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A movie directed by Martin Scorsese

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Calling it Goodfellas was Being Modest

  • Nov 10, 2007
Pros: Don't want to waste talent with this box

Cons: Or this one

The Bottom Line: Goodfellas may be the greatest movie ever made

When the AFI released its new list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, I was very pleased to see that my three favorite movies had all made the cut. When I began this reviewing project, I had already reviewed two of them – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I had also reviewed Star Wars some time ago, which also made the AFI cut.) It recently occurred to me that I still haven’t reviewed the third movie on my personal favorites list, which is Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic, Goodfellas. Now it’s time to correct that little oversight and write a review of the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane be damned.

I know, The Godfather is pretty freaking good too. But what makes me prefer Goodfellas to its stylish, elaborate, epic, and more celebrated peer is the blue-collar feel. Both movies were based on popular books – The Godfather was based on an outstanding classic piece of fiction by Mario Puzo and Goodfellas was based on the oral account of real drug-dealer-turned-rat Henry Hill, as told to Nicholas Pilleggi. Puzo had said he based The Godfather on secondhand stories he had heard about gangsters. Martin Scorsese grew up in a tough part of New York’s Little Italy knowing many wiseguys himself. So Scorsese’s movie has much more of an edge, a gritty, street feel which simply can’t be duplicated by people who have never been there themselves. The Godfather is simply drama after drama, but Goodfellas touches on the good times, humorous ironies, and dark sides of the gangster lifestyle. They even differ in their styles of violence. While The Godfather presented its violent moments as coldly organized calculations, Goodfellas presents violence that is sudden and spontaneous – it happens, then it’s over, never dragged out. Goodfellas, in short, is about the guys who go to the trenches when the bigwhigs in The Godfather go to the mattresses.

Henry Hill was born with what he probably sees as a kind of curse. He’s half-Irish and half-Italian. But all he ever wanted to be in his life was a gangster, and since members of the Italian mafia only make people who are 100 percent Italian, Henry will never become a full privileged member of a mafia family. This doesn’t stop him from becoming an honorary member with all of the perks, bells, and whistles. When young Henry is a teenager, he gets a job at a local bar where many of the local toughs hang out. His parents aren’t too fond of the idea, and his father beats him regularly. But the way Henry sees it, everyone has to take a beating sometime. A scene of his father whipping him with a belt is cleverly frozen, as a symbol of one of the hard lessons Henry learned early on and never forgot. Eventually Henry drops out of school all together and becomes a full-time apprentice to the local Mafioso. He eagerly takes on more and more small-time jobs under his mentor, Paulie. Finally, Henry’s unofficial membership is solidified one day when he appears in court and doesn’t rat anyone out.

Afterward, Henry spends a lot of time in the company of Jimmy “the Gent” and Tommy, his two best friends. He marries a woman named Karen, who has eyes just like Elizabeth Taylor’s. It is notable here that Henry never appears to occupy any kind of full-time job throughout the entire movie. In voice-over narration, he tells us that jobs are for suckers and that he believes he’s beating the system by doing very little work and making more money than most of us will ever see. Of course, he never tells Karen exactly what it is he does. An amusing scene shows Henry and Karen on their first date in conversation:
Karen: What do you do
Henry: I’m in construction.
Karen: Your hands don’t feel like you’re in construction.
Henry: I’m a union delegate.

The good times roll on until one fine night in 1980 when an old Mafioso lobs a playful insult at hotheaded Tommy. Jimmy and Tommy end up beating him half to death and throwing him into their trunk. After stopping at Tommy’s mother’s house for dinner, they kill him and bury him in the forest. From that point on, Henry learns the hard way why crime doesn’t pay. One day in the 80’s, he’s followed by a helicopter and promptly arrested. To escape jail, he becomes an informant.

The unique thing about Goodfellas is how it finds a balance of glorifying and vilifying gangsters. We’re not given any kid treatments here. The good and bad of the mafia are both highlighted, from the dinners to the nights out, to the violence and paranoia. Henry moves through all of these stages in succession and takes the time to explain just what everything means. Three-quarters of the way through, it becomes very clear to us that all the privilege associated with being a gangster comes at an enormous cost. It’s worse for Henry, in factm because he actually goes the extra step of breaking the Scarface rules of drug dealing and gets high from his own supply. He also has a wife who isn’t compliant with the gangster lifestyle, which hits a nasty apex when he wakes up one morning and finds Karen pointing a gun at his head.

Goodfellas is very character-driven, and the grease for its wheels is the relationship between its three main characters: Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy. When the three of them first meet, they conduct themselves like gentlemen and bond like brothers. They become a trinity in the sense that whenever one of them accomplishes something, they all accomplished it. After the killing of Billy in 1980, the relationship slowly deteriorates. What started as a buddy movie about gangsters now becomes a drama about brothers who are slowly pushing apart from one another. Each character becomes an unpredictable wreck. While they all have smiles in each other’s company, Henry notes in his narration that mafia killers show up with smiles. When Henry becomes an informant, it is the ultimate brotherly alienation.

Goodfellas is a movie you have to watch at least twice to fully appreciate its genius: Once for the story and characters, once to learn how a great movie is directed. It stands out as Scorsese’s Citizen Kane, everything about it being pitch-perfect. Many of Scorsese’s best-known techniques are used in the movie: One of the most famous scenes shows Henry and Karen entering a restaurant through the kitchen to avoid the line outside. The scene is in the movie to show an example the privilege earned by Henry, but what makes it stand out is the tracking, unbroken camera. There are three or four points during the beginning when scenes freeze in order to give us the lessons that Henry learned about being a gangster. And that music, per usual in Scorsese’s movies, is excellent. When Henry first sees a man who’s been shot, opera music plays. When the helicopter follows Henry, three bands follow Henry’s hurried mental descent. The music is there, massaging scenes, giving a unique sense of perception but never overwhelming scenes. The narration is there to give us the impression of what’s going on, but it also doesn’t overwhelm us.

Robert De Niro plays Jimmy, and there are times when you really can’t tell whether or not he’s actually acting. (It may explain a few things knowing De Niro was raised in the same Little Italy neighborhood as Scorsese.) Joe Pesci won an Oscar for playing Tommy. But Ray Liotta, who plays Henry, dominates the move with a rodent-like presence. I have a hard time thinking of a scene in Goodfellas which Liotta isn’t in, which makes sense because the movie is, after all, about his character. As he tumbles from his high horse, he drifts into a constant state of paranoia and is at times almost shaking as he tries to figure out what’s going to happen to him. Understanted performances by Lorraine Bracco, who plays Karen, and Paul Sorvino, who plays Paulie, help round out the movie.

It says a lot that I have to briefly mention the brilliant editing, which I’ve never done in a movie review before. Goodfellas clocks in at around two and a half hours. Usually in a movie that long, someone is just leaving random scenes in as filler. But with Goodfellas, every scene is essential to fully flesh out the story. Not one frame is wasted.

I hate trying to think of a greatest movie of all time. That’s why I have my three favorites, mentioned in the first paragraph. When you try to pick one movie as the best ever, you’re always leaving something equally worthy out. But Goodfellas, if it isn’t the greatest movie ever made, is surely one of the movies being left out.


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February 02, 2012
Great review of my favorite all time film. I might add that I don't know how they came up with the title of Goodfellas. I do know that they decided not to call it Wise Guys (the title of the book) because there was a poplular series on tv at the time by the same name and they thought viewers would think it was a film from the tv show.
February 02, 2012
I wonder that myself. I've never read Wiseguy, but I kind of assumed it came from the book.
December 27, 2012
how'd you guys feel about Casino?
December 28, 2012
I liked Casino a lot too, but it's considerably more flawed. I should have a review floating around somewhere.
December 28, 2012
I've never seen the complete film from start to finish. I have seen various parts of it each time I flip the channel and it is on. It seems to mimic Goodfellas in directing but definately not as good. I liked Pesci's character way more in Goodfellas as well as DeNiro. Sharon Stone as a pothead girlfriend was nowhere as good as Lorainne Bracco as Henry Hill's wife.
More Goodfellas reviews
review by . August 30, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
**** out of ****     Gangster films - or Mob films, whatever you prefer to call the genre - are very special to me. Some of my personal favorite films have themes and tones of crime thrillers, and with good reason. I have always enjoyed the style of the films, and among other things, the way the characters talk. Within Gangster cinema you will find some of the freshest, cleverest dialogue ever written for the screen. A lot of these famous films are indeed based on novels, but …
review by . April 06, 2011
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Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a young boy growing up in a rough neighborhood full of trouble. Instead of doing normal things like the rest of the kids his age, he decides he will quit going to school and be a gangster. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) immediately befriend Henry, and the three of them start to become good friends. They quickly begin to climb the ladder in the mob world, but they could be going too far with their work. Having to go behind the back of their …
review by . July 10, 2010
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Martin Scorcese has proved his worth as a director for the last 20 years. With his mafia epics, such as goodfellas and casino, later followed by the departed and gangs of new york, he has shocked the world with his gritty realism and intricate plotlines. Ray Liotta in Goodfellas is the average guy-turned mafia man, and plays the part of the half-irish italian who breaks into the business through a cab stand and pizza shop. The idea that his movie is based on a novel changes the layout, but also …
review by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
   looove this movie. can play it  again and again. love that it is based on true events of course. its hard to make a true story entertaining and with a semi happy ending. but of course martin Scorsese never fails at making good movies.  ray liotta's character Hill wants to be a gangsta since he was a kid. admiring the power that those men had while his father is trying to keep him from heading in that direction. well his father can't do much after he becomes aware that …
Quick Tip by . July 24, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Phenominal mobster movie based on real life gangster Henry Hill's mafia experiences. Borrows practically nothing from The Godfather movies and creates it's own memorable legacy. A classic in everyway. I often find myself watching it twice in a row.
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Be prepared for the violence. Otherwise, it is one of the best black comedies out there.
Quick Tip by . August 10, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What can I say about this film other than it is my favorite film of all-time. Liotta, Pesci and DeNiro are excellent together. A lot of the supporting cast ended up in The Sopranos. Based on Henry Hill's story Wise Guy.
Quick Tip by . July 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Second to The Godfather of great gangster films. One of the Greatest films ever and is not even Martin Scorsese's best film
Quick Tip by . August 03, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Another Scorsese Classic, you can't go wrong with the cast, a nigh on perfect film.
Quick Tip by . July 22, 2010
Great Gangster flick... loved joe pesci in this... he was great..I highly recommend this movie
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Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #26
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this movie


Goodfellas is a crime drama released on September 19, 1990 and produced by Warner Bros.  The film was directed by Martin Scorseseand was written by Nicholas Pileggi and MartinScorscese. Goodfellas wasproduced by Iron Winkler, and starred Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pessci, LorreainBracco and Paul Sarvino

Goodfellas is about a man named Henry Hill who together with hisfriends, work their way up to through the mob hiearchy..  After its release the film received 18 nominations, and celebrated 32 wins and one Academy Award in 1991 for Best Actorin a Supporting Role.

On its opening day, the film grossed $6.3 million by the end of the weekend.

The film was shot in New York in 1989.  Itwas given an MPAA rating of R and runs 146 minutes.

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: 9/19/1990
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 146 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros
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