GoodFellas: Special Edition
December 8, 2004
Starring: Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent, Mike Starr, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Debi Mazar, Michael Imperioli, Kevin Corrigan, Christopher Serrone, ,
“For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” – Henry Hill
From his early days making Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese was always fascinated by gangsters. As a child, he had grown up around them and was intrigued by their lifestyle. GoodFellas (1990) was his return to the subject and to his old neighbourhood in New York City. The film would also reunite Scorsese with actors Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro – a combination that proved to be successful both financially and commercially. By all accounts, the movie was a labour of love for the filmmaker and his cast and crew. This is evident in the incredible attention to detail and passion that is contained in every frame of this movie. Scorsese’s movie has all the trademarks of a master filmmaker at the top of his craft.
GoodFellas is a criminal epic that spans three decades while following the dramatic rise and fall of three gangsters through the eyes of one them—Henry Hill (Liotta). Early on, Jimmy Conway (De Niro) tells Henry the two most important rules for a gangster to follow: “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Of course, Henry will break both these rules by the end of the movie. The film depicts their obsessive pursuit of the American Dream, how consuming it is, and how everything eventually turns sours and ultimately devours them. The movie is also about addiction and how it not only draws the characters in but us as well. We become addicted to the power of the film’s style and visuals, which shows the seductive allure of the gangster lifestyle: to be able to do anything. And yet, the film isn’t afraid to show the flipside—the nightmarish lows that come with the dizzying highs.
Scorsese’s movie has an incredible amount of voiceover narration—usually the kiss of death because it slows down the narrative flow of the movie and the audience gets bored with so much exposition. However, in this case it is essential. For the first third of the movie Henry tells us how and why he became a gangster and how their world works. Once he meets his wife, Karen (Bracco), she takes over some of the voiceover narration duties. However, it is Henry’s voice that is prevalent throughout—this is his story after all.
The soundtrack for the film is almost wall-to-wall with a diverse selection of music. Scorsese uses the musical cues to the let the audience know which decade the action is taking place: doo-wop for the ‘50s, girl group pop music for the ‘60s and Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roll for the ‘70s. He also uses music to give the audience an idea of what a character is thinking or feeling. For example, there is a scene where Jimmy is sitting at the counter in a bar. The camera slowly moves in on him as the opening strains of “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream plays over the soundtrack. Coupled with the cold, amoral look on De Niro’s face, the audience instinctively knows that he is going to kill someone very soon. It is a brilliant bit of foreshadowing done with music.
There are so many classic scenes in GoodFellas that have become a part of cinematic history. For example, there is the “Am I Funny?” scene between Henry and Tommy DeVito (Pesci). Tommy is telling a story to a group of gangsters and everyone is laughing along. Then, Henry makes an offhanded comment that Tommy takes the wrong way and is offended. The tone of the scene shifts suddenly to one of tension as Tommy gets angrier and angrier. Is he going to hurt Henry? Is he going to kill him? Henry manages to talk his way out of it and the tone shifts back to a humourous one but the element of danger is always there, lurking under the surface because Tommy is such an unpredictable character. This scene is indicative of the rhythm of the entire movie. There is an unpredictability that constantly keeps the audience off-guard in an exciting and entertaining way.
A great example of this technique is near the film’s end when Henry Hill’s life is rapidly unraveling due to a self-destructive drug habit. To mimic Henry’s swift downward spiral Scorsese expertly orchestrates the whole film so that everything leads up to this terrifying last day when Henry finally becomes completely unglued and his world comes crashing down around him. The frenetic editing, not just visually but also musically, simulates Henry’s frenzied state of mind.
The first DVD features two audio commentaries with the first being a cast and crew track. Comments from Martin Scorsese, actors Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and Frank Vincent, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are edited together for select scenes thereby eliminating any dead air. Everyone starts off talking about how they got involved in the movie. Scorsese expertly analyzes several scenes (he could have easily done his own track) as he and Pileggi dominate the commentary. Both men are fascinating to listen to as their passion for the project is infectious.
The second track, entitled “The Cop and Crook Commentary,” features the real Henry Hill and former FBI agent Edward McDonald who sponsored Henry for the witness protection program. Hill talks about what a good job Liotta did portraying him. He speaks at length about his personal experiences and how close the film captured the real people and events. This is a factual based track that makes one appreciate the authenticity of Scorsese’s film.
The second DVD starts things off with “Getting Made,” an excellent 30-minute retrospective featurette that mixes brand new interviews with Liotta, Sorvino and Bracco with older ones from Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci. It covers how Scorsese and Pileggi set about adapting the latter’s book into a workable screenplay. This is a fantastic look at various aspects of the movie: casting, principal photography, editing and the studio’s reaction. The featurette acts as a nice companion piece to the commentaries.
“The Workaday Gangster” features the real Henry Hill and examines how authentic the film depicted his life and the lure of the gangster lifestyle. This comes off as redundant after listening to Hill’s commentary.
One of the more entertaining featurettes is “The GoodFellas Legacy” which has several famous filmmakers gush about why they love the movie so much and what, in their opinion, makes it a great film. It’s an interesting mix—Richard Linklater, the Hughes brothers, Joe Carnahan and Jon Favreau to name a few. They talk about the film’s brutal realism, the natural way in which the characters react to each other, and Scorsese’s dynamic style.
“Paper is Cheaper Than Film” is a brief look at the annotations Scorsese made to the screenplay that he and Pileggi wrote together. In the margins he would often scribble descriptions of shots or draw crude thumbnail sections of how he wanted to move the camera a certain way.
Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer.
GoodFellas proved to be a favourite with critics and audiences alike. It became one of Scorsese’s most successful and famous films since Taxi Driver (1976). However, it was snubbed at that year’s Oscars, losing to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) in most of the major categories except Best Supporting Actor, which was awarded to Joe Pesci. Regardless, GoodFellas has stood the test of time and its legacy paved the way for The Sopranos with half of its cast alumni from Scorsese’s movie. Warner Brothers has finally done this classic movie justice with an excellent two-DVD set.