Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
Released 20th January 2017
I rarely use the word ‘masterpiece’. It’s over-used, too much of a regular on movie posters. But this time it could get a look-in – and only because I genuinely mean it.
Originally released in 1990, GoodFellas gets a restoration and re-release this month as part of the BFI’s Martin Scorsese retrospective season. The opportunity for a whole new generation to experience what’s regarded as a classic of the gangster genre. And an opportunity for everybody else to immerse themselves in it all over again. For those seeing it for the first time, it’s based on the true life memoires of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-American who became involved with his local crime gang as a teenager in the late 50s. He rises through the ranks, alongside two friends, Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), doing everything demanded by their boss – extortion, killings, robberies, anything. But, despite his involvement and loyalty, Henry never quite belongs – making him the perfect target for the FBI when they’re looking for somebody to blow the gang apart.
Which means that one of the many quotable – and quoted – lines from the film, “Never rat on your friends. And keep your mouth shut.” hovers over every scene as soon as the words have dropped from De Niro’s lips. And, like just about every gangster movie ever made, it’s all about loyalty, but the skewed variety that permeates the culture. But that’s where the similarities between GoodFellas and the rest begin and end.
The film is remarkable for its longevity, for the fact that it appears to have hardly aged at all. It’s surprisingly fresh and contemporary, with its violence and language (shocking at the time, marginally less now), the perfect match between the rock/pop soundtrack and the on-screen action, the narrative switching from a circular structure in the first half to something more linear in the second, and its boundless, almost frantic, energy. Some of that broke new ground in the 90s, some took film making one stage further, but put them all together and the result is a film that’s hardly aged at all. One that still has plenty to say about American organised crime, both then and now. The lingering shot on the handgun with ‘Made In America’ etched on the barrel sums it up. And that means it’s a film that easily stands repeated viewings.
What are now recognised as Scorsese’s hallmarks are there as well. Familiar faces in the cast, like De Niro who was already an established regular (he won his Oscar for Raging Bull ten years previously). That rock soundtrack – The Stones’ Gimme Shelter gets its first outing, returning with equal effect in The Departed, his eventual Oscar winner in 2007. And fascinating camerawork, from the extended shot of Henry leading Karen through the back entrance to his favourite club (think Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil) to the scenes where the camera freezes on the action, allowing us to concentrate fully on the dialogue and narration.
For those who were around when the film was originally released, there’s also the opportunity to indulge in a touch of geekiness and reflect on the subsequent careers of the main players. Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves triumphed at the Oscars, taking the major trophies and leaving GoodFellas with just one, Best Supporting Actor, which went to Joe Pesci. And he could never shake off Tommy DeVito, finding himself almost consistently typecast in similar psychopathic roles for years afterwards. He’s made only a small handful of films in the past decade. Ray Liotta didn’t fare much better, again getting so much practice at playing villains that he could do it in his sleep. And nowadays it looks like that’s exactly what he’s doing. While De Niro continued to deliver the goods for some time, his more recent roles have been, frankly, beneath him.
But GoodFellas is something else, in a league of its own. It’s a film that’s influenced just about every mob film that followed it, one that didn’t get the accolades it deserved in its day but one that’s stood the test of time with astonishing ease. A genuine classic. And a genuine masterpiece. There, I’ve said it.
GoodFellas is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 20 January 2017 and at the BFI in London as part of its Martin Scorsese retrospective, which runs to the end of February.