Weekly Classics: Goodfellas

Published February 3, 2012

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” narrates Ray Liotta.

It’s late at night in East Brooklyn and Liotta is in a car with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. A range of muffled sounds and thumps catch their attention. They pull over and open the trunk to reveal a bloodied body of a man. Pesci takes out a knife, De Niro a gun, and within moments we witness a scene of unparalleled brutality, as Pesci repeatedly stabs the body and De Niro empties his gun into it. It’s cruel, it’s chilling, it’s sickening, yet you can’t help watch it.

In the realm of mob movies, Goodfellas is the very definition of a classic. Based on the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese tells the story of Henry Hill, a street-smart kid who makes his bones as a common street thug starting off with low level crimes and climbing his way up till he, ironically, becomes an FBI informant.

The film stars a virtual who’s who of Hollywood’s elite with Henry Hill played by Liotta, Jimmy Burke played by De Niro and Tommy DeVito played by Joe Pesci. It’s an embarrassment of Oscar-quality performances, artful violence, sublimely executed tracking shots, rich dialogue, unique characters and classic scenes.

Liotta’s career-making impersonation of the shark-like Henry Hill is of a sleazy and slimy character that you instantly hate, but at the same time can’t help feel sorry for as Scorsese artfully shows the inner turmoil of a man drowning in the guilt over the tortures that he has inflicted. Robert De Niro plays a much subdued character even though his character is one of the most blood thirsty of the lot.

One of Scorcese’s trademarks is playing with the chronology of the movie, as the film opens with a scene from the middle of the film, a technique he employed in another classic movie “Casino”, which opens with a scene from its climactic end. Playing with time has been an old literary tool used by some of the greatest writers of our time such as James Joyce and Salman Rushdie, but it clearly makes more of an impact in cinema.

There’s no doubt that Joe Pesci’s performance stands out as the psychotic Tommy De Vito. His character traverses the landscape of a psychopath’s mind and he channels the brutality with a supreme effortlessness. Many people don’t know this but the “You think I’m funny?” scene was based on a story that Joe Pesci acted out for Scorsese.

While working in a restaurant as a young man, Pesci once told a mobster that he was funny and the mobster became very angry. Scorsese allowed Pesci and Ray Liotta to improvise the scene without informing the other actors in the scene because he wanted to extract their genuine reactions.

Goodfellas, like many of Scorceses’ other movies is essentially about men and their relationships with other men. In this day and age, the lack of a strong female character might be conspicuous, but that is only the result of the kind of world’s Scorsese explores.

The movie not only exposes the thrills and chills of a life of crime and the inner turbulence it creates within the people who lead these lives, but also the collateral damage it wreaks on the people who surround these people. It examines the ideals of loyalty, trust and family and the resulting consequences of their betrayal.

Another interesting fact about this movie is its soundtrack. According to an interview by Scorsese, a lot of non-dialogue scenes were shot to playback. For example, he had Eric Clapton’s “Layla” playing on the set while shooting the scene where the dead bodies are discovered in the car, dumpster, and the meat-truck.

In fact, Scorsese himself played the ending coda to “Layla” that’s ended up in the film.

View Dawn.com’s weekly classics archive here.

The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com

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