As one of many “gangster” movies on the list, GoodFellas is definitely a worthy contribution. It may not have the cultural fame as The Godfather (1972; #2) or The Godfather Part II (1974; #32), but it offers cinematic brilliance, and a compelling true story.
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates the film, admitting from the start that he had always wanted to be a part of the mafia’s Lucchese family. He succeeds at a young age in integrating himself into the fold by making himself indispensable as a doer of odd jobs, much to the chagrin of his Irish-American family. From there, Hill meets a number of associates, namely Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert DeNiro), and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry also learns the two most important rules: Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut. He gets involved in bigger and bigger heists, mostly big airline crimes, and enjoys a grander and grander lifestyle. He marries a Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who isn’t as naive as she is first made out to be. When she first meets Henry, she takes the gun he used to pistol-whip her ex-boyfriend willingly, not knowing what her new love interest does for a living. But she eventually catches on to the fact that she and Henry only ever hang out with the same people, and that Henry is having an affair (how could he forget it when his wife wakes him up with a gun to his face). She can’t ignore these signs, especially as Henry gets involved in the drug trade and sees his friends die despite their commitment to “the life.” Since it’s a Martin Scorcese masterpiece based on the true story, Wiseguy, by Nicholas Pileggi, how his life unfolds becomes a compelling look into one of the most secret and intriguing ways of living we’ve ever come to know.
You wouldn’t think a movie about the mob would have intriguing cinematic aspects beyond plot. Trust me, there’s enough plot and dialogue to keep this movie going even without the genius of Martin Scorcese in the director’s chair. A notable line to come out of GoodFellas: “And then there was Jimmy Two Times who got that nickname because he said everything twice like, ‘I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers.’” You may have heard this quoted as often as “One time, in band camp”—it’s that kind of cultural jab. Of course the actors, many of whom are typecast (but not to a boring, unable-to-do-anything-else degree) such as Pesci and DeNiro (My Cousin Vinny and The Godfather Part II respectively), are beyond superb. They make for a zany, serious, impeccable cast that runs the gamut of comedy and drama with perfection. And then there’s the physical cinematography. I would have moved this movie higher up the list just for that. In one of the opening scene as the camera pans the bar where all the associates hang out, you have a massively long take where these actors have to pretend to be normal people chatting and drinking at a bar, and turn to the camera directly when it gets to their bar stool. It’s a take not many actors could pull off today without a couple of flubs and quicker cuts.
There’s also the hushed and harried scene between DeNiro and Liotta in a diner. Henry sits down after being beckoned (from the camera’s point of view) across the restaurant by Jimmy. He slides in the booth, and the camera switches to a side view of the two sitting across from each other in the tight space. While they talk, you may be more engrossed in their conversation, but watch the background. The camera zooms out imperceptibly slow. You’d think this would make the gray concrete scenery outside the window become obsolete. But, in sync with the zoom out, the scenery zooms in to adjust for the distance. Then the camera zooms in again, like automatic focus, just a little to set up the perfect shot. It’s spectacular, and, similar to Citizen Kane, the cinematography tends to mirror the action.
If you’re tired of you Godfather trilogy reruns, give GoodFellas a looksee. It may just become your favorite gangster flick.