Retro Review: Goodfellas

Retro Review: Goodfellas

by Alan Grant
article from Sunday 19, May, 2019

YOU KNOW WHAT FRIENDS? I really enjoy being the resident movie critic here at Think Scotland and I’m looking forward to getting back into a theatre and critiquing the next film that sparks my interest. However, I’ve also just returned to normal life having enjoyed a glorious full week of annual leave and as such I’m gradually revving the old engine back up to full speed again.

Therefore, I beg forgiveness for taking this week a little easier than most and resorting to talking about a movie that I already know inside and out and have a settled opinion on.

So, if you come here looking for advice about whether or not you should go see a new movie – wait for a week or so.

Besides, you can, and should, see the subject of this week’s column at home because it’s available on Netflix, DVD, and Blu-Ray. This week, I want to tell you why, in my opinion, the 1990 release Goodfellas is my contribution to the list of movies you absolutely have to see. You know how we all have that, “what’s your favourite movie?” conversation with friends, family, or a prospective romantic partner – well, Goodfellas is always my answer to that question.

If you’ve not seen it – Goodfellas is a ‘based on true story’ movie centred on the rise and fall of Irish-American mobster Henry Hill who becomes involved in the Italian Mafia. Ray Liotta takes the role of Hill and is ably supported by both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It really is a great argument for why simple premises make for great movies. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s based on a great book – Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi.

Extolling why Goodfellas is an absolute triumph of filmmaking is an exercise in avoid option paralysis – there is so much about it that works that it’s tempting to just say, “screw it! It’s all just brilliant!” and knock-off for lunch but that would be to do this masterpiece a disservice. In fact, part of the long-lasting contribution that Goodfellas has made to the movie business is that it rewards repeated and frequent reflection.

On the most fundamental level, Goodfellas is a work of art because it’s made by an artist. Martin Scorsese is the very best in the world at what he does and he has a gift for spotting and presenting stories which surely puts him in the running to be the greatest director of all time. He has a grasp of screen storytelling and a knack for taking big, bold, and brash decisions that go unrivalled in cinema.  

To take just one example among many, there is a famous scene in Goodfellas, now simply called “The Copa Shot”, in which Hill and his new girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) arrive at The Copacabana Club and make their way, through the kitchen, to the venue. When they arrive, they are quickly ushered to the best seats in the house and lavished with expensive booze sent over by well-wishers. The entire sequence is only 2:27 long and set to Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals and is shot entirely using a single shot on a steady cam. It was risky, daring, ambitious and is, in my view, the single most beautiful example of camerawork that I’ve seen. In content terms, it displays proudly and unashamedly the power of our protagonist as it shows exactly how powerful Henry is and how good his life is as a mafia goon has become after we saw it start in a humble cab stand at the start of the film. It is technically perfect, placed with pinpoint accuracy at the end of the film’s first act, and the sparse dialogue sets it off magnificently. If this gushing essay can’t convince you to watch the entirety of Goodfellas – please at least go to YouTube and watch the sequence; it’s mesmerising.

There’s so much else that works in Goodfellas that goes to make it such an iconic masterpiece. The plot is a glorious slalom through the excesses and dangers of life in the mafia, built out of scintillating performances by Liotta, De Niro, and particularly Joe Pesci as the explosive Tommy who manages to cram about 8ft of aggression and charisma into his 5ft 3’ frame. The dialogue is both authentic and glamorous, the stakes feel real, and the payoff is completely worth it. All of the parts of Goodfellas fit together into a high-octane thrill ride that is both exhilarating and luxurious – it’s like getting out of a cannon in a Saville Row suit and lizard shoes.

Naturally, a movie that has been out for nearly 30 years and has enjoyed success at The Oscars has had may opinions written about and has been analysed until its wig comes off… in a swimming pool. However, in preparing for this essay – and in the hope of bringing something new to the discussion of this classic – I think I’ve hit on a somewhat original take as to why it’s so good and has continued enduring success. I try not to talk like the irritating online Millennial that I am, but Goodfellas works because it is sexy af!

Everything about Goodfellas oozes sex appeal and, in particular, male sex appeal. From the moment that the camera first pans up the length of fully grown-up Henry’s slim muscular frame to the aforementioned one shot and at most points in between, the movie bristles with raw masculine sexuality that reverberates throughout it. This energy flows through the dialogue, set design, costuming (lots of tight trousers and elegant suits – plus the odd Brando-esque tanktop), and props at each and every stage of the film. What women do exist in it seem fully aware that the men they lust after are bad guys but they find the sexiness, confidence, and danger that our main trio of gangsters exude just irresistible – and they’re right. As Karen herself puts it when being asked to hide the gun that Henry uses to beat a man who crossed her into a bloody pulp – “I know there are women like my best friends who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriends gave them a gun to hide, but I didn’t. I gotta admit the truth; it turned me on”.  Taken as an entire experience, Goodfellas is a shot of pure testosterone-fuelled sex appeal to the bloodstream of the ultra-masculine kind that we rarely see any more – with a liberal sprinkling of good taste and style on top.

In that sense, Goodfellas was a beneficiary of an earlier time. With today’s more woke culture mistrust and hatred of masculinity being what it is, it seems unlikely that any non-parody film that is so male-centred, full of exaggerated characters, and packed with unreconstructed, raw, brutal, and, most of all, sexy masculinity would succeed or be as important a part of popular culture. For the most part, the guys of Goodfellas look like, beat up, drink, smoke, and fuck whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, and then face the consequences of their actions ‘like men’ and no amount of critical theory stops that being very attractive – you either want to be the wiseguys or be with them, depending on your persuasion and that, critically is why it keeps its legions of fans, myself included, going back for just one more piece of that fast life by osmosis.

Go, open up Netflix tonight and immerse yourself in the world of Goodfellas – what have you got to lose?


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