Goodfellas, directed in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, is one of my favorite movies. I love that it’s not just a typical mafia movie. It was made with love, by someone who grew up in that violent environment. I know I said before that Scorsese tried to make movies that showed “everyday violence”, the kind that he saw growing up in his neighborhood in Little Italy. He clearly tries to show this aspect of life in Goodfellas, as well. There seems to be a constant underscore of violence in the movie, and often, the most brutal scenes happen randomly after people are barely provoked. He gives it context, though, and real, well-written characters to back up the story. We watch them do bad things, but we know them so well that we can’t help but feel for them. Or well, at least I can’t.
The film basically tells us the life story of Henry Hill, who grows up around the mafia - across the street from them, actually. He starts out as a gofer, doing errands for them, which his father hates and beats him for. Henry thinks it’s worth it, though, and he continues to work his way up through the mob. He loves the fame and wealth that comes with it, and soon finds a girl, Karen, who feels drawn to it as well. But of course, all is not well. The mob is unpredictable and violent, and Henry knows that even his best friends will turn on him with no warning. He cheats on Karen, which creates even more unrest and violence. The mob is in his blood, though, and he cannot pull himself away.
I love that Henry narrates the whole film. It’s interesting to see his own personal reasons about why he was drawn into the life. He also does many horrible things during the course of the movie, and hearing his voice from the very beginning changes, I think, he we react to him. Since we see him as a kid, and hear his emotions and thoughts, we feel close to him. When he does questionable things, it’s hard to just cast him off. At one point he even addresses us directly, and it makes sense, since that is really what he’s been doing all along. I think it’s sort of interesting and awesome how well the narration and freeze frames in the movie work. These are things I was told were horrible missteps in film, but here, it works perfectly.
The movie is really unique in the fact that women are actually, yunno, present. They are often not given much thought in mafia movies, and their characters are sometimes really one-dimensional. Here, Karen narrates her own thoughts, so we understand why she was so drawn to Henry and the life. We get to feel close to her just as we do with Henry. Yes, there are times that she is treated badly, but just the fact that we hear her thoughts, that she even has thoughts, is pretty amazing.
There is more to the movie than just interesting narration and plot. There is the usual great camerawork, and the film is full of neat shots. I already mentioned that it uses freeze frames and breaks the fourth wall, but there are other techniques as well. Ebert writes about a famous scene in the movie, saying, “In the most famous shot in the movie, he takes his future wife Karen to the Copacabana nightclub. There's a line in front, but he escorts her across the street, down stairs and service corridors, through the kitchen area, and out into the showroom just as their table is being placed right in front of the stage. This unbroken shot, which lasts 184 seconds, is not simply a cameraman's stunt, but an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill” (Great Movies II, 166). I love that the shot isn’t just “hey, a long take!” it actually has meaning for the story.
If you haven’t seen Goodfellas, you must see it, it’s a great movie. It’s a really unique mob movie, and it’s fascinating to see almost a whole life unfold before you. I actually had watched it right before I started this project, but it still felt really exciting and wonderful, even with only a handful of months as a buffer. I’m going to lay down and rest, but let me know if you check this out!
Ebert’s Great Movie Essay on Goodfellas
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