By Caroline Meuser
Though I was exposed to Goodfellas early in life, I did not experience the type of positive introduction that most “cinephiles” probably have. To me, it was one of those films that TNT constantly featured and, while my dad sat enrapt as Joe Pesci pumps seven bullets into his friend’s chest, I classified it as a film I may watch in full eventually, but for the time, I could do without the emotional disturbance incurred by seeing men willfully destroy their lives and the lives of others through organized crime.
Martin Scorsese adapted Goodfellas from the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. By 1990, Scorsese and Pileggi organized an utterly triumphant cast and screenplay. Ray Liotta narrates most of the film as Henry Hill, an aspiring-turned-successful Brooklyn gangster. In a menacing, poignant performance, Liotta illustrates Hill’s tumultuous existence – from his collaboration with mob figures Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) in 1955 to his dramatic fall from criminal grace in 1980. Within this time period, the glamour of violence and riches blind Hill and company. With each murder, drug deal and robbery, the line distinguishing their actions between dutiful and disturbing rapidly fades.
After watching Goodfellas in its entirety, I compared it to its closest parallel within my own film repertoire, The Family. I drew connections between Goodfellas and the 2013 Luc Besson film mostly because of De Niro’s roles as a deep thinker, patriarch and lethal gangster in both movies. And despite The Family’s predictable plot and poor box office results, the story’s set-up, thanks to Scorsese’s epic archetype, thrilled me more than I had expected.
Now I realize this discussion of The Family neither scratches the surface of Goodfellas’ legacy, nor does it sufficiently exemplify the precedent Scorsese set in terms of gangster films. But then again, Goodfellas’ legacy solely in terms gangster movies does not scratch the surface of its influence on film in general. Scorsese succeeds in establishing and redefining properties beyond those of film genre.
One of these properties is the importance of dialogue. Words. Italian mobsters may fall short in the area of morality, but at least they will have something to say to make their logic seem sound. Though stereotypical, it is a concept with which Scorsese lays the foundation of his film. Words, both diegetic and non-diegetic, permeate the film and succeed in inducing emotional investment from the audience. Whenever Hill narrates his memories – “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” – his speech resonates with the audience even though he speaks off-screen. In an onscreen exchange, DeVito’s convincing “How am I funny?” altercation with Hill is enough to make viewers shudder with discomfort. Scorsese attempted to create art in a verbal as well as visual sense, and it worked
Goodfellas’ photography is also worth noting, to say the very least. This film is a memory – it is a tale that Henry and his wife Karen recount for us as accurately as their memories serve them. Typically, memories of events that affect us forever appear as flashes of vivid scenes and flushes of visceral sentiments. No matter how much time passes, we will always experience that sharp pang of affect as soon as the memory enters the brain. Scorsese plays on this internal function effectively. The freeze frames of certain close ups and scenes are resounding not only because of the quality of the image but also because of the memory it represents. Scorsese highlights moments such as Hill’s childhood traumas and his final moments as a gangster by making them lingering snapshots instead of fleeting acts.
Before watching Goodfellas, I was told it was “life-changing.” Even though I cannot fully agree with that statement now, I can confidently attest to the film’s ability to affect a viewer – at least for the day.
About Caroline - Greetings! I’m a junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Communication and minoring in Cinema Studies. Although I have a wide range of hobbies – from tennis and running to reading and travelling – film never fails to peak my interest. Whether you share my enthusiasm or not, I hope you enjoy my posts!
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