Today’s topic: the raw realism of Goodfellas. The gangster genre is one that has been popular since the early 1930s, with the original Scarface and Public Enemy, and it went on to be recognized as one of the most well received genres of cinema. In the early 70s, the world and history met the grandeur of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films that are today known as the finest filmmaking achievements of all time. Then we had Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, A Bronx Tale and Donnie Brasco. In the last decade or so we’ve met other contributions such as Road To Perdition and The Departed. It seems as if the lifestyle led by gangsters and no-do-gooders is something that appeals to audiences and sucks them right in. And we always hear people saying: “The Godfather is the best film ever made” or “Scarface is so cool and so violent”, and of course they are great examples of a Hollywood way of making films that is slowly vanishing. However, I feel like we tend to get stuck in time. We love these movies because they show a world of gangsters that are noble, know how to respect the rules, murders are clean, and where there is no such thing as “get dirty”. It was back when the idea of the American dream was it its most powerful, most visible. What I intend to do is try and look at what is so mind blowing and refreshing about Martin Scorsese’s epic, Goodfellas.
Wait, not epic. It’s not. Epic would mean that it’s a colossal hit that everyone knows and loves, just like The Godfather. It’s impossible not to like it, right? That’s why I prefer Goodfellas. I love it because it’s thought provoking and still is more innovative than what comes out of Hollywood these days. It’s a shocking portrayal of what seemed to many as the perfect way to live – money, women, cars, easy life – well no. Goodfellas denies the romantic qualities of the previous gangster movies. It’s like rock’ n ‘roll; it’s fast, loud, dirty and it smashes you over the head. It’s unexpected. Henry Hill’s story, that of a gangster who’s been the middle man in a large family for over twenty years and finally turned into witness protection after pointing out the bosses to the FBI, is a true story that is still looked upon as one of the most fascinating experiences ever told on film. And who would be better at directing it than the one and only, Martin Scorsese? Scorsese. Someone who’s seen it with his own eyes. Someone who lived surrounded by those kind of people. Someone who breathed the same air as they did. The director is the energy. The actors the power. The combination is deadly.
You can’t compare Goodfellas to anything. Not even Scorsese’s later gangster biopic, Casino (1995). It’s unlike any contribution to cinema. The groundbreaking direction is part of the unnerving realism; look at the role played by the tracking shots — when Henry hears about his girlfriend being disrespected by some hood, he parks his car in the driveway, sees the guy in the rearview mirror, packs his gun and exits the car. He walks toward the hood with fury burning in his eyes and how does Scorsese capture it? In one single tracking shot. He shoots Henry walking up to the guy and bashing his skull in with the butt of his gun, and then going back to his girlfriend’s house in one take. Would it have made a difference if it was filmed with many single takes? Yes, it would have been the typical beat-up scene we find in almost every movie and TV show. Yet here, Scorsese decided to film it as if we were witnessing the scene from next door, leaving us with our mouths open, cringing. Even the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, has said in an interview that the particular scene I just mentioned was the hardest job he’s ever done – he’d close his eyes every time Ray Liotta’s character hit the hood’s forehead with the butt of his revolver, ruining the whole take. That’s what I call riveting filmmaking. To make an impression and leave it there forever. Leave an unwashable stain that will haunt us for days to come.
On the other hand, what strikes me the most about this mad classic is the way it refuses to follow any conventions. It doesn’t obey any rules, any laws. It’s pure improvisation of the best kind. Almost everyone has heard of the “How am I funny?” scene (if not, youtube it , or better yet, watch the movie). To think that it was unscripted, 100% improvised on the spot is something that we hardly comprehend in a world where movies are played out word by word, sentence by sentence. What’s really funny about that scene is that it’s true. For a fact, Pesci (playing the character of Tommy) was a waiter in a Little Italy bar and happened to get caught in this kind of situation, when laughing at a wise guy’s joke and then having to face what was an unpredictable reaction that could have ended in a brawl or even a shoot-out. It’s unpredictability that counts here. There are no domino effects. It’s real life on the screen. Beating up a union boss, burying him in the woods and then, after six months, having to dig up the stinking body again. The only rule is: get dirty and survive.
The characters, another plus. Sure, The Godfather’s Clemenza or Luca Brasi, Carlito’s Way Pachanga, Donnie Brasco’s Sonny Black are all interesting, tasty characters but they don’t feel real. They are either the typical behind-the-back-sneaky or the good-friend type of characters. Goodfellas, being a true story, spices everything up by reminding us how everyone can go to hell in the matter of a second. Not even the madman Tommy can hide. We are immediately introduced to this big family, again in one long POV tracking shot of Henry entering the restaurant. It’s a rite of passage for the viewer. We meet Frankie Carbone, Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Freddy No-nose, Nicky Eyes, Mickey Francese, Jimmy Two Times, and the list goes on. In the matter of a one minute long single take we greet a whole world of different characters that together form one big cruel family that well, unfortunately, we get attached to. Yes, we grow fond of them. At least I do. Because it’s a memorable vision of a world that I can almost touch. It’s out there, Scorsese reminds us. And it’s real because it can easily disappear. When it comes to eliminating any possible witness, there is no mercy. Family members are all treated the same. A bullet into the back of your head, a car explosion, a quick stabbing, whatever. It always comes down to dead bodies.
And to make it short , it’s also how music is used to impact the viewing and increase the storytelling drive. We start off with 1950’s tunes such as Rags To Riches or Sincerely and go at full speed through Mannish Boy and Layla, increasing the horsepower and smashing into the wall with the furious Rolling Stones and crazy Sid Vicious. The music IS the movie. It’s the engine that roars and doesn’t stop. It introduces us to characters, situations and events. We slow down whenever there is a wedding or a romantic kiss and jump right back in when mobsters kick the hell out of a poor sob or when we enter a truck where among the hanging frozen ribs there is the body of a frozen Frankie Carbone. The music is the soul of Goodfellas that craps on our heads whenever we try to predict what’s next. The helicopter paranoia scene at the end of the movie is what it is thanks to the brilliant use of editing and an excellent song choice. It makes us believe what we see, it makes us feel what Henry feels; the paranoia of a scared, coked out mobster. He is coked out. We are coked out.
Don’t obey the standards. Don’t listen to the past. Be inventive. Look at it differently. Push yourself to the edge. That’s what Scorsese says. That’s why I love him. That’s why we all love him. He’s not afraid of his ideas.
Push yourself to the edge and beyond, you funny guy.