Back To The Mean Streets
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1990’s seminal Goodfellas reviewed by Joel Meadows…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco
Scorsese had never intended to make another film about the mob – but during his mid-80s lull, he was handed a copy of Nick Pileggi’s Wiseguys, which proved pivotal in resurrecting his career after The Last Temptation of Christ. After reading Pileggi’s book, Scorsese cold-called him and said “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life,” to which the writer replied: “”I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” In many respects, that conversation was accurate. Returning to a milieu that he had keenly explored earlier on in his career with films like Mean Streets and to a lesser extent in Taxi Driver, GoodFellas covers similar ground to his contemporary Francis Ford Coppola’s epic The Godfather Parts I and II. Except that where the Godfathers were Shakespearean and operatic in their sweep, GoodFellas ploughed the furrow of street level thuggery and wannabe made men, with feral characters who operated on the bottom rung of the organized crime pyramid.
The film’s narrator and main protagonist, as with the book, is Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a young boy who falls more than willingly into the gangster life on his doorstep and soon makes his way up the mob ladder, accompanied by two career thugs in the shape of the returning Robert De Niro, playing the dangerously psychotic Jimmy Conway, and Joe Pesci, as the even more unhinged Tommy DeVito. Their presence, after both actors’ absence from Scorsese’s cast list for several movies, garnered enough press attention that this project was always going to be seen as a return to form. Which of course it was. In many ways this was the film that kept Scorsese in clover until now.
Scorsese wasted no time throwing the viewer into the action, as the film opens with the trio grotesquely dispatching made man Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), an event which eventually spells doom for them. Scorsese has stated that he wanted the film to begin like a gunshot and build up from there, with numerous jump cuts, tight editing and little exposition in what is a brilliantly sustained rollercoaster ride. Having been fascinated by the mob lifestyle since childhood, his aim was to make a film that really captured the appeal, hedonism and truncated lifespan of gangster culture.
Painted against the backdrop of a changing New York and New Jersey, GoodFellas looks at the obsessively hierarchical and tight-knit nature of mob life, and how glamorous it appears to an outsider like Hill’s future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who also rapidly falls for its allure. Reams of articles have been written about Scorsese’s celebrated Steadicam shot through the iconic Copa Cabana in New York, and it is still a scene that no other director could pull off, taking the viewer as it does into the heart of the action, showing off just how connected Hill is both to the audience and Karen.
The onscreen chemistry between Liotta, De Niro and Pesci is also pitch-perfect with Scorsese building their friendship and camaraderie – which of course is destroyed through greed, distrust and paranoia. Liotta is exceptional here, his performance a heady mix of arrogance and understated confidence, while De Niro and Pesci, despite all the superlatives thrown at them in other reviews, have never been better. Pesci’s take on the Tommy DeVito character is a whirlwind of tyrannical, chest-beating braggadocio, underpinned by petulant self-loathing. This of course manifests itself continuously throughout, creating a cinematic monster of such compulsive magnetism that you wonder how he separated himself from the role. Crucially, his infamous scene (You think I’m a clown?) was completely improvised, with huge input from Pesci – it became perhaps the key moment in the film, his terrorizing of Hill as naturalistic a portrait of a gangster ever committed to celluloid. De Niro’s Conway on the other hand was a more subtle, sinister figure, as psychotic as Pesci’s DeVito but more assured and less sensitive. GoodFellas of course is a viscerally humoured rock ‘n’ roll experience that never lapses into sentiment, its only concern being to dazzle and bombard, taking the audience by the scruff of the neck – essentially it’s the polar opposite of his previous film. The soundtrack, as was the case with Mean Streets, was a core aspect of the production, with several songs inextricable from scenes in the movie, especially Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla – a memory trigger if ever there was one.
The rest of the cast raise the bar in this film with across the board intensity – with the likes of veteran Paul Sorvino as bluff caporegime Paulie, Lorraine Bracco’s turn as Karen, and of course Frank Vincent, who plays the catalyst for DeVito’s demise. Scorsese’s DNA is visibly filtered through all of the cast’s work, as each was authentic and in the moment.
In many ways, GoodFellas was peak Scorsese, and the apotheosis of his directorial career. Never was a work of his this inspired or cutting edge, with all the experience he could muster spliced with the bravura and youthful exuberance of a first time director let loose with a big budget, and one of the best acting ensembles in movie history. As a period piece that covers the mid-50s to the mid-70s of New York’s underworld, it is timeless – the kitsch, hidebound world of gangster families and their unrepentant selfism and inability to change an alien place where a casual wrong turn can lead to immediate demise. And at no point in the movie are we not aware of that. Possibly the best gangster film, and definitely the most enduringly entertaining.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well