Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, is the rock ‘n’ roll counterpoint to the grand operatic tragedy of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga.
There are no auburn-tinted scenes of old men dying in fruit orchards or golden Sicilian sojourns here. Goodfellas is lit by the colours neon makes on oil-stained street puddles; hell was the colour of red brake lights illuminating a stabbing and the Heart of Darkness could be spied in the cold smile of a man you thought was your friend.
Peopled by wise guys (Nicholas Pileggi’s source novel was originally titled Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia Family) from the street, these are the same crew Scorsese had already shot the breeze with in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Yet here we’re getting something more. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) intones following a bloody prologue, and immediately we’re there. We’re confidantes as Henry narrates to us his life – his whole life – a long, drawn-out brag in one of the best voiceovers on film.
For Pileggi and Scorsese the voiceover isn’t something drafted onto the film: it’s the crankshaft of the narrative. It dictates what we see and the pace at which we see it. The voice – it made and broke Liotta’s career at the same time – sounds authentic and are large chunks of the real-life Hill’s testimony produced verbatim. Hill is an outsider from a partly Irish family. He rises from juvenile dogsbody to low-level gangster with the help of his psychopathic pal Tommy (Joe Pesci – another career best) and under the auspices of Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and Jimmy (Scorsese regular Robert de Niro). Lorraine Bracco plays Karen, Henry’s wife and increasingly his accomplice.
Although Goodfellas doesn’t aspire to the grandeur of Coppola’s mob, Scorsese’s New Yorkers have their own vitality, even if – or perhaps because – the threat of violence is never far away. As Karen says: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.” There’s also wit here (“I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”), and yet the legacy of Goodfellas is not reserved to eminently quotable scenes.
The cultural phenomenon of HBO’s The Sopranos would recruit a number of cast members, including Bracco and a young Michael Imperioli who plays the unfortunate Spider. Scorsese and Pileggi would go on to produce the companion piece Casino, which is basically Goodfellas in a minor key. Why are we even wasting our time trying to convince you? Either you’ve already seen the film or you haven’t. If it’s the latter then go home and get your fuckin’ shinebox.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty