GoodFellas is director Martin Scorsese’s epic, Oscar nominated, crime drama starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. Set in Brooklyn New York during the middle of the 20th century, GoodFellas is a portrayal of the life of organised crime and is a story which spans over three decades. The film is based on the book, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family written by Nicholas Pileggi, and both Pileggi and Scorsese collaborated together to write the screenplay.
The premise for the story of GoodFellas is very different to the many mafia depictions which have gone before it. It can be distinguished from other mafia tales because it is not an exaggeration or romanticized version of the mafia. It is not an analysis of the top tier of the organization but rather an examination of life at a much lower level. The insight into this life is shown to the audience through the eyes and first hand narration of the story’s leading character, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta).
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”. These are the opening words of a young and innocent Henry Hill ,as he gazes out of the window across the street at the local cabstand which is a hangout for ‘wise guys’. He watches in awe and admiration as they park their Cadillac’s and show off their sharp suits, not knowing at this point that one day he too will have this life. He will have the control, the money, the power that being a ‘wise guy’ gives you. That one day he will be an integral part of one of the biggest heist’s in American history and will be an associate to an organization that control’s everything and everybody around him.
However, he also doesn’t know that the life he is about to embark on will be one that is both extraordinary and reckless. He is unaware of the fact that he will bear witness to and be involved in murder, that he will sell and consume more cocaine than any human being should be able to handle and that he will lie, cheat and decieve everyone around him until he is left with nothing, nothing but the debris of a life that has collapsed around him.
GoodFellas is an expose into the harsh realities of life in the mafia. Violence, death, incarceration, Henry experienced it all and more on the roller-coaster that was his life. Along with the expostion of these realities, the movie explores in detail, the key friendships and relationships Henry had throughout his life. It delves into his turbulent marriage to Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), his more than eventful friendships with fellow associates Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy ‘The Gent’Conway,(Robert DeNiro) and his close affiliation with local neighbourhood boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino).
There are several characterisitics of GoodFellas which can be highlighted and applauded, but the one characteristic that immediately stands out, the one that literally comes out of the screen and grabs you, is the film’s authenticity. The food, the people, the clothes, the music, every single detail looks and feels deliberate and thought out and is displayed beautifully. The music especially, is placed perfectly right the way through the movie. Each song location has a purpose either to signify a period of time or to amplify the feeling being projected in the scene, and so it never feels unnecessary or meaningless.
Also some of the camera sequences created by Scorsese are truly remarkable.There is one sequence which involves the camera following Henry and Karen through the back of the Copa Cabana nightclub. The camera pursues them like a person walking behind them, observing each hand shake Henry makes as well as emphasizing the hectic nature of the workers along with the noise of the kitchen reverberating in the background. All these actions being captured together in tandem creates one of the most unique sequences you will see on film, and it is also crucial to the story as it encapsulates the power and influence Henry has at this point in his life.
Numerous themes are examined during the movie, one of which is violence. This is illustrated most vividly in a scene in which Henry, Tommy and Jimmy partake in the murder of a rival gang member. De Niro and Pesci are both equally frenetic in this scene and the raw emotion shown by De Niro is quite frightening. At times the violence may seem brutal and graphic but it is never excessive. It would be impossible to portray a realistic interpretation of the Mafia without violence and so although it may be difficult for some to watch it is a key component to the movie.
Another important theme addressed in the piece is love. Henry and Karen’s relationship in its early stages was fuelled with romance and caring. However, this soon fades away once married life begins and it is quickly made clear to Karen that she is not the only woman Henry will have in his life.”Saturday nights were for the wives, but Friday nights at the Copa were for the girlfriends”, Henry explains in his narration, this was a common feature of the mob culture but Karen finds it hard to look the other way from Henry’s unfaithfulness
The trials and tribulations of Henry’s marriage to Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as well as the many affairs he has along the way create a different element to a tale which is quintessentially about the life of crime and violence. The depiction’s of love and romance bring much more depth to the story and what is essential to the success of these depiction’s is Lorraine Bracco’s performance as Karen Hill. Karen is quite often lonely and vulnerable, but she can also be overly dramatic and occassionally explosive, especially after the discovery of Henry’s misgivings. However, Bracco manages to convey all these emotions along with the frustrations encumbered by Karen in a very convincing manner.
Every facet of this movie is in place to make it a solid representation of life in the Mafia. However, what really brings the story to life, what takes the movie to another level in terms of it’s subject matter, (i.e the Mafia), is the quality in the acting performances. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill is truly captivating, as both the aspiring young associate hungry for success and the declining, desperate middle aged man there is a constant fascination with his character. Robert De Niro as Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Conway once again shows brutal intensity and mesmerizing acting ability which keeps the audience engaged throughout.
Joe Pesci as Tommy Devito is quite simply brilliant and at times is truly terrifying. “You think I’m funny, funny how”, has become an iconic scene from the movie and it amplifies the bullying aura that is Pesci. Paul Sorvinoas leading mafia figurehead Paulie Circero may not set the world alight with his acting capabilities. but he still delivers a solid performance and his father figure presence towards Henry brings an additional component to the story.
Overall GoodFellas is an enthralling and cultivating movie. The story is brought to the screen magnificently through the extraordinary chemistry and capabilities displayed by the actors along with the astonishing authenticity that Scorsese has injected into the movie. GoodFellas is a masterpiece which will live long in the memory.