Golden Oldies: Goodfellas

Tomorrow, as I’m sure you know, is Valentine’s Day, and what better way to spend that time than curled up warm, away from the freezing Toon air, in the company of Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in a classic piece of American gangster cinema, Goodfellas.

The ninth film from renowned director Martin Scorsese, the auteur returned to the theme that won him critical acclaim with movies like Taxi Driver; the gritty criminal underworld of New York City. Goodfellas follows the path of wannabe gangster Henry Hill, an Italian-American from Brooklyn who grows up in the era of Hollywood gangster flicks and wants nothing more than to escape his ghetto and live the life of a ‘made man’.

“It’s a strange thought that Goodfellas is now nearly thirty-years old; it is easy to see why, even at the time, the film is seen as a classic”

“As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a gangster”, Henry quips off-camera in the film’s opening moments. Over the years we watch as Henry climbs his way slowly up the ladder of one of New York’s ‘Five Families’. Along the way, Henry befriends seasoned mobster Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and the psychotic Tommy DeVito (Pesci) and all seems to be going well, until Tommy incurs the wrath of the Gambino’s, and Henry’s world quickly unravels. Henry then must balance his loyalty to his brothers in crime and protecting the domestic, suburban life he has made for himself with his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco). Importantly with films like this, Liotta and Bracco have palpable chemistry as Mr and Mrs Hill, which allows us as an audience to emphasize with Henry despite what we know about his activities.

It’s a strange thought that Goodfellas is now nearly thirty-years old. It is easy to see why, even at the time, the film is seen as a classic. The Oscar winning turn by Joe Pesci is extraordinary; although, as a 90s kid, it is admittedly odd to see the comical, bumbling ‘Wet Bandit’ from the Home Alone films swear like Gordon Ramsey if he stubbed his little toe.

While the performances received their due praise, what really sets Goodfellas apart from pretenders is the risks it is willing to take for the sake of the story. It is rare for a film to break the fourth wall period, but to do so in the way Goodfellas did and have it not destroy immersion is highly impressive.

Scorsese has since revisited the gangster genre with Gangs of New York and The Departed, both of which are fine films, but neither these nor any other film made since has managed to top Goodfellas in terms of showing the world of organised crime through relatable eyes, and in an aesthetically and narratively stunning manner.

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