When the 1990's wrap up at the end of this year, Martin Scorsese's
'GoodFellas' is certain to be in the top 10 of many critic's lists. Being
Scorsese's best film, 'GoodFellas' is one of the best mob movies ever.
Scorsese's 'Raging Bull' was at the top of many critic's lists as the best
film of the 1980's but that film really stood out as being most dazzling
when the action was inside the boxing ring. Outside the ring, the film is
over rated. There were major script problems in terms of plotting and
making anything seem truly outstanding, except Robert De Niro's Oscar
winning performance. But 'Raging Bull' was still authentic movie making
that re-created an era that is now long gone. 'The Godfather' is still the
granddaddy of all gangster films but 'GoodFellas' moves along like a fast
paced game of cards and Scorsese leaves you guessing all the way down who
has the best hand. Is it Scorsese's frenzied direction? Is it the
brilliant, funny, shocking, and mesmerizing script by Scorsese and Nicholas
Pileggi based on the novel 'Wiseguy'? Is it in the performances, including
Joe Pesci's Oscar winning role as a sawed off runt who's gun happy
tendencies sometimes get the best of him? Actually, it's a combination of
all these things including the fact that it's all a true story.
The film benefits tremendously from Ray Liotta's narration as a real life
character named Henry Hill. As a boy, he observed the activities of local
gangsters while growing up in Brooklyn. He ran illegal errands for them
part time and turned it into full time work and gradually rose among their
ranks to become a trusted member of the crew and a somewhat right hand man
for gangsters like Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De
Niro). Liotta's narration as Henry Hill are a series of pride swelling
accomplishments. These guys are actually proud of the fact that they steal,
kill, and go through life taking anything they want at the expense of others
and at one point actually make fun of honest folks who work hard for
everything they have.
As the film opens, Henry Hill is a boy whose parents gradually fear he will
never amount to anything in life because of his association with gangsters.
For the first 10 or fifteen minutes, the story is brilliantly set up with
narration from about 1955 to 1963 when Henry Hill becomes a man and the
story really picks up steam from there.
Scorsese has always been good at mesmerizing audiences with his style of
visual violence and captures it better on film than practically any other
director and secretly taps into our dark side and shows us things we don't
really want to see, but when we do, we enjoy it strangely enough.
Henry Hill takes a bride named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and the two of them
have a seemingly good life for the first few years of their marriage until
Hill starts cheating on her and spending night after night away from home
with his friends. Karen is seduced by the high powered world of money and
power and gets drawn into helping Henry with his lifestyle, most notably,
This film was Ray Liotta's break though performance and he deserved an Oscar
nomination for it but never received one. Robert De Niro's character is
more of a father figure and there is a curious style of detachment in De
Niro's performance but who can argue with the fact the Joe Pesci gives the
film's most brilliant performance? He combines horrific violence with wise
cracks and the most despicable humour and rolls into one neat package and
sells foul language better than almost anyone else I've ever seen in a film.
Michael Ballhaus' cinematography is a marvel in itself. Ballhaus does
almost everything imaginable with light in this film. He bounces it, bends
it, shifts it and Scorsese plunges his camera right into the violent abyss
and never makes it seem mindless but yet an important part of the story.
The only portion of the film that could have been trimmed out and left on
the cutting room floor is most of the last half hour. The film is somewhat
bogged down by Henry Hill's drugged out haze and paranoia that he is being
pursued by the law. The film goes on too long in this regard but with so
much else it gives us, this seems like such a little thing to point out in
light of how quickly the rest of the film moves along.
Copyright © 1999 Walter Frith