“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” – Henry Hill
Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece amid an oeuvre of career masterpieces, turns 25-years old this month. Forget those Oscars, everyone knows they got it wrong. Oscar knows, trust me. Despite Dances with Wolves dominating that fateful night, here is one of those rarities, perhaps the rarest of all cinematic experiences: the perfect film.
There are obvious reasons why Scorsese’s white-hot gangster odyssey is considered his best movie, and one of the best of all films. First and foremost, it is the work of America’s greatest filmmaker. It’s his serene musical structure throughout. It’s his collaboration with former muse Robert De Niro. It’s the entire cast, from De Niro, to the fresh-faced Ray Liotta, to Joe Pesci’s powder-keg performance, to supporting turns from Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino, to the delightfully textured turns from a myriad of impactful character actors filling the periphery with percolating kinetics.
These crucial elements set up Goodfellas for greatness, but there are six more specific reasons why it is, in fact, a perfect film. Yes, perfect. Such a hyperbolic description must be used lightly, if at all; yet here it’s absolutely a fit. There are more than six reasons why Goodfellas is perfect; the aforementioned list of on-screen talent involved would stretch beyond six alone. But at a base level – and more importantly a personal level – with moments the casual viewer may not notice, these decisions were made and said elements carefully deposited throughout the fabric of the film to cultivate an undeniable tour de force.
1. That Opening
Every great film has an unforgettable opening scene. It’s arguably the most crucial element, catching the attention of the audience and setting tone. And that opening scene of Goodfellas… that’s a mainline injection of brutality and foreboding, building slowly from confusion and quiet calm, stirring us away from the safety of our seats, delivering a moment of shocking violence. It sets the stage, and from there the audience firmly understands the violent culture in which they will be immersed the next two hours. Truly a visceral introduction.
2. Schoonmaker’s Editing Room
Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker have a lifelong working relationship with one another. Schoonmaker’s ability to inject energy into Scorsese’s greatest films are as vital to the overall product as just about anything else, responsible for more iconic moments than any other cinematic body of work. And in Goodfellas, her editing prowess is on full display. It is an all-encompassing edit, working from beginning to end. The early scenes, when Henry’s voiceover romanticizes the world-dominating culture of the criminal underworld in his neighborhood, are put together with longer, more languid scenes. The audience relishes the romantic side of being a gangster, the freedom of a life without rules. A glorious time for the mob is shown through a patient, softer, more endearing lens.
As the narrative continues, however, and things begin to fall apart in Henry’s life, the edits grow more frenetic. Cuts come much faster, scenes feel jumpy and immediate and threatening. This leads us to the final act of the film where Henry, deep in the throes of a paranoia-fueled cocaine addiction, is racing around town trying to cut his new shipment, make dinner for the family, and skirt what he believes is a police chopper on his tail. Here, Schoonmaker’s edits deliver the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to those early, cheerful scenes. The cuts are frantic, rapid, mirroring Henry’s fractured brain. These are subtle strokes executed in Schoonmaker’s editing room, creating an undeniably perfect rhythm, an operatic unraveling of what was once sanguine.
3. Calculated Glorification
A common complaint from the buttoned-up vocal majority in America when it comes to films like Goodfellas almost always focuses on the glorification of a culture of violence, and the adulation of the gangster lifestyle. Prudes say it sends the wrong message to kids, it leads them into a life of crime. This is a lazy and wholly unfounded opinion, especially here. It ignores the whole in order to criticize the parts. Goodfellas absolutely must glorify the life of the mobster. The glitz and the glamour are vital when it comes to world building.
Without these early moments of hedonism, we would be lost in a world of despicable characters, with no explanation as to why Henry Hill was drawn to this sad and dangerous life. These good things must exist in order come to an end in a desperate and violent collapse.
4. The Pesci Decision
The real Tommy DeSimone (DeVito in the film) was a large, hulking menace, described as such in Nicolas Pileggi’s source material, Wiseguy. He was, however, the same raving psycopath portrayed in the film. The choice to cast Joe Pesci was a bold stroke by Scorsese and Co., and it turned out to be a sublime decision. The slight frame of Pesci juxtaposed the sociopathic temper boiling just beneath his surface. It made him all the more threatening, unpredictable, and frightening.
Consider a large lump of a man in the role, especially in the above scene; it wouldn’t work with a baritone voice. You could see the violent outbursts coming a mile away, and they would lose a certain impact. But with Pesci, who seems innocuous enough on the exterior, his brutality comes as veiled poison.
5. The Dinner Scene
In the midst of killing Billy “Shinebox” Batts (Frank Vincent), a made guy, in the middle of a diner – therein sealing their fate – wrapping his body in tablecloths and carrying him to a desolate wooded area to bury the body, Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry stop off at Tommy’s mother’s house to grab some tools. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Tommy’s loving mother surprises them and decides to fix them a full-course meal in the middle of the night. The whole time, Batts’ dying body is fighting for life in trunk of the car outside.
What a marvelous scene, a moment stripped clean of malice of malevolence, directly in the middle of the most crucial (and violent) turning point of the entire film. Tommy’s mother (played by Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine) is a sweet, doting mother, asking him why he isn’t married with children. She has no idea of the monster inside her son. This sequence works to bring the frenzy back into focus, it allows us to catch our breath, and calm an otherwise crumbling set of circumstances for our three leads. Scorsese and Schoonmaker take their time, perhaps for the last time in the entire film, and the result creates an eye of the storm.
It also adds something lacking in Tommy’s character to that point: humanity. Tommy has a mother? Who would have thought such a thing.
6. Tracking Shot Nirvana
The tracking shot into the bowels of the Copacabana is a virtuoso, seminal moment in film history. Not only does it work on unspeakable technical levels, it serves a purpose in the narrative. Karen is swept up by Henry, this young “construction worker” with the smooth hands, silver tongue, and cash falling out of his pockets. The backroom trek through the Copa gives us the feeling Karen is being swept along, dizzyingly, in an unavoidable world of glamour.
The Copacabana shot is legend, but another tracking shot deserves attention. It’s a much more utilitarian sequence, introducing the peripheral hoods in Henry’s world. Plenty of fun to be had here watching Scorsese show off a little:
As Goodfellas turns 25, it has not lost a step. Nor will it ever. Here is a two-hour adrenaline shot of violence, exhilaration, and seamless energy, standing head and shoulders above others of its kind. Perfection.
What else do you think belongs on this list? What makes it perfect in your eyes?