Why ‘GoodFellas’ is an exploration of evil, not an endorsement

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

Released Sept. 19, 1990
Directed by Martin Scorsese

The first feeling that strikes you when watching “GoodFellas,” whether it’s your first time or on a rewatch after a long time, is how visceral the entire film is. The movie begins with three men casually driving in the night when they hear a sound from the trunk. They pull over to look, and we discover there’s a bleeding man locked back there. Just as we start to process what’s going on, one of the riders pulls out a butcher’s knife and repeatedly stabs the trapped man, violently and gruesomely. The camera then focuses on the driver as we hear a narrator say, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Thus begins Martin Scorsese’s 1990 epic mobster film, a bravado masterpiece that captured the attention of audiences and critics alike. Adapted from the non-fiction book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” by Nicholas Pileggi, the film details the life of Henry Hill, a low-level mob enforcer who became an FBI informant.

Released the same year as Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited “The Godfather Part III,” “GoodFellas” looks at mafia life from the bottom up instead of the high-level view of the Corleone family. Hill begins his career of crime at a young age and soon grows up (now played by Ray Liotta) to be a reliable earner for the gang. Working for gangsters allows Henry to escape the working class of his family and earn more money, buy better clothes and cars, and get into better venues and restaurants. His main allies are Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar here), and all answer to Paulie (Paul Sorvino). Henry marries neighborhood girl Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a prideful woman from a Jewish family but one accepting of her new “family” once she gets a taste of the life.

The greatness of “GoodFellas” lies in an exhilarating personal look inside the mob. Scorsese is a master at drawing us into the allure of the lifestyle, as these wiseguys always have stacks of bills in their pocket, are treated like royalty in the community, and, most importantly, can act without consequence. The cops are paid off. The distributors and drivers are paid off. The bar owners aren’t entirely paid off, but it’s best to not complain about that if they want to stay healthy with this crew.

If film allows us to enter a world of people different than us, then “GoodFellas” brings us in touch with the lowest of society; people who prey on others, who take and do anything they want, and dare us to stop them. Scorsese’s brilliant editing and storytelling speed forces us to hang on and enjoy the ride, but there is also a cost to this life: around any dark corner they travel lies the specter of violence that appears suddenly and decisively.

Tommy, a hot-tempered purebred Italian who always brings a gun to a knife fight, is violence personified. At the time of its release, “GoodFellas” came on the heels of a decade where action heroes used force as entertainment, leaving behind a pile of anonymous, disposable men while they coolly move on with a funny quip. But there are no smiles or laughs when the mob enforcers of “GoodFellas” unleash their rage on unsuspecting victims. Scorsese films these moments with blood that is both seen and heard, and any quips fall flat as the other characters in the scene stand astonished at what just happened. The taking of human life takes its toll and forces us to absorb it along with all the good times these gangsters are having.

There is an ongoing debate, particularly when it comes to Scorsese movies like “GoodFellas,” “Taxi Driver,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” that there are films that glorify violence, immorality, and chaos. Each movie is unique, and context is critical, but Scorsese crafted a work of art that shows its audience the allure of this criminal lifestyle while grappling with its consequences. The lives of every character are irreparably damaged by the choices they make through their cooperation. The criminality of the men and women of “GoodFellas” is intoxicating, but the lives and bodies left in their wake are sobering.

Art allows us to explore philosophies and emotions we may or may not endorse, that help us think and evolve ourselves. Sometimes that involves exploring the darkness present within all of us. Through story, acting, images, and music, Scorsese depicts the emotional journey of small-time gangsters, perhaps better than any other film or after, but it is on us to decide how to process “GoodFellas,” not the artist. Their mission is to express the truth of their story, and to limit any film, book, painting or music because some people may adopt the wrong message is a pathway to the death of art, whether its “GoodFellas” or “Taxi Driver,” “Fight Club” or “Joker.”

As if the story and performance of “GoodFellas” wasn’t strong enough, Scorsese directed a masterpiece on technical ability alone. Thanks to editor Thelma Schoonmaker (a frequent Scorsese collaborator who earned an Oscar nomination for her work here), the movie never slows down enough for audiences to catch their breath, keeping the energy and tension at a high level. Scorsese also makes incredible use of period pop and rock music through the era of the movie, which roughly takes place from the 1950s to the early 1980s. There are also countless memorable scenes and shots, references and techniques that acknowledge the history of cinema, and repeatable dialogue that makes “GoodFellas” a lesson in film school itself.

It’s impossible to overestimate the legacy of “Goodfellas.” It’s easily in the top tier of gangster film canon along with the first two Godfather movies, and usually in conversation with T.V.’s “The Sopranos,” also starring Bracco and Michael Imperioli (who cameos in the film as Spider in a memorable scene). Although nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, “Goodfellas” lost out to “Dances With Wolves” in a moment that is often brought up for one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes. For what it’s worth, “Goodfellas” has certainly endured as the best movie of 1990 in our consciousness, and remains highly regarded in critical consensus for the entire decade.

Scorsese would follow up “Goodfellas,” at least spiritually, in 1995’s “Casino,” where De Niro and Pesci once again play mobsters now operating in Las Vegas with Sharon Stone. There’s no doubt that “Casino” is very, very good, but it can’t quite hit the highs of “Goodfellas,” and in a way, it’s like going on a rollercoaster for the second time. You know what you’re in for.

The Weekend: “Goodfellas” has obtained such cultural currency that it immediately sticks out in the list of films that have historically debuted during Week 38, but it is by no means not the only highlight here, as many popular films, acclaimed favorites and even Academy Award winners make their bow here.

After directing films alternating between cult acclaim and the mainstream, David Lynch finally connected the two in 1986’s seminal “Blue Velvet” about the hidden darkness behind typical suburbia. Along similar lines, Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” opens in limited release in 1999 and would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but its reputation has aged like fine milk compared to the touchstone films that were also released that year. (For more on 1999, be sure to read Brian Raftery’s excellent “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.”).

The Academy also granted Best Picture status to 1984’s “Amadeus,” Milos Forman’s brilliant film exploring the lament of being close to genius but lacking it. Other Best Picture nominees that were released this weekend include Curtis Hanson’s noir murder mystery “L.A. Confidential” in 1997, Bennett Miller’s behind-the-scenes baseball drama “Moneyball” in 2011, and one final movie we’ll get to in a moment.

Oddly enough, “Goodfellas” wasn’t the only mob drama directed by master filmmakers released on Sept. 21, 1990. “Miller’s Crossing,” the third film by the Coen Brothers, was shown in precisely one theater that weekend before slowly expanding to a few hundred screens over the next month. However, the film failed to make any dent at the box office or awards season, but now like all the Coen Brothers productions, it gradually found its audience as the prolific filmmaking duo rose in success and acclaim.

Other favorites that debuted this weekend include 1987’s “Fatal Attraction,” 1995’s “Seven,” 1998’s “Rush Hour,” and the American release of the animated film “Spirited Away” in 2002.

The final film of note had a quiet debut in 1994, never cracked the box office top five, received a Best Picture nomination in a year where the conversation was dominated by “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction,” and through cable reruns and video rentals, gradually became one of the most beloved movies of all time. Directed by Frank Darabont and adapted from a short story by Stephen King, “The Shawshank Redemption” is an enduring and emotional journey of friendship between two prisoners (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman). Although it’s a long film, more and more people were pulled into the drama, and it eventually rose to the number one spot in the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDB) Top Rated Films of All Time, as voted on by users. “Goodfellas” is 18.

So yeah, this is a pretty stacked lineup. All said, the third week of September might be the dark horse candidate for the best movie weekend of the year.

Next Week: “Best in Show”

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on September 19, 2019.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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