“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This immortal opening line perfectly sets the tone for Martin Scorsese’s classic crime flick Goodfellas, which turns 30 this month. Based on Wiseguys – Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction account of the rise and fall of New York mobster Henry Hill – Goodfellas captures both the intoxicating allure and nerve-wracking paranoia of the underworld lifestyle in a way that’s still yet to be topped.
So yeah, it’s an easy contender for the greatest gangster movie of all time, right up there with other candidates like The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America, and Scarface. But more than that, it’s also one of Scorsese’s best efforts – in fact, it might just be the best.
Scorsese’s stiffest competition is…Scorsese
Now, this is a big call. Scorsese has one of the finest filmographies in history, having called the shots on several of the greatest movies of all time, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And in many ways, Goodfellas comes up short compared to those films and others from the director’s celebrated oeuvre.
After all, it’s not like Goodfellas boasts an intense, unflinching portrait of its lead character. There’s no Travis Bickle here; no Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, or Rupert Pupkin for a powerhouse performer to sink their teeth into while Scorsese deftly peels back layer after layer of engrossing characterisation.
Goodfellas doesn’t rival the scope of other standout Scorsese joints, either. Sure, it covers around 25 years – from Hill’s first forays into organised crime in 1955 through to him entering the witness protection program in 1980 – but that’s nothing compared to the half century charted in The Irishman. Goodfellas’ narrative also lacks the more complex plotting seen in that film, or in Best Picture winner The Departed, for that matter.
Then there’s the meaty stuff: the themes and cultural commentary underpinning Goodfellas and the other entries in Scorsese’s back catalogue. Once again, Goodfellas is hardly best in class in this regard; it’s “crime doesn’t pay (except when it does)” theme and the way it depicts its period setting pale in comparison to, say, Raging Bull’s blistering takedown of toxic masculinity or Taxi Driver’s vivid distillation of the post-Vietnam War era’s social climate.
What makes Goodfellas the best Scorsese movie, then?
Crucially, though, Goodfellas outshines every other Scorsese movies in one key area: pace. The film is 145 minutes long, and yet it’s the briskest two hours ever committed to screen. Scorsese once likened the start of the movie to a gunshot, with the narrative momentum only increasing from that point on, and this sense of narrative propulsion is electrifying.
Amazingly, Goodfellas’ breakneck speed enhances its overall storytelling, too. Relying on short, snappy scenes, 1960s New Wave creative flourishes and the occasional chronological shuffle, Scorsese spins a free-flowing yarn out of a fundamentally episodic screenplay, racing towards the finish line without ever skimping on character or emotion. Frankly, it makes everything else Scorsese has done before or since seem sluggish and bloated by comparison.
What’s more, for every category where Goodfellas doesn’t live up to its fellow “Best Scorsese Movie” competitors, there’s always another where it’s at least their equal.
Sure, Goodfellas isn’t anchored by a single character study brought to life in a towering turn by a screen legend. But it is a showcase for one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, with Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci crafting memorable performances off the back of Scorsese and Pileggi’s nuanced script – heck, Bracco and Pesci both earned Oscar nods for their work here!
At the same time, Goodfellas’ wider focus never gets in the way of its plotting; it remains steadfastly zeroed in on its core characters at all times. While this means it sacrifices epic sweep and plot intricacy, it more than makes up for it through narrative clarity; unlike either The Departed or The Irishman, the story never drags or leaves you momentarily bamboozled as you try to tease out how various characters and events fit together.
This streamlined approach extends to the way Scorsese handles Goodfellas’ themes, as well. No, it’s not the auteur’s most insightful film, but it doesn’t overreach, either – there’s no heavy-handed, rat-crawling-past-Capitol-hill symbolism to taint the ending of this picture.
Instead, it’s just an expertly executed parable about leading a life of crime that doubles as an indictment of a system that allows crooks like Henry Hill to break the rules without ever fully copping to the consequences.
Hardly revolutionary stuff – but what is pioneering about Goodfellas is how Scorsese adds a grounded, human element to his sordid tale.
Before Goodfellas, crime fables were sketched in largely operatic tones, a take Scorsese slyly subverts with domestic scenes such as Hill and fellow gangsters Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito sitting down for dinner with DeVito’s elderly mother. It’s a stroke of genius that mines hitherto untapped comedic depths within the genre (and incidentally, inspired David Chase to create The Sopranos almost a decade later).
Final verdict: This is Scorsese at his purest
So, take all of this – the rapid-fire pacing, exceptional ensemble cast, timeless themes and unique spin – and then sprinkle it with ol’ Marty’s virtuoso filmmaking skills – the pithy voice overs, punchy freeze frames, dazzling long takes and signature rock ‘n’ roll-fuelled montages – and you’re left with the purest expression of Scorsese’s filmmaking style. And really, shouldn’t that be enough to crown Goodfellas the director’s best movie yet?