‘Goodfellas’ at 25

The last great gangster film

Jeff Victor
April 24, 2015

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a film critic.

Well, okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. But I do recall pretty clearly the first time I remember being excited—truly excited—to write about a film. It was during my DRAM281 (Cinema as an Art Form) final, one of the essays for which demanded that we write about the use of sound (diegetic and non-) in the films of Martin Scorsese.

Given that the professor had strongly hinted some version of this topic would appear during the exam, I had paid special attention to the musical cues during my final viewing of Goodfellas and decided, if the opportunity should arise, to focus on the post-Lufthansa-heist montage of dead bodies set to the musical coda of "Layla."

The contrast in this scene is sublime. Director Martin Scorsese sets the horror of violent death to one of the most beautiful musical suites in the history of rock. Combined with Ray Liotta’s blasé description of the murders, Scorsese perfectly conveys to the viewers these jackals’ complacent acceptance of grotesquerie.

It’s important to note, though, that this complacency does not extend to the violent murder of one of their own, as the song draws to a close right before Tommy (Joe Pesci) is executed in retaliation for the killing of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent). Murder may be a part of their lives, but it’s still jarring to violently lose a friend.

Goodfellas, which turns 25 this year,* is filled with such cinematic flourishes. From the opening moments, when the credits go whizzing by like cars speeding down the highway, to the closing moments, when Tommy fires six departing shots into the camera’s eye, Goodfellas puts the "move" in "movies." Despite its 148 minute run time, the action zips along, aided in large part by the fact that the camera is always moving: tracking here, pushing into a character’s face there, switching to jittery handheld during the frenetic, coked-out 1980s.

The tracking shots have been discussed to death—I defy you to find a listicle celebrating the "long shot" that doesn’t include Goodfellas’ Copacabana entrance, along with Touch of Evil’s first crane shot and Altman’s work on The Player—but Scorsese isn’t just showing off. These shots serve a purpose. My favorite is early on, when we track through a restaurant and are introduced to the guys in the crew, Jimmy Two Times and the rest. These new characters, several of whom we never see again, make eye contact with the camera (that is, the viewer), welcoming you into their world, insinuating you into their scams.

Episodic by design—a touch that goes nicely with the source material, Wiseguy, a book that’s part reported non-fiction, part oral history—Goodfellas hops through the decades. Like The Godfather Saga before it, it’s a story about a family moving through time. But it’s not a story about the family. It’s not a story about mafia royalty. It’s a story about the grubby life of a soldier, one who isn’t particularly loyal and feels perfectly at ease with that fact ("I don’t know nothing about being a rat," Henry the Rat says directly after ratting out his best friend and former boss).

Interestingly, both Goodfellas and The Godfather Saga end on notes of regret. But the regrets are diametrically opposed. The Godfather Part II ends with Michael Corleone staring out onto the water of his family’s estate, empty because he has lost everyone he loves in pursuit of power. Henry Hill, by contrast, has maintained his family but lost his power, lost what separated him from the slovenly mass of humanity. He’s now a schnook, just like everyone else, eating catsup and egg noodles and waiting in line like a jerk.

And, again, the musical cues here are important. The Godfather Saga closes with swelling strings, emotional daggers that drive home Michael’s loneliness. Goodfellas, meanwhile, ends with a punk rock version of "My Way," a sneering rejoinder to the old order that admits, "Regrets? I’ve had a few." Hill has his regrets too, just different ones.

*Not until October, but there’s nothing terribly interesting in the theaters this week and Goodfellas closes out the Tribeca film festival this weekend, so why not celebrate its silver anniversary today?

Published under: Movie Reviews