There is no honor among thieves. These crooks would as soon rat out or whack their best friends as not.
The 1930s were the Golden Age of gangster films. Following the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and the rise of organized crime in America, Hollywood in the Thirties was quick to capitalize on the allure of the mobster lifestyle, all the while making sure to show that good triumphed over evil. Movies like “Little Caesar” (1930), “The Public Enemy” (1931), and “Scarface” (1932) elevated the hoodlum to near-iconic status, creating antiheroes of lowlifes.
The trend diminished through the 1940s, and by the 50s and 60s America’s obsession with mob life seemed to have settled down. Then Francis Coppola resurrected the genre with perhaps the most important gangster picture of them all, “The Godfather,” and suddenly mobsters were in again, opening the door to a succession of gangland features.
Which brings us to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” from 1990. No stranger to filming life on the streets of New York, Scorsese had already made “Mean Streets” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “Raging Bull” (1980) before coming to “Goodfellas.” This next movie seemed like a natural extension of his vision of the little man fighting his way up. It also touched off the expected comparisons to Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films and arguments about which ones were “best” or most-honest depictions of the mob world. Such comparisons, of course, seem frivolous today, since Scorsese always meant for “Goodfellas” to complement, not supplant, “The Godfather” saga. Where Coppola showed us life at the top of the gangster food chain–the big bosses and their lieutenants in glamorized, romanticized fashion–Scorsese gives us a picture of the working-class gangster, the underling, the guy whose job it is to carry out the orders at the street level, always hoping to move up the chain of command.
“Goodfellas” is an adjunct, a supplement, to the “Godfather” saga, the two movie experiences providing us with two very distinct viewpoints on two very different areas of American gangsterism. A person may certainly value one film more than the other and make a case why one is more enjoyable on a personal level, but to suggest that one or the other film is somehow “better”–historically, stylistically, or cinematically–seems a fatuous enterprise for whiling away time and little else.
“Goodfellas,” like “The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2,” is both a seminal film, in that it, too, was original in its way and generated a number of imitations, and a culminating film, in that it climaxes the whole gangster movement in the annals of Hollywood moviemaking. “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather” saga tower above their competition and deserve their place in the pantheon of American crime pictures.
Scorsese cowrote the screenplay for “Goodfellas” with Nicholas Pileggi, based on Pileggi’s book, “Wise Guy,” about a real-life former gangster, Henry Hill. I know “Henry Hill” doesn’t sound like much of a colorful name for a mobster, but Hill was never a “made man,” anyway, a “made man” being the highest honor the Mob could give you. In order to be a full-fledged member of the Mafia, a man had to be 100% Italian-Sicilian, and Hill wasn’t. Hill was an underling, but pretty high up in the ranks, nonetheless. Incidentally, as with “The Godfather,” the “Goodfellas” filmmakers never use the term “Mafia” in the movie.
The opening scene takes us to New York in 1970, with a display of brutality that establishes the tone of the picture. Then we flash back to 1955, as the narrator, Hill (Ray Liotta), tells us, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” He’s a kid not doing well in school, with an unhappy set of parents, and an abusive father. He looks down the street at the adult hoods hanging out and ruling the roost, and he sees a lifestyle he wants to emulate. Hill’s heroes were gangsters; they could do anything they wanted. They could get the best tables at the best restaurants and night clubs in town. They could double park and not worry about a ticket. Being a gangster meant being somebody, belonging to something. To Hill–who gets involved with the gangsters in his neighborhood early on–being a regular, workaday Joe with an ordinary job is being a schmuck.
As a teen, Hill becomes a flunky for the Mob and meets two friends who would continue at his side for years to come: Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), both of them characters based on real-life hoods. Jimmy is one of the most-feared hit men in the Organization and a hijacker to boot. Hill describes him as “the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guys in the movies.” Jimmy teaches the young Hill two important lessons in life: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” Tommy, on the other hand, is a psychopath and a really scary, merciless, unpredictable guy. None of them have any compulsions about committing murder.
The movie follows Hill’s story from 1955 back to where the movie started in 1970 and then on to 1988, where Hill finally gives it up, goes into the FBI’s Witness Protection Program, and starts pointing fingers. That is apparently where Pileggi and his book come in. Wives, girlfriends, drugs, food (they’re always preparing food), paranoia, hats, and the FBI complicate Henry’s life to the point of no return.
The cast could not be bettered. Liotta plays Hill as a not-so-innocent fellow who learns quickly how to serve and survive in the Mob. It’s easy for us to accept how a young man of his upbringing in his environment could succumb to the dark side. De Niro plays Jimmy in one of the actor’s now patented bad-guy performances. Yet De Niro’s Jimmy is not entirely malicious; amoral, surely, but not without compassion or judgment. Pesci’s Tommy, however, is an authentic madman, a person who would as soon shoot you as look at you. He’s part crazy, part stupid, and part pure evil, but he engenders loyalty in his two friends. The role won Pesci an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Lorraine Bracco plays Hill’s wife, who sticks with him through most of his career in crime. And Paul Sorvino plays Paul Cicero, the neighborhood Mob boss.
Part of Scorsese’s genius is in his storytelling style. In the hands of many of other directors, “Goodfellas” might have been just another crime thriller. Instead, we get a riveting two-and-a-half hours of intimate detail and personal insight into the life of some genuine people. Creepy, despicable, often degenerate people, yes, but people we can understand, people we can believe exist. Combine the nature of the characters with Scorsese’s continually probing camera, his chunky, chapter-by-chapter delivery, his nonlinear, flashback narration, and his use of period music, and you get an almost documentary-like testament to the lower-echelon gangster milieu.
The introduction of the local mobsters hanging out in a night club is memorable and worth the whole film. Cherish this scene as Scorsese’s camera moves in and about the characters, pausing only momentarily to hear their greetings. To Henry, this was the life; civilians were suckers.
No, “Goodfellas” is not “The Godfather.” Nor is it “The Godfather II,” although it flashes back and moves through a good deal of time as “The Godfather II” also does. “Goodfellas” hasn’t the epic sweep of either of the Coppola “Godfather” films, and it wasn’t meant to. Rather, “Goodfellas” takes a look at the life of gangsters at the ground level, and as such, nothing has surpassed it. Remember, though, that the MPAA rated the movie R for extreme violence and profanity, much more so than any of Coppola’s films. But as moviemaking, Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films stand shoulder-to-shoulder, bookends on the same sordid subject.
Beginning with WB’s Special Edition DVD, the picture sported an “all-new digital transfer,” which had some small advantage over its DVD predecessor. Likewise, the HD DVD and first Blu-ray transfers showed this new transfer to even better effect, even though like all the previous transfers this newest BD release continues to suffer from conditions probably arising from the original print. Namely, the image is slightly soft and dark and sometimes more than a bit murky, especially in shadows and nighttime scenes, which take up maybe three-quarters of the movie’s running time. While colors are deep and solid, the overall picture retains a somewhat gritty look, no doubt intentional since it works well to convey the flavor of the story. Faces are a shade too dusky for my taste, however.
It seems that Warners used the same high-definition VC-1 encode here they used for both the HD DVD and first BD release, and again they use only a single disc layer to accommodate it. The widescreen image approximates the movie’s theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, and while the picture quality is not perfect, it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get unless WB decide to do up the film at an even higher bit rate. The high-def image is suitably grainy, black levels vary somewhat in intensity, and colors are strong.
The Blu-ray Book cover announces “Hi-Def Sound,” but that is something of an overstatement. The disc appears to use the same soundtrack as the previous Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, Dolby Digital 5.1. It is a reasonably high-bit-rate transfer, which in the case of HD DVD Warners called Dolby Digital Plus. It seems marginally more dynamic and more extended in the upper frequencies than the standard-definition release’s regular Dolby Digital 5.1.
Still and all, a lot of the audio on “Goodfellas” sounds like little more than good monaural, curious for a big movie made in 1990, so don’t expect any surprises here. The impression one gets of the sound is that of strong, well-defined sonics, but to a small degree hard and metallic. Perhaps this, too, was intentional, because the sound provides the film with an appropriately edgy feeling. The rear channels continue to do very little business, while the front channels display only a moderate stereo spread. The original Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies musical recordings on the soundtrack naturally vary in audio quality, the early music in monaural, switching to stereo in the later tracks. Nevertheless, all of it adds a touch of realism to the proceedings.
Disc one of this two-disc, 20th Anniversary Blu-ray Book Edition contains the widescreen presentation of the film; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The movie also comes with two audio commentaries. The first includes comments by director Scorsese; stars Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, and Frank Vincent; co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi; producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina; cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; and editor Thelma Schoomaker. The second audio commentary is with former mobster Henry Hill and former FBI agent Edward McDonald.
In addition, disc one contains several informative documentaries on the subject of the film and gangsterism in general. The first documentary is “Getting Made,” a twenty-nine minute program of interviews and comments by the actors and filmmakers, then and now, including comments from the real Henry Hill. The second documentary is “The Workaday Gangster,” eight minutes of reminiscences. In it, Hill calls “Goodfellas” 99% accurate, not the American Dream but the “American Nightmare.” The third documentary is “Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy,” thirteen minutes of continued memoirs and observations. According to director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”), the film is “American pop cinema at its most powerful.” Finally, there is a four-minute storyboard-to-film comparison, “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film,” showing us some of Scorsese’s notes and sketches compared to several completed scenes; plus a widescreen theatrical trailer and a generous forty-seven scene selections.
Disc two contains the full-length documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film,” 2008, 105 minutes. In it, narrator Alec Baldwin takes us on a look at how Hollywood has treated the portrayal of the American gangster from the earliest days of motion pictures up to the present, with comments from filmmakers and film historians and plenty of film clips along the way.
Besides the documentary, the disc also contains four Merrie Melody and Looney Tunes cartoons: “I Like Mountain Music,” “She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter,” “Racketeer Rabbit,” and “Bugs and Thugs.”
The packaging is a nifty Blu-ray Book, or Digibook, one of those hardcover affairs that includes about thirty-five pages of color illustrations and text. The two discs fit into center spindles on the front and back covers.
Thanks to Scorsese’s visceral cinematic style, what could have been a run-of-the-mill gangster story becomes one of legend. The director captures the base nature of the human product, a portrait of the good life in America gone completely awry. With the help of a literate script, superb acting, and a realistic sense of time and place, Scorsese’s account of the rise and fall of a single gangster is a masterwork of crime and corruption in microcosm. The movie is to “The Godfather” what Cagney’s “Public Enemy” was to Robinson’s “Little Caesar,” flip sides of the same dirty coin. Only in high definition, the coin’s dirt shows up clearer than ever.