Goodfellas (1990)

*. Martin Scorsese on the edge. By which I mean not on the edge of visionary daring, but in terms of his career. I think his run of great movies ends here. There’d been Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’d also been The King of Comedy and After Hours. But Goodfellas, which I think is a great movie, marks a tipping point. Next up would be Cape Fear, a movie I also like but which clearly goes over the top in a lot of ways. Then an avalanche of excess. Indeed, excess became his theme and not (just) his style. Casino. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Irishman (a movie I really wish he hadn’t made). Weren’t these movies all too much? Expensive. Overlong. And all about going too far.
*. Like I say, for me Goodfellas marks a watershed, staying just this side of being too much. Still, there are a couple of places where I thought Scorsese was tipping his hand as to where he was going.
*. The first example I’d give is the famous entrance to the Copacabana Club. Scorsese has talked about this single long take as expressing how Henry Hill’s way into the gangster lifestyle has made everything easy for him, opening doors, and his entrance certainly conveys this. His path, and that of the camera, is lubricated by money. But while I appreciating it I couldn’t help thinking of how much it must have cost to set up a shot like that (and they did seven or eight takes). Just as Henry is flashing his cash, Scorsese is flashing his, in terms of budget. It’s a conscious display of excess for both of them.
*. The second example is something that bothered me the first time I saw the movie and still does today. It’s the scene near the end where Henry (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy (Robert De Niro) at the diner and Jimmy asks Henry if he’ll go down to Florida and whack someone for him. This is just a way of getting rid of Henry out of state. Henry understands this because he’s never been asked to whack somebody before, so “that’s when I knew that I’d never come back from Florida alive.”
*. Why include the voiceover telling us this? And making things worse, why go to two freeze frames on the faces of Jimmy and Henry? I hated this. Why? Because it highlights, underlines, and prints in bold all caps what should have been done quietly, just with faces. Henry has figured out what’s going on, and by this point in the movie so have we. It actually echoes an earlier scene where Henry’s voiceover tells us “that’s when I knew Jimmy was going to whack Morrie.” So here there’s no need to tell us what could and I think should have just been shown. Did Scorsese not trust Liotta in being able to sell it? Or not trust his audience to be able to pick up what was happening?
*. I mention this because it’s part of the lack of subtlety that Scorsese’s filmmaking was increasingly being taken over by. And it upsets me because I think Scorsese is better than this.
*. He really likes setting up corpses as artistic tableaux. I lost count of how many there are here, with every blood spatter lovingly painted on the screen. But this is another place where I think less might have been more.

*. I still think Goodfellas a great movie though. It certainly moves well, at the tempo of Henry’s nervously intense narration. And Henry is a perfect surrogate, if not for the audience then for Scorsese, who has always seemed a gangster fanboy. I’ll bet as far back as he can remember he wanted to be one.
*. This is a point that really exercised David Thomson, who was disturbed by the “trembling, increasingly cocaine-dependent ambivalence” Scorsese presents when it comes to the evil of the wise guys. “Does this film have a secure attitude toward the lives of its guys, or is it giddy with its own ability to ride along in their slipstream?” he asks. “It’s as if Scorsese cannot bring himself to disown this demon, and movement, vitality, mad humor, music, and contempt for women are the ingredients of the lifestyle of the GoodFellas.”
*. I don’t agree with this. One of the things I like the most about the movie is the way the main characters aren’t charismatic in any way. Henry might want to be a gangster, but would anyone want to be Henry, as cool as he tries to make it sound? Tommy (Joe Pesci) is, of course, a psycho. Jimmy is a lying piece of dirt, and not even much of a player. Henry is only a sidekick. With his phoney laugh and obsequiousness he reminds me of no one so much as John Candy’s William B. Williams on The Sammy Maudlin Show. And even his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) is only a wannabe bad girl. She’ll be a gangster’s moll if the pay is good, and can be a bully as much as her husband, but she’ll fold at the slightest pressure. These aren’t villains of any stature but only snakes in the grass.
*. So is the gangster lifestyle as presented here seductive? I don’t think so. Even the signature catalogue of corpses revealed to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is bathetic. The pink Cadillac. The meat truck. Just taking out the trash. And then there’s Henry’s envoi to the audience where he calls us “suckers”: our wasted lives spent among “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills.” But that house in the ‘burbs looks so much nicer, certainly less vulgar and tacky, than any of the places we’ve seen in the rest of the movie. Henry is laying it on too thick here, trying to cheer himself up. He’s so easy to see through, so unconvincing. Not a real gangster at all, but still only wanting to be one.

8 thoughts on “Goodfellas (1990)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    I hate when a film doesn’t trust the audience. We’re watching your film, at least give us a little respect.

    “Henry is only a sidekick.” Wrong! Tommy is the sidekick.

    Love the idea that you captured that Henry is not a gangster, but wanting to be a gangster. And you’re right. Great review.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That scene where he freezes the picture and has Henry tells us what’s going on has always bugged me. It’s so literal. I wish he’d just shown us Henry’s face as he’s figuring it out for himself but not letting on to Jimmy.

      In a way all three of them are flunkies or second bananas. Henry seems the most obsequious to me.

  2. fragglerocking

    Joe Pesci was the one to watch for me, he did an amazing job. I get what your saying about the excess, and that long-shot scene was great but it took you out of the movie in its greatness, as I had to rewind and see it again!


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