Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

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