Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
I have too many DVDs. That’s not me boasting, I literally don’t have the time to watch everything I would like to. Certain films have found themselves sat on my to-watch pile for some time now and I decided this week to get through a handful of the “classics”. First up, by popular demand, is Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece ‘Goodfellas’. Ranking at number 17 on IMDb’s top 250, lauded by critics and film fans alike, I would be forgiven for assuming this film was amazing, right? With Scorsese directing, De Niro on the front cover, and crime-drama being my favourite genre, ‘Goodfellas’ carried pretty hefty expectations on my part, but hey, it was used to it after a quarter of a century of praise.
De Niro may take dominate the DVD cover, but this is not his story. Instead, ‘Goodfellas’ follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from an admiring youngster, idolising the gangsters across the street, to a man who has grown through the ranks of this organised crime ring. Henry loves the power, he loves being recognised, feared and respected, and the money ain’t bad either. A slow and steady build up in the first half of the film reflects the organised, tight-knit, criminal family Henry has found himself a part of. But, as is always the case, power goes to the heads of Henry, his fellow apprentice Tommy (Joe Pesci) and the big dog, Jimmy Conway (De Niro). Even a stint in prison doesn’t show them the errors of their ways, and Henry soon has cocaine hiding in every room of the house, different girlfriends for every day of the week and a tangle of lies which will inevitably come crashing down.
Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill is the star, and the focal point throughout, striking a balance between crazed violence and a more shrewd, smart approach. As the lead protagonist, in a pretty heavyweight cast, Liotta performs impeccably, in what is actually a rather malleable and transformative display. Joe Pesci’s Tommy however, is much happier to stay on the crazy, violent side; don’t be fooled by the comical voice, he’s an unpredictable killer. De Niro may not be the leading man I thought he would be, but he was a constant, silent and deadly presence for a good 90 minutes, until the master actor starts to come into his own and call the shots.
This film very clearly drew influence from classics before it, and also gave inspiration to some of the modern greats which would follow. ‘Goodfellas’ is like a more mature and intelligently revised version of ‘Mean Streets’, whilst comparisons to ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Scarface’ are inevitable due to the Italian-American links and general tone of the narrative. But ‘Goodfellas’ certainly has its own style, with Scorsese’s typical attention to character development, camera work and expert use of music. Scorsese lives for this kind of filmmaking, and this kind of story, so it’s no surprise that the one film I couldn’t help but be reminded of whilst viewing was ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. The majority of Scorsese’s catalogue of characters are usually seeking some kind of self-elevation, often motivated by money and power, and Henry Hill’s means to this end were hardly any different to Jordan Belfort’s criminal activity, albeit with a more open mind to violence. Even Henry’s wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), must have been cited as a point of reference when Margot Robbie stepped up for her breakthrough role as Belfort’s wife, or indeed Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in ‘American Hustle’; strong female characters who have an undeniable erratic side.
I don’t want to suggest that Scorsese is just an old dog playing the same tricks, and it would be unfair to judge this film solely against other similar works. But I really found it impossible in this instance. Don’t get me wrong, the way Scorsese makes films is and always has been, brilliant; he’s one of the undoubted greats of the film industry over the last 50 years. The twisted web of criminal links and time sensitive plans which Scorsese delicately balances are a narrative device which Marty brought to the fore. It is no coincidence that many of Quentin Tarantino’s plots follow the same structure; the modern great learning from the old master.
But for me, this is not Scorsese’s “masterpiece”. I personally found ‘Goodfellas’ to be too long and drawn out and just wish that half an hour could have been shaved off. I appreciate that Scorsese likes to be meticulous, I can forgive that. Every bit of detail, to some, may be crucial, but I can’t help but feel that, at times, all the interlinking characters and stories are a little unnecessary, irrelevant even. I was expecting to have to sit down and rearrange my top 20 film list (perhaps even my top 10) after watching this beloved classic, but they will remain undisturbed. ‘Goodfellas’ is a very good film, almost perfectly crafted in terms of style and aesthetics, I can’t deny that, but I sadly found the narrative to be slow and underwhelming.