Thirty years old. Thirty! My goodness, how time flies. Some wise old man once told me that when you pass twenty-one your life just zooms past, and by Jove he was right. I simply cannot believe that thirty years ago today I sat in an empty cinema on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Leicester Square and was blown away by Martin Scorsese’s latest offering ‘Goodfellas’. Tempus most definitely fugit. I thought such a landmark film needed celebrating on its thirtieth birthday, and maybe I could even introduce it to a few new friends at its party.
Having been well acquainted with his previous work, ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ amongst others; I had high expectations that afternoon. And they were more than met I should coco. It’s impossible to talk about ‘Goodfellas’ without putting it in context. Any film made concerning the Mafia post ‘The Godfather’ trilogy is inevitably going to draw a comparison. And some would say, why bother at all? Many would claim ‘The Godfather’ films to be the greatest Mafia celluloid depictions ever made, and they may well be right. But there is more than one way to skin a cat as my Aunt Ethel used to say.
If ‘The Godfather’ is the calm, controlled elder brother of Mafia films, gently sitting you down to make you an offer you simply cannot refuse. ’Goodfellas’ is the wild younger brother who tears across the screen in a blaze of glory, shouting, shooting, stabbing and kicking anyone that gets in its way to get what it wants. No such pleasantries here. It has influenced the great, such as Quentin Tarantino, and the not so great, for argument’s sake let us say, Guy Ritchie. I could not sit through ‘Snatch’ again for all the tea in China. But its influence cannot be denied. It can easily be argued that Tarantino’s incredible use of music lends an awful lot to the stomping, fiery soundtrack to this, one of Scorsese’s finest films. His adoration of the Rolling Stones sits perfectly as a backdrop to the latter part of the film especially, as things turn downright seedy and nasty.
For those of you who have not seen it, ‘Goodfellas’ follows the rise and fall of real-life gangster turned FBI informer Henry Hill, who states early on in his narration, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. This masterpiece follows the trials and tribulations of a young Henry in the nineteen fifties running small errands for the mob, to a cocaine-fulled madman involved in numerous major heists, murders and large cocaine deals in the late nineteen seventies. In fact, upon a recent re-viewing, something struck me. Tarantino has often been accused of making overly violent films. I tend to agree with the argument that it is almost cartoon-like, so there appears to be some sort of fantasy element to it, you feel somewhat detached from the blood and guts on the screen. The same cannot be said of ‘Goodfellas’. Guys, if you are sitting down to watch this with your ladies, be warned, it ain’t for the squeamish. The violence is visceral, and at times downright disturbing.
Scorsese gathers a stellar cast, including Robert de Niro and Ray Liotta in his finest role. But my recent re-viewing made me realise the stand out performances here are from Joe Pesci as an out of control hitman Tommy, and Lorraine Bracco as Henry Hill’s long-suffering wife Karen. Pesci is a force of nature. No other way to describe his performance. He is utterly terrifying. And Lorrain Bracco as Karen, standing up to Henry from the get-go, gives us an early indication of how amazing her performance will turn out to be as the psychiatrist in the first series that made heads turn from the cinema to the small screen a decade later in ‘The Sopranos’.
Over the years, ‘Goodfellas’, amongst others, has been accused of glamourising the Mafia, and the lifestyle of those involved. I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, the famous and sublime long tracking shot where Henry first takes Karen to the CocoCabana nightclub leaves us feeling as dizzy and high as Karen must have felt. But the equally famous scene where Tommy turns on a sixpence after telling a joke where the gang all laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly and threateningly asks Henry “Whadda ya mean I’m funny, funny like a clown?”, while everyone waits for the gun to come out, shows us how every second of a mobster’s life must be spent waiting for the moment a cold steel revolver is placed against the side of your head. Nothing glamorous about that in my eyes.
I was surprised by how certain shots have aged the film, the overuse of freeze-frame for example, and the breaking of the fourth wall, but overall, I still rank it as one of the finest gangster films ever made. And possibly Scorsese’s masterpiece. What about ‘Raging Bull’ I hear you scream! I never liked it, always found it overrated. Whadda ya gonna do? So sue me!
God Save the Queen. Lord bless you all. Same time next week fellow film lovers.