lord of War; and Black Mass, just to name a handful.
  • The soundtrack, lacking a proper original score and instead featuring a smorgasbord of pop tunes from the 50s through the 70s – 43 in total, including classic crooning by the likes of Tony Bennett contrasted with the punk rock caterwauling of Sid Vicious – would certainly have left a strong impression on many filmmakers who, after seeing Goodfellas, adopted a similar approach.
    • Interestingly, Scorsese often doesn’t play the majority of a song – instead opting to use only a section or snippet from a tune to punctuate a particular scene, such as the instrumental second half of the song Layla, used ingeniously as the musical bedrock to the melancholy montage of dead bodies discovered following the Lufthansa heist, and Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, which we hear suddenly after Henry does a snort of cocaine.
    • The soundtrack is also chronologically accurate; as the years pass and the characters age, so do the songs, many of which would have been popular around the time of the particular scene depicted.
  • Goodfellas also demythologizes our expectations for a gangster film, stripping away the operatic baggage associated with mob heavyweight movies like The Godfather and instead focusing on the common foot soldier in the underworld and the highs and lows they experience.
  • The immersive look deep into the lives of these underlings and the realism embedded into these depicted stories, thanks to the fine attention to detail given to wardrobe, culinary preferences, manner of speech, and other markers of authenticity, paved the way for many filmmakers to follow.
  • Unlike so many previous gangster pictures, women characters are provided more screen time. The fact that Karen is given one of the two voiceover narrations tells you that the female perspective is important in this story.
  • The narrative is also very episodic and elliptical, abandoning a throughline plot and choosing instead to feature vignettes of the characters that paint a composite picture of their lifestyle and choices. The several years Henry spends in prison, for example, is glossed over; unlike gangster heist films like The Killing, the film doesn’t waste time showing us the actual Lufthansa heist or how it was executed; and the courtroom scene isn’t milked for all of its dramatic impact like it could’ve been.
  • In pointing to influences on Goodfellas that may have inspired it, consider It’s a Wonderful Life, which also has a voiceover narration and a freeze-frame moment; the French New Wave, including films like Jules and Jim, with its edgy and innovative jump cuts, freeze frames, and editing style; The Great Train Robbery, which has an outlaw pointing and shooting a gun directly at the camera as Tommy does at the very end of the film; Howard Hawks’ Scarface; Fellini’s I Vitelloni; Force of Evil; Point Blank; and Once Upon a Time in America.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Goodfellas?

  • The seductive nature of power, money, violence, and ambition. Consider how Henry’s life of privilege completely unravels because he decides to sell drugs behind Paulie’s back. Also, think about how, for a good portion of the film, Henry is on a great winning streak, suggesting that crime pays. “The rewards of honor and privilege are at the heart of Goodfellas,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • Fall from grace. Scorsese has said that Henry’s life was akin to walking amongst the gods, but then he is cast from Mount Olympus after committing hubris and defying Zeus – or, in this story, Paulie.
  • There is no honor among thieves. We see how Jimmy becomes paranoid and decides to whack everyone involved in the Lufthansa heist to cover his tracks. Henry is also reminded not to break the two cardinal rules of the mob: Never rat on your friends, and keep your mouth shut; by the end of the film, he has violated those two Commandments.
  • Loyalty and betrayal. Henry cheats on his wife and betrays Paulie and Jimmy. Tommy, who thinks he is about to be a made man, is betrayed by his crime family. And Jimmy betrays most of his partners in crime on the Lufthansa heist by having them killed.
  • We are a product of our environment. Goodfellas is a lesson in how your culture shapes your values and lifestyle – for better and worse.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Gift #1 is that the film satiates like a cinematic bouillabaisse, with the combination of multiple quality ingredients creating a thoroughly satisfying and lip-smacking experience. There are so many ingeniously interwoven elements of excellence on display here – fascinating characters galore, ultra-credible dialogue, a kinetic camera, compelling voiceover narration, inspired visual and musical editing choices, engrossing episodes that play like mini-movies within the movie, period and occupational authenticity, an emphasis on fine small details that enhance the personalities, settings, and situations, and infectious passion for the subject matter.
  • Gift #2 is its credibility as a plausible cautionary tale. This movie feels real and honest, not just because it’s based on true life people and events that actually happened but because the talents involved aimed for veracity, emotional sincerity, and superior storytelling designed to enthrall from the first frame to the last. This film may not surpass The Godfather, but it belongs on the Mount Rushmore of mob movies and, unlike that picture, it’s not a work of fiction.
  • Gift #3 is the array of colorful characters who get indelibly etched into our pop-culture consciousness, from the major players like Tommy, Jimmy, Henry, Karen, and Paulie to the unforgettable bit players like Billy Batts, Spider, Maury, Frenchy, Tuddy, and Sonny. What’s amazing about Goodfellas is that everyone is so perfectly cast – even the thespians in the non-speaking roles who blend into the background have time-worn faces and idiosyncrasies that make this underworld universe so believable. Gift #4 is the astounding sequence near the end of the picture that details the day Henry is arrested, relayed in a cocaine-infused rush of pressure cooker paranoia in which musical extracts, quick jarring cuts, timeline-stamped shots, and unpredictable compositions in constant motion coalesce into an unforgettable montage of increasing dread and tense anticipation. Some think this is the finest 10 minutes of filmmaking that Scorsese has ever conjured up.

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