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Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is a gangster-film original that changed our perceptions of hoods forever, especially after the glamour treatment given the Mafia in Francis Coppola's Godfather movies. This is the true, autobiographical story of a middle-level thug in the 1950s, 60s and 70s who had a grand time raking in illicit dough, terrorizing anybody he pleased and laughing at the square nobodies who waste their time holding down real jobs. The movie is both frightening and disturbing; as a crime film it has yet to be bettered. It's probably Scorsese's best crimer ever.
The story of Henry Hill (as an adult, Ray Liotta) is not a pretty one. Hill grows up in East Brooklyn yearning to be a gangster under the protection of 'Made Man' Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). With his best friends Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) Henry enjoys a glamorous life of crime, money, women and comradeship. Marriage to Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) only creates another system of responsibility for Henry to abuse. But in his late twenties things begin to fall apart. Against Paul's orders, Hill strikes out on his own selling drugs. Jimmy becomes a paranoid killer in the wake of a successful crime, and Tommy has developed into an uncontrollable monster.
The hoodlums in Goodfellas are tacky, crude, abusive, arrogant, profane, destructive, mendacious, vile hoodlums, and we live with them for about 2.5 ultra-tense hours. The talented Ray Liotta has been dogged for the rest of his career by his perfect impersonation of the shark-like Henry Hill, a character so slimy that his face brings chills of recognition. Robert De Niro gets top billing but has a subdued presence; most of his crimes aren't shown directly so we forget that he's easily the most ruthless murderer of the bunch. And this film "made" Joe Pesci's acting career. He'd soon be playing a loveable comedy crook for Home Alone, but I can't see Pesci in anything without being reminded of Tommy DeVito, a horrible loose cannon compensating for his damaged ego with ever-escalating brutality.
Liotta's Henry Hill character narrates in an unapologetic "this is what happened and so what?" tone indicating that his only regret is that he couldn't keep doing his crimes and raking in the loot forever. Also narrating from time to time is his opportunistic wife Karen. She lets us in on what it's like to be seduced into criminal irresponsibility by a charming wolf with lots of money to spend. These people go through money faster than they can steal it, squandering it on ostentatious displays and grandiose tips. Utterly worthless people, they crave the false validation of being treated like princes.
The criminal wise guys show no restraint whatsoever. The police and the judges are fixed, making them untouchable for all but the most serious crimes. The streetwise cadres can enforce their will on anybody and anything that gets in their way. We get chilling examples of their clout when they terrorize a U.S. mailman and steal half a million dollars through inside connections at the airport. The old boys, the "made men" have things sewn up so well that they can run their feifdoms by verbal messages alone.
Our three young Turks are brought down by character flaws that overturn all notions about honor among thieves. De Niro's Jimmy Conway goes paranoid after a big heist and starts "whacking" his confederates, one by one. Not only do the killings keep Jimmy's cohorts from talking to the law, they also enable him to rationalize keeping all of the money. It doesn't matter if a victim has been a drinking buddy for the past twenty years; he gets it just the same. Joe Pesci's Tommy is a budding psycho who expresses his rage through spontaneous bursts of violence. Tommy is little more than a sick joke stemming from the fact that he doesn't know the difference between verbally abusing somebody and killing them. We're soon choking on the "humor" of Tommy blasting down an inoffensive errand boy. Tommy DeVito is so horrible that audiences forget to be relieved when he gets his ironic just desserts -- Evil that pernicious can't be gotten rid of so easily.
Henry Hill doesn't want to kill anybody and is therefore a slightly more attractive creep. His avaricious consumer meltdown has a familiar ring -- he gets to act out scenarios in our morbid daydreams. Endless consumer goods, clothing, and vehicles are sourced through drug money. But Henry self-destructs by snorting his own goods and losing control of his operation. At the height of his coke-induced paranoia (brilliantly expressed through the nervous editing of Thelma Schoonmaker) Henry allows his mistress (Debi Mazar) to run a drug-processing apartment littered with paraphernalia covered in cocaine dust. He's trying to make his crime deliveries while maintaining an overtaxed family schedule, and while flying so high he can't think straight. A sloppy associate finally does Henry in, but the end could have come in any of fifty ways. Hill is so zonked on coke he can't tell real surveillance helicopters from imagined ones.
We fans of standard crime films have come to expect scenes of remorse and attempts at atonement, garnished with an occasional self-sacrifice to make things right. The end of Henry Hill and Co. conjures no such sentiments. Caught dead to rights by Federal cops, Hill and his wife act inconvenienced and make irate demands of their captors as if they still had cards to play. They expect exceptional treatment, as if they were the ones owed something. They're like hit and run drivers who when caught by the cops respond with demands that their victims pay damages.
For those of us who still base our lives on anything resembling ethical standards (say what?), watching Goodfellas generates an overwhelming despair. Is this really how the world works? That response probably militated against Scorsese's film finding a larger audience. As the original Daily Variety reviewer said of Raging Bull, "Martin Scorsese makes films about people you don't want to know." I knew Goodfellas was a masterpiece on my first viewing of it in 1990. I sweated through it then and it still makes me squirm. It's as good as ever.
Martin Scorsese's filmmaking skills are so in evidence here that breaking the show down into its component graces is a tough order. Music is used extremely well, especially one rock 'n' roll number (Layla) that counterpoints a series of horrible murders. The mix of narration and nervously jumping time frames also works exceptionally well. It's difficult to take one's eyes off the screen.
Warners' Goodfellas was released in a fine special edition in 2004; this 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is a rich and dark HD transfer that displays Michael Ballhaus's moody cinematography at its best.
The "book" style packaging contains two discs and one of Warners' illustrated commemorative inserts, this one 23 pages long. Disc #1 is the Blu-ray bearing the feature and a stack of extras, most of them from the older edition. The first of two commentaries has the participation of many of the filmmakers (see below for a list) and the second pairs the real Henry Hill with the actual agent who set up his witness protection plan. Theirs is obviously a unique point of view, and the track is fascinating.
The recycled docus begin with a good making-of featurette. The Pesci, DeNiro and Scorsese interviews are all vintage. A Legacy piece presents a number of contemporary directors talking about how they were influenced by Goodfellas. Another extra is a storyboard comparison, and The Workaday Gangster has the real Henry Hill and others assuring us of the accuracy of the awful life depicted in the movie.
The second Standard DVD disc contains the 2008 Constantine Nasr / New Wave docu Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. It's a thorough examination of the genre from the turn of the century to Goodfellas, using mostly clips from Warners pictures (which owns the majority of the classic genre entries) but taking pains to include important pictures from outside the studio, like Paramount's Underworld and Howard Hughes' Scarface.The docu's list of interview bite participants seems to include every notable film expert tapped for Warner product for the last five years, along with scores of writers, stars and some classic era directors in archived interviews. As an added kicker, the second disc includes four WB cartoons that spoof the gangster craze: I Like Mountain Music, She Was an Acrobat's Daughter, Racketeer Rabbit and Bugs and Thugs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goodfellas Blu-ray rates:
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