Being a gangster was better than being president of the United States!” Is it less of a choice than ever? The rerelease of Martin Scorsese’s brash and brilliant mob masterpiece from 1990 – about the rise and fall of Irish-Italian criminal Henry Hill, from the 60s to the 80s – is a reminder of what his very best work looks like, and you can feel again the stunning impact of his A-team: Robert De Niro as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway and the Oscar-winning Joe Pesci as his psychopathic buddy Tommy DeVito, with Paul Sorvino as the malevolent and slow-moving capo Paulie Cicero and the director’s mother Catherine Scorsese superb in her cameo as Tommy’s artistically inclined mom.
Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece zips along with relish, and his acting A-team – De Niro, Pesci, Liotta – are on top form as this brilliant comic nightmare unfolds
Ray Liotta delivers such an interestingly livewire and career-defining performance as the wide-eyed aspirational tough guy Henry himself, whose charming gravelly voice gives this movie its sensational voiceover, together with Lorraine Bracco, imperious and charming as Henry’s loyal, mistreated wife Karen, probably the one character who emerges from the story with something coming close to dignity.
Since Goodfellas movie’s original release, Bracco and Michael Imperioli (the hapless Spider) went on to star in HBO’s The Sopranos, which developed and amplified the movie’s theme that being a gangster isn’t as great as it used to be. The real Henry Hill died of a heart attack in 2012; Jimmy Conway succumbed to lung cancer in prison in 1996; Paul Vario, the model for Paulie, had died in prison in 1988; and Thomas DeSimone, the model for Pesci’s unforgettably scary Tommy, vanished in 1979 and remains untraced for reasons that are obvious from the film.
Goodfellas barrels along with relentless storytelling relish, its jukebox slams of pop music continuously convulsing the film with sugar-rush excitement amounting nearly to hysteria. It’s not a movie with a formal three-act structure, it just unloads radioactively horrible and fascinating anecdotes in irresistible succession, and you watch Liotta’s Henry gradually deteriorating as he becomes his own loyalest customer in the cocaine business.
Scorsese shows how the mob ethic of never ratting on your friends is nonsense, as Henry sells them out to the FBI to save himself, and Jimmy paranoically whacks his comrades to pre-empt precisely this destiny. His odd and creepy offer of Dior dresses to Karen (as a potential ambush) is one of the movie’s most defining, ambiguous moments.
All of the bonhomie and good times are a lie: mobsters are friendliest just before the hit, or the FBI sellout. And the gangsters’ sentimentality, fear and dysfunction are never more excruciating than when unfortunate Tommy is taken into a basement for what he thinks is really his “made guy” ceremony. In a way, it is.
Watching Goodfellas again, what strikes me is the central question of its comedy, as Tommy famously asks: “Funny, how?” Like Tommy in that highlight sequence, the gangsters are always threateningly joking, kidding around, messing with you and – to use a punch line – breaking your balls. Weirdly, the film it always reminds me of is Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose; veteran comic Henny Youngman puts in a cameo for Goodfellas with a routine that Danny would have recognised. The very words goodfellas or wiseguys are immersed in deceptive, aggressive comedy; no one pulls through a situation like a man who’s just got a laugh at someone else’s expense.