#1 — Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
For me, the moment that best demonstrates the brilliance of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas isn’t one of the most commonly cited. It’s not Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito asking “Funny how?” to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, making a gag out of his own unpredictable rage, a bit of self-spoofing made even more chilling when DeVito attacks the bar’s owner moments later for the the transgression of asking for the bill to be paid, an act of actual violence met with the same laughter by his gangster friends as the prank he’s just pulled. It’s not the cascade of fatalities after a big score as the various figures with a claim on the spoils are dispatched to increase the main share, the mounting array of bodies revealed to the sounds of the piano part of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. It’s not the bravura extended sequence leading up to Henry Hill’s final arrest, as he juggles a busy day of cooking and drug drops while coked into a state of peak anxiety, a showcase for the astounding editing skills of Scorsese’s regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s not even the famous tracking shot that follows Henry and his future wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, as they enter the Copacabana nightclub through a labyrinthine back door route that takes them through busy hallways and the kitchen to emerge in the main room where they’re given not just an open table, but a fresh one, placed next to the stage just for them, a perfect evocation of the privilege and suspicious sordidness that go hand-in-hand in Henry’s world.
Great scenes all, but the moment that really gets me comes near the end of the film. Henry has been arrested and chosen to become a witness against the mob as a plea bargain, spilling everything he knows from a life that’s been immersed in that world since he was a kid. The details of this are conveyed, as is much of the information in the film, via voice-over narration delivered by Liotta as Hill. The film shifts to a shot of Henry on the witness stand, continuing a thought that had begun as part of the voice-over, a seamless shift from a filmmaking device to a sort of storytelling fully grounded in the reality of the film. Suddenly it seems that the entirety of the narration could have been Henry’s testimony. That thought only has a fleeting moment to register, however, before Liotta breaks the fourth wall, getting up from his seat and addressing the camera directly, striding through the courtroom as the action within it continues, the other characters onscreen seemingly unaware that the central figure of the scene has broken away. In the time it takes to breathe in and out, Scorsese wrenches his narrative from a commonplace cinematic contrivance to a more literal rendering of the story to an even more pronounced bending of reality that belongs most firmly, if not solely, to the movies. He’s already violated a convention earlier in the film when the narration briefly shifted from Henry to Karen, but at this moment he completely tosses out the rulebook. Without being showy or pushy in the manner of some other directors willing to make their films into hyperactive freak-outs to prove their creativity, Scorsese simply and confidently asserts that he can do anything if it serves the film.
Based on the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas was adapted for the screen by Scorsese and the author, transforming the lengthy reportage about mob life into a stunning piece of film art that subverts every expectation about gangsters and hoods established by decades of movie fascination with their powerful and frightening society. Scorsese directs with the headlong passion of someone with nothing left to lose, and a command of structure that rivals that of anyone who’d ever peered through a camera before him, a skillfulness that reflected both his own experience and his efforts as a tireless, lifelong scholar of film. There’s an incredible mix of the regimented and the unleashed within the film, as many scenes have the satisfying smack of improvisation to them, even as there’s never a doubt that Scorsese is always fully in control, actually orchestrating the sorts of happy accidents that will add authenticity to the work. The movie is brash and tough, but never resorts to becoming a mere wallow in the messiness of the gangster life, scoring cheap points with celebratory depiction of violence. Everything is purposefully, included out of a duty to get the story right, to be accurate, to be honest. There’s no showboating or judgment, just a driven filmmaker’s constant push to properly understand the characters he trains his lens on.
As I’ve written previously, I was literally trembling when I left the theater after seeing Goodfellas for the first time. I’d seen great films before, but they hadn’t impacted me like that, in part because the sense of discovery with Scorsese’s film was so profound. It was as if the great director had given me the code to see movie the way that he did, as an endless realm of opportunity. From there on in, the good movies looked a little better, the noble failures looked a little braver, and, yes, the bad movies looked a little worse, like villainous and thoughtless refutations of the possibilities of film. This was right at the beginning of the time when I officially moved from casual, devoted moviegoer to someone spouting my opinions on the radio, someone who was going to wrestle with the films I saw in an effort to name what did and didn’t work within their frames. I couldn’t ask for a better film to usher me towards this more engaged way of approaching the artistry of cinema. It was utterly transformational for me. And now, with the safe hindsight of twenty years between that first viewing and the moments I tap out these words, I think it’s safe to evaluate the excellence of Goodfellas without fear of rushing to judgment and say that it’s one of the three or four best American films ever made.