I’ve been looking forward to my first viewing of “Goodfellas” for close to six months now. I just haven’t had the time to sit down and watch it until I finally had the chance two nights ago. Unfortunately, I was forced to finish it in two sittings because I picked up a nasty fever halfway through.
I only mention these seemingly unimportant details because, to be completely honest with you all, I feel overwhelmingly underqualified to be writing a review on “Goodfellas,” nominated for six Oscars in 1991. It has also crawled towards the top of many “top 100 best movies” lists, and Roger Ebert himself said, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather.” We are talking about a film that I feel I would need a few more viewings to be able to fully capture the messages and themes that director Martin Scorsese has brought forth for us here.
“Goodfellas,” based on a book titled “Wiseguy,” tells the true life story of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta (Smokin’ Aces, Killing Them Softly), a boy who grows into a man, whose only goal in life is to fully experience the joys and pleasantries of the mob life. Henry lives by two rules: Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut. The mafia life is one fraught with danger, and as a byproduct: money and women. Bribes, robbery, adultery, smuggling drugs, nothing–no matter the level of negative morality–is out of the question for one involved in organized crime.
Henry’s friends are all mob guys, of course. Who else would he hang out with? He works under Paul Cicero, (Paul Sorvino). Two of his close friends are short-tempered Tommy DeVito, (Joe Pesci), and the wiser of the two, Jimmy Conway, (Robert De Niro). All three actors play their supporting roles beautifully, however De Niro and Pesci are the ones that truly shine here. Any scene with the two of them always left me with a feeling of dread, as if I was absolutely expecting something awful to happen at any moment. Tommy has a way of snapping at anyone who even looks at him funny. Jimmy, while more mild-mannered, still commands a sense of power around him. The two together present a wonderful array of chemistry, and with Henry in the middle, things only get more interesting.
I should also mention Lorraine Bracco’s performance as Henry’s wife, Karen. A woman, who has completely morphed into a new human by the end of the film. In her early days of dating Henry, she appears to be a bit more naive to Henry’s personal and business life; which I might add, seem to blend into one, in that we are never truly sure that Henry separates the two. However, by the end of Scorsese’s masterpiece, Karen is a battle-hardened woman, who is still fragile, but is unafraid to hold a gun to Henry’s face, or to flush $60,000 worth of narcotics down the drain; which seems strangely reminiscent of Henry’s life, which is spiraling out of control, down the toilet at the same time.
Scorsese must have spent months planning out some of the fantastic cinematography on display here with ASC Michael Ballhaus, who has worked alongside Scorsese on multiple other outings, including: Gangs of New York and The Departed. A memorable scene in particular is Henry’s first ‘real date’ with Karen to the Copacabana. A stunning, two-minute, single-shot move on a steadicam that follows Henry as he leads Karen through the underworld of the club. We almost seem to slither by like a snake as we pass through the tight corridors of the club, through the kitchen and into the main dining area. Henry greets everyone he sees, slipping hundred dollar bills into random pockets, and walking by security and long lines as if he owns the place; and he practically does, I might add. To place the cherry on top, a table literally flies in and is set in front of the evening’s entertainment for Henry and Karen to enjoy. Karen seems confused, and after an expensive bottle of wine is sent to their table from some nearby friends, she asks him what he does for a living. In reply, Henry says, “I’m in construction.” It’s a funny response, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. We hear a rimshot from on-stage, an ethereal message from Scorsese, reminding the audience that they are in on the joke too. Poor Karen doesn’t know yet, but she will soon.
Another notable thing to be gleaned from “Goodfellas” is Scorsese’s use of the color red throughout the film. Red seems to represent most clearly danger. The before-mentioned scene at the Copacabana is smattered with red, in fact, while we descend into darkness and walk through the club’s kitchen, a waiter walks directly in front of the camera, carrying a red case. It’s as if Scorsese is yelling at us. “Stop! It’s dangerous! Stay away!” At other points in “Goodfellas,” red also conveys power. I noticed that in the early portions of the film, and further into Henry’s career, red seems to follow him everywhere. From the vicious stabbing and murder of Billy Batts, to the red gravy stirred towards the end. Other critics have noted that the color red represents the sin, sex, debauchery, and overall sense of guilt associated with the mob life.
While the level of violence in the film may seem unsettling to some viewers, I believe this is the beauty of “Goodfellas.” We are introduced to an entirely new way of life by following Henry Hill around for forty-some-odd years. Here is the most important thing we can take away from “Goodfellas” though: Despite having everything, our ‘heroes’ actually have nothing.
By the end of “Goodfellas,” practically everyone, and this is definitely a spoiler, has been shot, stabbed, ice-picked, or chopped up. This is the sad reality of Henry and his companions. For all of their material possessions, they are truly empty. Broken marriages, riches that can disappear in a day, and honestly–regardless of the ‘mob code’–friendships that are actually very shallow. In order to stay alive, Henry eventually becomes the rat and narks on his closest of allies. In our closing shot, we see Henry standing in a normal house, no longer having access to the infinite riches and instant gratification of his younger days. In closing, he says this: “Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
Finally, the ultimate bleakness of “Goodfellas” is not exactly what these men have done in their lives. It’s not so much the guilt that they should be carrying with them. It’s not even the countless lives that have been erased or ruined because of their actions. No, the decisive gloom is this: despite all of the horrible things the ‘wiseguys’ did, they were content with continuing to do them once more.