Having covered such a wide range of genres over his career, there will never be a definitive consensus, however his 1990 film GoodFellas presents possibly the most compelling case to be considered Scorsese’s best. None of his other films have been as successful in blending his rich thematic subtexts and technical mastery with wildly entertaining plots and characters in what is quite simply the greatest gangster film ever made.
GoodFellas tells the story of Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) life from his humble beginnings in an Italian neighbourhood in ’50s New York, to his rise through the ranks of the mafia, and finally to his absolute capitulation. He is mentored by Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and partnered by Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci), and along with his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and head of the ‘family’ Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), when he goes down, he takes everyone down with him. No other film has quite encapsulated the classic rise-and-fall story, and Scorsese revels in manipulating the audience’s emotions, taking them from reverence for the gangster lifestyle to repugnance.
The overall performance of the cast is first class. Liotta has never bettered his turn as Henry Hill; he quite simply lives and breathes his character, and the makeup effects deserve special commendation for making the older Henry look so convincingly ravaged. De Niro is, as always, fantastic, oscillating from warmth to menace with breathtaking ease, but the true standout performance is Pesci, whose psychopathic performance won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
It’s a testament to GoodFellas quality that its run time, just under two and a half hours, feels over too soon. The pacing is a huge technical achievement – it never slows for lengthy, dialogue-driven scenes like those in The Godfather, and it never resorts to the hyperbolic violence seen in Scarface. It has also aged significantly better than its rivals for the gangster film crown.
GoodFellas stakes a great claim to have the greatest Scorsese soundtrack of all his film, even surpassing Bernard Herrmann’s classic score for Taxi Driver. It has everything from Tony Bennett to the Rolling Stones, and from Aretha Franklin to Sid Vicious. The music perfectly captures the essence of the eras covered in the film, going from the idyllic ‘Little Italy’ in the ’50s to the drug-soaked late ’70s. Scorsese ticks off every piece of gangster iconography you can think of – the classic cars, the guns, the suits, the food – and yet does so with such verve and energy that it makes it all seem fresh. Not bad for someone who describes his relationship to ‘the life’ as love-hate.
At the beginning of his final monologue in the courtroom, Henry states that he had it all, and the same is true for GoodFellas. As a technical achievement, it’s unparalleled. As a gangster film, it’s unlikely ever to be surpassed. It’s brutal and funny, alluring and repulsive, a stunning vision of what Scorsese has called ‘the America dream gone completely mad and twisted.’ At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy GoodFellas, ‘in the fuckin’ oven you’re gonna go head first!’
Written by Matthew Clough