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14th October 2015

Classic Review: Goodfellas

Scorsese’s twelfth film risks not living up to the tremendous hype around it—but exceeds all expectation

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

So goes the opening, altogether catalysing line of Martin Scorsese’s ubiquitous crime drama, Goodfellas. In this opening statement, Ray Liotta’s character, real life mobster-turned FBI informant Henry Hill, confesses a yearning desire to be a part of something bigger than himself; to live that often-idealized gangster lifestyle: Do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. Hill’s ruthless rise and inevitable fall forms the basis for this hallmark of Scorsese’s canon. The horrifying—and often hilarious—Mafia life is fantastically captured by the ensemble cast. Oscar-winning Joe Pesci, Oscar-nominated Lorraine Bracco and, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy Robert De Niro, are all just the tip of the iceberg in a film where every supporting role feels revelatory.

For me however, the problem with watching it after having heard of its brilliance almost three years ago (“as far back as AS-Levels, I always wanted to watch Goodfellas”), was that there was always the possibility of it failing to live up to the hype.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress owing to it being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant,” and considered by a number of critics to be one of the greatest films of all time, Scorsese’s 12th film could easily have fallen flat owing to its tremendous critical, commercial and artistic success. Yet it did not fall flat. In all honesty, it didn’t even come close. The entire 146-minute runtime flew past in a blaze of tension, deception, trust and quite masterful direction.

From the plot, to the casting, to the script, to the placement of seemingly irrelevant props, every single aspect of Goodfellas felt considered, carefully chosen and designed to blend in with, and add to, the rest of the film. Though the narrative was at times a breathless and constantly enthralling encounter, the moments in which I felt the film was most successful were those where Scorsese carefully utilised silence.

For example, in one of most tantalising scenes of the crime genre, in which Tommy DeVito (Pesci) appears to be on the brink of losing his notoriously short temper, having been told by Hill that he’s a “funny guy,” Scorsese uses a bloated eight-second silence in order to allow the audience to feel the main character’s life seemingly hanging in the balance. Hill appears dumbstruck and the entire atmosphere of the once-riotous scene changes. The audience’s attention wholly captured as the sound mellows to a mute.

This particular moment forms a fitting microcosm for Goodfellas in that, though the pace is slowed and the sound quietened, the effect is quite the opposite. Indeed, despite the general tone of this film being pacey and loud, the careful uses of stillness, both in a visual and auditory sense, leave the audience firmly glued to the screen. Despite the film’s towering status, my expectations were entirely exceeded.

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