“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Since The Godfather basically defined the crime genre in 1972, there have been a lot of imitators and followers, some good and some bad, but nothing ever came close to the original. It’s hard to compare, but I’d say that Goodfellas came pretty close in 1990. (Legendary critic Roger Ebert actually preferred Goodfellas to The Godfather.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, this is a mobster story with as much depth and humanity as The Godfather, but it shows a different side of the story. The Godfather shows the view at the top—the big boss and his family calling all the shots. Goodfellas shows the working man’s view of organized crime—a kid trying to break into the business and make a name for himself. The film is actually based on real-life mobsters, one of whom consulted on much of the film, so there’s a real authenticity to the film that’s missing in most crime films. It’s a great entry in the crime genre that I believe deserves a place right next to some of the biggest names in the genre.
The plot is more like a biopic than a typical movie: it covers 25 years in the life of Henry Hill, a kid who grows up in a rough neighborhood and gets into the business of organized crime. We see him begin to get his hands dirty in his pursuit of the gangster life. We see him fall in love, get married, and struggle to balance his work life and his home life. We see him hang out with his criminal friends, which is at times completely foreign and at other times strangely familiar. We see him pull off what was at the time the biggest heist in American history. We see him get in way over his head and struggle with what to do with the messes he gets himself into. There’s a lot of ground covered, and it’s less about what happens and more about who the characters become, but it’s gripping all the way through.
If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you—doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life.
Liotta, de Niro, and Pesci took their roles and authenticity very seriously, sometimes calling the real-life Henry Hill several times a day for advice on matters as trivial as how a character held a cigarette. Scorsese took things just as seriously, even going as far as re-tying actors’ ties to get the knot right. There’s even an FBI questioner who plays himself in the movie and recreates an actual conversation he had with a mobster in 1980. When Hill saw the movie and was asked how accurate it was, he said “about 90%.” This is one of the most realistic portrayals we have of organized crime in America, and that level of realism is more fascinating than most fictional stories on the subject. The characters and scenes all feel natural and real—some have said that these performances were the best in the actors’ storied careers. Whether you appreciate the detail or not, this is a film that totally immerses you in the life of organized criminals, and it’s a wild ride.
The events of the film are all over the place, as are the feelings it evokes. There are times you’re cheering for the characters and other times you’re shouting for them to stop. In The Godfather, we saw a family sticking to each other through thick and thin; in Goodfellas, we see a group of criminals with loose connections try to stick to each other the same way, but that familial bond just isn’t there, and when the pressure comes down on the characters, each of them knows it. For these professional criminals, police and even jail aren’t the threats you’d think them to be, but there’s plenty of danger in your closest friends.
Goodfellas is a modern classic in the crime genre that earns its place on the watch list of any fan. If you liked The Godfather or modern crime movies like The Departed and The Usual Suspects and haven’t seen this one, you need to give it a try. When it came out, it was shockingly violent and had more profanity than any movie in history. I wasn’t turned off by these, though—the violence is not gratuitous or obscene, and the language feels very natural for the characters. The violence and language are essential to the immersion in the lives of these career criminals. If organized crime interest you at all, this is a must-see movie.
Director: Martin Scorsese