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USA 1990
Directed by
Martin Scorsese
146 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis  An autobiographical account of the criminal career of New York hoodlum Henry Hill (played by Christopher Serrone as a teenage and by Ray Liotta as an adult) from the mid-50s to the 1980s.

Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director but only won one for Joe Pesci as Best Supporting Actor but it was named best film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics and was deemed "culturally significant" and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. As to why I am not sure. Masterful genre film-making yes but at the end of the day it’s about the grubby activities of a bunch of fat, semi-literate thugs in expensive suits. The only reason that Joe Pesci stands out performance-wise is that he is the most repugnant of them all.

The film is based on a fact-based story related in the novel 'Wiseguy' by Nicholas Pileggi who co-wrote the script with Scorsese. It opens gruesomely with the memorable line spoken by Liotta: "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster" before we watch Pesci’s Tommy and Robert De Niro’s Jimmy knife and shoot a fellow-hoodlum. From there it moves frenetically through Henry’s story (much of it narrated by Henry and in places by his wife played by Lorraine Bracco) as his dream becomes increasingly tarnished. It takes a restless Scorsese over an hour before he allows any measure of real dramatic substance to develop. Prior to that the film is amerry-go-round depiction of the mobster lifestyle – heists and hits, visits to nightclubs, the façade of suburban existence, men kissing each other on the cheek and whispering secrets in each other ears and so on. It's all stuff we’ve seen in the Coppola school of Mafia movie but re-located lower down the pecking order and in a less flamboyant age, the thuggery less romanticised than in Coppola's efforts but in its own way aestheticised.

The presence of Liotta as an Irish-Italian “half-breed” gives the film an unusual type of central protagonist and a novel perspective. With his dark eye-liner and feminine features he is a refreshing break from the standard Sicilian gangster type but he also allows for an outsider perspective that frames and distantces us from the violence that is a matter of course and thus acting as a kind of narrative presence for Scorsese, the paradigmatic voyeur. Henry is very much the eye of the storm and Liotta nicely judges his distance from his fellow cast members who all enter into their gangster roles with relish, De Niro, of course, being an old hand at this kind of schtick. Lorraine Bracco is also effective as Hill’s wife

Scorsese’s technicians including notably cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker along with the first class production team are integral to packaging the solid script and outstanding use is made of iconic pop songs to deliver an intense film but how Goodfellas is "culturally significant" I am not sure.

FYI: Scorsese reunited with De Niro and Pesci for reworkings of this film in Casino (1995) and The Irishman in 2019.  




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