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By Kyle Barrett • January 25th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: October 26th, 1990
Running time: 146 minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino


Martin Scorsese hit a low-point in his life in the late ‘70s. After the commercial and critical failure of his musical epic New York, New York (1977), he fell into a state of depression and he claimed he’d never direct again. After being hospitalised, Robert De Niro brought him an idea for a film that would eventually become Raging Bull (1980), which became a classic. Upon completion of The King Of Comedy (1983), which was another commercial failure, Scorsese pretty much gave up. It wasn’t until a small, independent film called After Hours grabbed his eye that he would even consider directing again.

Produced in 1985, the film brought Scorsese back to his early roots as a filmmaker, unshackled by the studio system. In After Hours, Scorsese started changing his compositions, moving the camera in complex tracking shots. He also incorporated crash zooms and whip pans to create a bizarre, fast style that drew audiences caught the eye of the audience. Feeling refreshed, he once again began making films throughout the ‘80s.

During this period, he read Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, which told the true story of Henry Hill, a mob soldier who ended up ratting out his friends and entered the witness protection program. What struck Scorsese the most was the attitude of Hill and his matter-of-factly demeanour. Not only was Scorsese aware of organised crime, as he grew up with it, he already ventured into the world of gangsters with Mean Streets (1973). Warner Bros. decided to turn the book into a film and financed Pileggi to adapt it. He sought the help of Scorsese, who was a little hesitant as he thought gangster films were dead after the phenomenal success of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974).

However, having experimented with his style and been intrigued by Hill’s attitude to mob life, Scorsese decided to give it a shot by creating as realistic a world as he possible could. Little did he know the impact Goodfellas would have on cinema.


Goodfellas was a film that cropped up in every 100 greatest films lists that I’d read, and more often than not it was included in the Top 10. When I finally got round to viewing it for the first time, I was sucked in to this violent world with these reprehensible characters. The issue I had was: why am I so engaged with this film? The more times I watched it, the more I became infatuated by it. Not only was it one of the best directed films I’d ever seen, it was also featured some of the best performances, which made it almost horrifying real. I was terrified by these characters yet I was glued to the screen, watching them do the most horrendous things. The power the film has over its audience is striking. These are people that laugh at violence and shrug and nod when they’re asked to kill someone. It’s no big deal to them and here Goodfellas lets us make our own judgements.

The interesting aspect of the film’s narrative is how conventional it is. The film takes the basic rise-and-fall narrative, found in most early gangster films of the ‘30s, such as The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931) or Scarface (Howard Hawks & Richard Rosson, 1932), and twists it slightly by starting the film in the middle. The opening sequence drops us head first into these characters’ world. As they drive down the highway, they pull over after a bumping noise gets them worried. They open the boot of the car to reveal a bloody figure, struggling for his life. Without a minute to lose, Tommy DeVitto (Joe Pesci) stabs the figure to death. For equal measure, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) shots the figure, just to make sure. A quick tracking shot in to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the picture freezes as his voice-over tells us, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese has told us up front that this isn’t going to be a pretty story, there’s no one to root for and you’ll be spending the whole film with these characters. So why do we watch? Is it the seduction of that world? Or is it that we want to be taught a lesson?

The direction struck critics and audience alike. The documentary use of a voice-over, which took most of the dialogue from the book, guides the audience through these characters’ lives. Though we’re coming from Hill’s point of view, it’s nevertheless a striking environment we are given a tour of. Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography was Goodfellasreally to challenge the quick editing style that was coming out of the ‘80s and Scorsese’s mandate was to his audience, “You want it fast? I’ll give it to you fast”. He shook the audience with this style yet it made such an impact that directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino took this approach and experimented further.

Much has been said about the one-shot through the Copacabana as we follow Hill and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they make their way from the kitchen into the club. It’s one of the best tracking shots in film. However, the sequence after a successful robbery has taken place, Jimmy decides to kill off who was involved and keep the money for himself, the montage, brilliantly aided by Derek and the Dominos’ Layla is a masterpiece of editing by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. The sequence is striking and is, at times, overlooked by the famous tracking shot.

For the performances, there isn’t a note wrong. Liotta excels as Hill, able to play every dimension of this complex character that we simply don’t know whether to condemn or pity him. Liotta’s naivety as he starts out is quickly shed once he understands how to survive and he ultimately becomes everyone’s undoing for his own survival. De Niro underplays Conway, who shrugs his way through the film. This is one of De Niro’s best performances and his character is a charmer. His smile is deadlier than a bullet and once he’s sunk into a state of paranoia, no one’s safe.

Pesci is well remembered as the psychotic DeVitto. The infamous, “Funny how?” sequence is one of the most unsettling scenes in film history. Not only was it improvised, it’s something that happened in Pesci’s life. Again, Pesci isn’t simply a psychotic. He’s so repulsive yet he loves his mother, played by Scorsese’s own Goodfellasmother Catherine. We watch the things he does, whether it be killing a man with a screw-driver or shooting someone who talks back to him. He’s one of cinema’s greatest villains. Bracco plays Karen with a lot of conviction. She’s a character who’s drawn into this world, like the audience, and is peppered with materialistic things yet she never questions where the money comes from. She knows and plays innocent which makes her the one we judge the most.

Sorvino plays Paul Cicero, the boss of the mob family that Hill works for. Sorvino was apparently appalled to be asked to play such a horrific character. However, after accepting the role, he found different mannerisms to distance himself from the character. Sorvino doesn’t say much but one look from his dead eyes send chills down your spine. He’s a ruthless character, willing to dispatch anyone he deems unworthy to exist. He’s an uneasy presence whenever he’s onscreen. There’s great support from Fank Vincent, who plays Billy Batts, a ‘made man’ whom suffers from DeVitto’s wrath.

Goodfellas is simply one of the greatest films ever made. It’s challenging, brilliant shot and expertly performed. Scorsese redefined the gangster film and no matter how many times you watch it, you can’t help but be drawn into this world. We’ll always be asking ourselves the same question: why?


Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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