GoodFellas is a masterpiece.
It is Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films ever made.
Most lists put The Godfather over it as the greatest mob movie ever, but they’re wrong.
Whereas The Godfather is slow and about respect and glamour, Goodfellas is about the chaos that living the life of crime brings. The entire film moves at a breakneck pace and doesn’t let up until the end. Characters are constantly looking over their shoulders and ready to take someone out who they think needs to be silenced.
The opening sets up the entire film perfectly. It’s slow at first, but once the trunk of the car the main characters are driving opens up, everything takes off from there and never lets up.
The film is based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Scorsese read the book, immediately knew he wanted to turn it into a film and cold-called the writer, telling him, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life”.
At the time there was already a show on CBS called Wiseguy, so the title was changed in order to avoid confusion.
Though Robert DeNiro gets top billing, Ray Liotta is the star and plays former mobster Henry Hill, who at the end of the film turns FBI informant in order to avoid jail time. Scorsese first became aware of Liotta after seeing him in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild.
The real standout in the cast is Joe Pesci, who plays Tommy, the hothead who will kill anyone for any reason. Pesci also worked with Scorsese 10 years earlier in Raging Bull, though at the time he was probably best known for playing Leo in Lethal Weapon 2. He deservedly won an Oscar for the role.
His “Am I funny” scene is of course highly quoted, but it’s actually based on a real-life incident that happened to him.
The scene where he kills Spider and is annoyed because everyone is pissed at him is a classic as well.
A number of actors appear in small roles that would wind up having bigger careers, such as Samuel L. Jackson, Debi Mazar and Illiana Douglas.
Even though you would never guess it by watching, Scorsese was heavily influenced by French New Wave when putting the film together. The movie’s use of voice over and freeze frames were inspired by classics such as Jules and Jim.
Today the pacing of the film is pretty common, but when GoodFellas was released in 1990 it was considered very extreme and over the top. This was the first time Scorsese ever had to hold a test screening and when he did a number of people walked out towards the end because it was too much to handle.
As a result, the third act was re-edited to what you see now. So this is one of the few times a test screening actually helped make a great film better, which Scorsese readily admits when speaking about the movie.
GoodFellas would go on to be nominated for six Oscars, winning only the one for Pesci. It lost Best Picture and Best Director to Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves.
Scorsese would go on to make two more films about organized crime with DeNiro and Pesci, Casino and last year’s The Irishman. Though both films were well received by most people, there was also a feeling that after GoodFellas they were a bit redundant.
This is a great film that has stood up well to time. Even though it is now 30 years old, it feels like it could have come out last week. In fact, it feels more modern than The Irishman does.
This film stands up to repeat viewing.
You’re sitting at home doing nothing. The film is currently on Netflix. Go watch it.