Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXI: GoodFellas

GoodFellas (1990) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Nicolas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi.
Starring: Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Sivero (Frankie Carbone), Tony Darrow (Sonny Bunz), Mike Starr (Frenchy), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Chuck Low (Morris 'Morrie' Kessler), Catherine Scorsese (Tommy's Mother), Charles Scorsese (Vinnie), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry), Kevin Corrigan (Michael Hill), Michael Imperioli (Spider), Samuel L. Jackson (Stacks Edwards).

If Taxi Driver is my favorite Scorsese film, and Raging Bull is his most perfect, than GoodFellas is his most entertaining and re-watchable. How many times have I seen GoodFellas? I have no clue, but I would be willing to guess that it’s probably more often than any other film in history. GoodFellas is a film that dives headlong into its story, and doesn’t come up for air for the next two and half hours. It moves mercilessly from scene to scene, cataloguing Henry Hill’s rise grace in the Mafia from the 1950s to the 1980s. This is not a Mafia movie like The Godfather where a bunch of old men sit in smoky backrooms and make far reaching decisions that dictate how everyone will act. This is a film that takes place on the ground level.

Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a young kid who grows up across the street from a cabstand in New York where all the gangsters hang out. He is attracted to them because they always have money and everyone respects them. He quits school and starts hanging around the cabstand doing odd jobs. Quickly he is making more money than all the working stiffs in the neighborhood. Why would he want to be a legitimate blue collar guy, when he could do this?

Quickly Henry is working with Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert DeNiro), robbing every truck coming out of the airport as they can. The drivers don’t mind – they even tip Henry off when a good shipment is coming in – because they know they’ll get a piece of the action. Paul (Paul Sorvino) is the “boss” of the area, a big, lumbering man who talks to no one but controls everything. They give him a cut of everything they do, and he’s happy with them. This is also when he meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl who is immediately drawn to him. She knows that not everything is on the level – how does a kid of 21 have all these connections and money, where people will seemingly bend over backwards to help him. But she doesn’t much care. She’s as seduced by the money and power as Henry is.

The first part of the film is the most fun. You understand why Henry got seduced into his life of crime. He gets to sit around with his friends, laughing and drinking, and when he needs money, there is always an easy score to get. The most famous shot in the film comes in this section, when Henry takes Karen to the Copa, and then enter through the back door, and the camera follows as they go down the stairs, through the kitchen and out onto the main floor, where they immediately set up a table for him right in front of the stage. This long tracking shot immerses us in Henry’s world, and is one of the best shots in cinema history.

Things take a dark turn at around the half way mark though. Henry is sent to jail, and things to crash in around him. When you’re in jail, you’re not making money, and no one is helping out your family. Henry starts dealing drugs while inside, and continues when he gets out, falling into addiction himself. What seemed so fun and carefree in the first half, becomes much more violent.

Take two mirror image scenes for example. Everyone remembers the scene early in the film when Liotta tells Pesci he’s a funny guy and Pesci responds “What I am a clown to you? Do I amuse you?” The scene starts out dark, but it ultimately revealed to be a joke. Later in the film, a waiter will tell Tommy to “Fuck off”, and the guys start making fun of Tommy. Tommy responds by shooting the waiter dead. He does the same thing when Billy Bats, a made man who has been in jail for a number of years, pokes fun at Tommy. He and Jimmy beat him to death on the floor of Henry’s bar, and then the three of them have to bury him in the middle of nowhere. Once they were all laughing and having fun. Now, the slightest insult can lead to death.

Paranoia starts seeping into the group in the second half of the film. Paul doesn’t want any of his guys dealing drugs, because that can lead to serious jail time. The cops, that can be bribed to look the other way on some non-violent robberies, prostitution or numbers, don’t look the other way for drugs. Henry deals in jail because it’s one of the few things he can do inside. He continues outside, because it’s so easy and you can make so much money off of it. His paranoia is fueled by all the cocaine he’s taking. There is a marvelous sequence near the end of the film, where Henry starts to think that a helicopter is following his every move. But just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t really after you.

But it’s not just Henry. After pulling the largest job of their career, Jimmy gets paranoid that one of the many people involved is going to give them away. Soon bodies are turning up all over the place – anyone who had anything to do with the robbery winds up dead. As in all of Scorsese’s films, the violence in GoodFellas is strong, but not lingered over. I cannot recall anything that you could really call an “action” sequence in any Scorsese film. The violence in GoodFellas comes on in an instant, and is over just as quickly. A quick shot to the back of head, blood sprays over the walls, and then it’s over. Death comes in an instant in this film.

As in all Scorsese films, the performances in the movie are pitch perfect. No matter how many crappy movies he has made since, I will always be a Ray Liotta fan because of this film. With Keitel and DeNiro being too old to play the role, Scorsese had to find a younger actor, and Liotta fits perfectly. His Henry goes from a happy kid, to a paranoid, drug addled middle aged man, and he pulls off the transformation effortlessly. As his wife, Lorraine Bracco was given her best role. At first, she is drawn into Henry’s world – she finds his lifestyle appealing, and is sexually aroused by the danger of it all. But later, it all becomes too much for her. She doesn’t know if he’s going to wind up dead, or in jail, he cheats on her all the time, and she can just barely hang on. It even gets to point where she thinks she is going to be killed. Pesci won a well deserved Oscar for his role as Tommy – a man who can be the life of the party, but has a hair triggered temper that explodes into violence with the slightest provocation. He is one of the distinctive, memorable characters in all of Scorsese’s films. DeNiro gives perhaps the film’s most underrated performance as Conway. It is essentially a supporting role, but DeNiro gives it weight. Unlike Tommy, he is able to control his violent side. He is all business, and doesn’t see the profit in killing for no reason. But he can become violent just as fast if he needs to.

The filmmaking is also second to none. Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography is brilliant from the opening scene to last one – the camera never stops moving, gliding effortlessly from one scene to the next. Add to this Thelma Schoonmaker’s relentless editing, and pitch perfect costume and production design (which often lets us know the passage of time easily), and you have a marvelous looking film.

GoodFellas, I think, is the Scorsese’s most driven film. By that I mean that every scene leads to the next perfectly, and the ending of the film is inevitable. We are drawn towards the end from the very beginning. Stories like Henry’s only end one of two ways – in death or jail. Henry finds his way out of either of these options, but he has to sell his soul to do it. Then again, perhaps he doesn’t have a soul left to sell. He already did that at the beginning of the film, and by the end, he’s got nothing left.

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