In the 25 years since its release, Goodfellas has been much parodied, discussed and downright adored. So, to accompany our two-part feature article on the fact-based films of Martin Scorsese, this issue’s analysis celebrates arguably his best loved picture…
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi (you can read a revised daft here – note the changes from the finished film)
Based on: Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
Synopsis: *Spoilers * Brooklyn, 1950s. Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone) lives with his family in a blue-collar Italian-American neighborhood. He idolizes the local Lucchese crime family and eventually quits school to go to work for them. He meets local mob captain, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), his associate Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and young Tommy DeVito (Joseph D’Onofrio). Henry gets further drawn into Mob life.
1967. Now grown, Henry (Ray Liotta), along with Jimmy and Tommy (Joe Pesci) pull off a major robbery involving an Air France plane. They score big and start living the high-life. Henry meets Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who is quickly seduced by his glamorous lifestyle. They marry and Karen becomes one of the Mob wives. The ‘family’ does everything together, with all outsiders excluded.
1970. Tommy kills a member of a rival crime family. Because the victim was a ‘made man’ (fully initiated into the Mafia), Henry, Tommy and Jimmy have to hide the body to avoid retribution.
Henry begins an affair with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo) and moves her into an apartment, but Paulie and Jimmy force him to stay with Karen. Paulie sends Henry and Jimmy down to Florida to collect a debt from a gambler. The gambler’s sister, who works as a typist for the FBI, talks to the authorities. Henry, Tommy, Jimmy and Paulie all get jail terms. While inside, Henry sells drugs to support his family.
1978. Released from jail, Henry continues to sell drugs, against Paulie’s wishes. Henry, Jimmy and Tommy head up a crew that pulls off the ‘Lufthansa heist’ at John F. Kennedy International Airport, netting $6 million. Despite being told to lay low, some of the crew members start to flaunt their new wealth. Jimmy has them killed. Tommy is also killed, as retribution for the earlier murder of the ‘made man’.
1980. Strung out on coke, Henry tries to pull off a drug deal and gets arrested. Ostracized from the Mob, he enters the Witness Protection Program. In court, he testifies against everybody. Henry and Karen end up living as nobodies in the suburbs.
Review: *Spoilers* Right from its opening moments, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic has the word ‘classic’ written all over it…
Driving through the night, our central trio of ‘fellas, Jimmy, Tommy and Henry hear banging coming from the trunk of the car.
Pulling over to the side of the road, they find the gangster they thought they’d already clipped still struggling for breath. They finish the bloody job with a flourish.
When it’s finally done, Hill, as our narrator, takes us back to his childhood, where it all began, with the classic line:
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”
Cue Tony Bennett’s dulcet tones cutting in:
“I know I’d go from rags to riches…”.
As film opening’s go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Within a few minutes we’ve met our protagonist and his associates, established the tone and structure of the story, as well as seeing up close the stark contrast between the glamorous gangster lifestyle that attracted Henry and the brutal reality of being a ‘goodfella’. And it keeps getting better.
One of the great strengths of Goodfellas is that we root for these characters, even though they do some really, really bad stuff. With the cast improvising much of the dialogue, these people are brought vividly to life. Indeed, there can’t be many film fans who don’t recoil a little at the words, “funny, how?”, courtesy of Pesci’s chilling Oscar-winning, supporting turn as Tommy DeVito, a pint-sized gangster with a hair-trigger temper. By the way, this infamous scene was also improvised, with only Pesci and Liotta in on what was happening.
Notice also the clever ways in which some characters are introduced. For example, in one sequence, the camera pans across a bar filled with goodfellas. Henry, as our narrator, introduces each one to us; as he does so, the characters in turn look up at the camera and greet ‘us’. It’s a simple device, but it acts to bring these gangsters to life and draw us further into the world in which they live. Check out Cicero’s neat intro too. With one ‘fear of God’ glance and one of the best lines of dialogue ever (uttered by Henry), we know exactly who this guy and why crossing him is not a good idea.
Never one to skimp on the soundtrack, Scorsese fills this decade-spanning tale with a staggering array of music, running the gamut from Great American Songbook classics to Motown via The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters and Sid Vicious. There can’t be many people who watch Goodfellas without getting the urge to head online afterwards and download a few tracks. Scorsese’s signature of running tracks together works particularly well here, as he keeps his foot on the gas throughout; driving the narrative forward and using music as a highly effective story-telling devise.
Not surprisingly, there’s a bit of blood shed across the film’s running time. Goodfellas is a visceral and vivid experience, which may cause even the most hardened film-watcher to look away in a couple of places. But none of the violence is what you’d call gratuitous. This is about the realities of gangster life and Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the brutalities, as he opens up this rarefied world in which memories are long, scores are always settled and death is never far away.
After all that, there’s hardly time to mention all the other cool touches…like dinner time in prison…or the fact the film averages over two f-words a minute…or the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to make the film as authentic as possible (such as recruiting real gangsters as extras).
Suffice it to say, that, overall, Goodfellas is one of those films you can lose yourself in and enjoy; knowing that with every scene you’re watching one of the great directors working at the top of his game, supported by an excellent cast, all of whom went the extra mile to create something special and enduring.
So what should writers take away from Goodfellas?
Goodfellas is a great example of how a script can be brought alive by the creative team; in this case ensuring the ‘whole’ became even greater than the sum of its (considerable) parts. The script was even partly rewritten as a result of the improvisation going on during rehearsals.
Writing is a solitary occupation, for the most part, but unlike novels and poetry, film is collaborative. You might be married to your beloved words and scenes, but don’t close your mind to what other people can bring to the table.
That being said, for all you screenwriters out there now itching to (re)watch this great American film classic, here are a few things you might want to watch out for:
Research – Notice all the little authentic touches scattered throughout the film that help to create the world the characters inhabit.
Narration – Some screenwriting ‘gurus’ aren’t a fan of this technique but, boy, is it effective here!
Structure – Notice how Goodfellas departs with great success from the traditional and much-lauded three-act structure.
Now go and (re)aquaint yourself with the ‘fellas…they’re waiting to say ‘hello’!
Next time, we continue our look at Scorsese’s work with analysis of Gangs of New York (and yes, we’re aware it’s not strictly ‘fact-based!).
Issue 8 of RSL is out on 31 August.