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"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
The most celebrated shot of Martin Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas comes early, when young wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date at the Copacabana. Eyeballing the long line outside, Henry instead ushers her to a back entrance, and the snaking camera follows him down through a private hallway, through the kitchen, and into the club, where the staff places a table for him right down front, in front of Henny Youngman, who tells some jokes. Scorsese and ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus play the entire scene, from the street into the club through the kitchen to the stage, in one unbroken take. It's a virtuoso moment.
But it's not just a gimmicky extravagance, Scorsese showing off his mastery of craft. It's fluidly active storytelling, a visualization of Henry's power and access, a thrilling illustration that, for that moment, the world was his oyster. And then it's a gimmicky extravagance, on top of that. The entire picture works in that way--it's full of flash and style and razzle-dazzle, but always properly employed at the service of a gripping story. It's just that Scorsese found a narrative that could support as many snazzy tricks as he wanted to heap upon it.
It's a tight first-person account of life in the mob, as told by Henry (and occasionally Karen) in voice-over narration that is so packed with information, Scorsese often has to freeze the action on screen so his narrator can catch up. It begins with Henry as a boy, peering through the windows of his family apartment at the wiseguys hanging out at the cab stand across the street, and follows him as he becomes one of those guys, a soldier for family head Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). His primary partners in crime are charismatic thief Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro) and hot-tempered troublemaker Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
In those nostalgic opening scenes, Goodfellas shares much of the ambience and tone of the other great gangster epic, The Godfather. But Scorsese's gangsters aren't the operatic, Shakespearean figures that Coppola's are; his guys are working stiffs. Early on, Paulie (with Henry's help) takes over the Bamboo Lounge, a struggling nightclub, and Henry proceeds to explain to us exactly how they ran it into the ground for maximum profit. Sequences like this are Goodfellas' stock-in-trade; Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi are interested in the minutiae of the organization, the specifics of the day-to-day operation. It is, in this respect, that its influence on The Sopranos is most clear (well, that and the fact that about half of that show's cast--including Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, and Vincent Pastore--pops up here).
Scorsese and Pileggi's screenplay (adapted from Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy) is not without laughs, both the slice-of-life variety (particularly in the scenes involving Scorsese's mother Catherine as Tommy's mom) and the gallows humor expected from these unrepentant killers ("Hey, Henry, there's a wing!"). But their script also has a phenomenal ear for conversational subtleties--the tiny inflections and subtext that separate a put-on ("Tommy, you're a funny guy!") and a fatal mistake ("Now go home and get your fuckin' shine box"). These guys have a good time; they joke around, they laugh, they "break balls." But they also carry guns, and time and again--particularly in Tommy's two encounters with poor Spider (Imperioli)--we watch a situation turn on a dime, and observe how quickly a good time can go bad.
Much of the effectiveness of those scenes is due to Pesci, whose finely-tuned performance balances charisma and real danger in a manner seldom seen on the screen. DeNiro is playing, in many ways, the archetypal DeNiro role, but he finds the character's pulse by honing in on the individual moments (like his scene at the phone booth, or that slow push in to the strains of "Sunshine of Your Love") and playing them full-tilt. Sorvino, who easily could have overplayed his powerful mob boss, instead chooses a more subtle tack; he sees Paulie as the strong, silent type, and it's a choice that works (particularly considering what a bunch of yammerers he's surrounded by). Liotta, all but unknown when the film was made, has a fierce energy that deteriorates convincingly into desperation--this is all he's ever wanted, and he can't stomach the notion that it's all slipping away.
His performance, and the film that it hinges on, comes to a full head of steam in what may very well be the single greatest set piece Scorsese has ever filmed (which is saying something): the "Sunday, May 11, 1980" sequence, a virtuoso piece of cinema that follows a coke-fueled Henry through a long, exhausting day in which he tries to a) put together a major drug deal, b) take care of his brother, c) unload some hot guns, and d) make a huge dinner for his family. The sequence is hyperactive, kinetic, and brilliant, an edgy montage of drug-induced mania that is akin to a hip-hop track, what with its quick hits, breakneck pace, and smash-and-grab music samplings. Thanks to the smoothness of the picture's construction (from the innocence and nostalgia of the early years to the slow deterioration in the middle era to the jittery loss of control in the third act) and the omnipresence of the first-person narrator, by the time we plunge into the darkness, the movie is Henry--it's sweaty, messy, paranoid, itchy.
In that section, and throughout the picture, Scorsese calls upon all of his considerable gifts as a technical filmmaker--zip pans, trick zooms, fast dolleys, unbroken takes, slow motion, fast cutting, inventive compositions, circular storytelling--to cast his spell. It pulses with atmosphere, from the non-stop music to the period décor to the culinary details. Before Goodfellas, Scorsese was certainly a well-respected filmmaker (the previous year, several critics' polls had chosen his Raging Bull as the best picture of the 1980s), and had spent the years leading up to it proving himself as a commercial filmmaker (The Color of Money) and as a provocateur (The Last Temptation of Christ). But in retrospect, Goodfellas feels like the moment when Scorsese became an icon--the guy that young filmmakers wanted to pattern themselves after. It wasn't just that he spends the film having a great time playing with his camera (though he certainly does); it's the supreme confidence and control on display. Right at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Scorsese seemed to be bursting open the notions of what was possible in "mainstream" cinema, making up new rules seemingly as he went along. The influence of his resulting work is specifically felt in many of the great films of the ensuing years (it's impossible to imagine Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights without Goodfellas), but more than that, it pointed the way for a new era of bold, brash filmmaking. As with all truly great films, Goodfellas sums up what has come before it and suggests what's to come. And it proves its director, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be a storyteller of unmatched technique and unquestionable skill. It's an electrifying motion picture.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
When Warner Brothers announced the release of this "20th anniversary edition," hopes among Goodfellas fans were high; the film's original Blu-ray release was early in the format's life, and the audio and video quality, while passable, were hardly up to current standards. So, many of us were optimistic that a new transfer and audio mix were being prepared, in addition to, perhaps, some new "20th anniversary" extras. No such luck--this is a simple repackaging job, with the same 50GB Blu-ray disc packaged in a hardback-style "Digibook" with a second, standard-def DVD disc (see "Bonus Features").
The VC-1 transfer is somewhat problematic--there are spots where it looks phenomenal, and others where it is a hazy, soupy mess. It does best in brightly-lit scenes; night-time exteriors and dark interiors often skew too grainy and noisy, while the abundance of hot-red lighting (particularly in nightclubs and at Billy Batts' burial site) occasionally overpowers the image. There is also the issue of a clear and noticeable line through the image for several seconds around the 75-minute mark; it has apparently existed in the film's previous home video incarnations, but nothing like a restoration to clean something like that up, eh Warner Brothers?
On the other hand, skin tones are solid and the details in Scorsese's tight close-ups (a blood-covered gun, the prison visitor's log, the ornaments on Henry's Christmas tree) are vividly rendered. The bold saturation of the early passages (particularly an early scene at Karen's tennis club) is also a nice touch--and perhaps a tentative attempt to match the look of the period to the films of that era, a strategy more aggressively employed in Scorsese's later film The Aviator.
More frustration for fans, as one of the primary complaints about the 2007 disc was that it offered only a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix--no TrueHD, no DTS-HD MA, nothing you can't hear on a standard-definition DVD. Again, that holds true for this reissue, in spite of the cover's promise of "Hi-Def Sound." That said, and hopes for a lossless track set aside, it is a pretty good mix--though not a great one (I wouldn't have minded a little more volume in the rear channels). But it does a fine job handling the picture's densely layered sound design, with the nonstop music well-modulated and effects strong (particularly the heavyweight gunshots). Dialogue is mostly sharp, though Henry and Karen's big fight towards the end of the film is mixed at a strangely quiet volume. Not bad overall, but we simply expect more from a Blu-ray these days.
French and Spanish 2.0 tracks are also available, in addition to English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Thankfully, the Blu-ray ports over all of the bonus features from the excellent 2004 DVD special edition. The best of them is the outstanding Cast and Crew Commentary, a fast-moving, tightly-edited track combining thoughts and memories from director Scorsese, actors Liotta, Bracco, Sorvino, and Frank Vincent, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The Cop and Crook Commentary features Henry Hill himself, along with his FBI contact Edward McDonald; it's an interesting curio, though the duo have trouble sustaining the full length of the track without frequent pauses and ramblings.
"Getting Made" (29:36) your basic making-of featurette, full of great behind-the-scenes footage and photos, recent interviews with several members of the cast and crew (Liotta, Pesci, Sorvino, Pileggi, Schoonmaker, DeFina, and so on), and vintage interviews with Scorsese and DeNiro. The entertaining "Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy" (13:33) assembles testimonials to the power of the picture from its filmmaking admirers, including Richard Linklater, Jon Favreau, Frank Darabont, the Hughes brothers, Joe Carnahan and Antoine Fuqua. "Paper is Cheaper Than Film" (4:27) is a storyboard-to-screen comparison, while "The Workaday Gangster" (7:58) features the real Henry Hill (and several members of the cast and crew) discussing the film's portrait of the wiseguy lifestyle.
This new edition also comes with a second, standard-definition DVD disc, which includes the feature-length documentary "Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film" (1:45:42). Narrated by Alec Baldwin and featuring copious clips and interviews with cinema historians, crime writers (including Pileggi), and filmmakers (including Scorsese), it's a truly outstanding doc and absolutely worth your time. The only problem is, it's nothing new; gangster movie fans will already own it, as it was included as a bonus disc for the Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection Vol. 4 set. Also included on the bonus DVD are four gangster-themed Warner Brothers cartoons: "I Like Mountain Music" (6:58), "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter" (8:34), "Racketeer Rabbit" (7:52), and "Bugs and Thugs" (7:11).
I would make the case that Goodfellas is the single greatest film of the 1990s--not just for its technical virtuosity and storytelling skill, but for the considerable influence it cast over films and pop culture of that decade. But it still hasn't seen an HD release worthy of its look and sound, and by recycling its three-year old pressing and slapping it behind a new, handsome cover, Warner Brothers has pulled a fast one that Jimmy "The Gent" might have admired.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.