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On Sept. 19, 1990, Martin Scorsese unveiled his gangster epic Goodfellas in theaters. The film win on to nab a best supporting actor Oscar for Joe Pesci at the 63rd Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Hollywood has long been fascinated with the gangster. But nobody has ever taken quite the fix on the tribal rites and ethos of the American gangster that Martin Scorsese does in Goodfellas.
This film harkens back to such Scorsese examinations of the volatile urban male as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Only this time he casts his net wider. In Goodfellas, he picks over an entire male subculture. He explores the gangster as a sociological phenomenon, observing the behavior, language, morality and business practices of these modern-day Robbing Hoods.
How current audiences will react to a film where violence isn’t cartoonish and its characters all lack sympathy is a tough call. One easy prediction, though: This intense, fast-paced, often funny film will be talked about and argued over for years to come. Goodfellas certainly feels like a hit movie. And it certainly should enjoy a long ancillary afterlife.
Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese’s script is based on Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the true 30-year story of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Sicilian Brooklyn kid who has only one ambition in life — to be a “wiseguy” or “goodfella” (the film’s compromise title when a certain TV series abrogated the book’s title).
The mobsters he watches from his Brooklyn home are the neighborhood hotshots. Even the cops kowtow to them. Young Henry (vigorously played by Christopher Serrone) runs errands for the wise guys and, eventually, is accepted into the family.
A giddy outlaw exhilaration fuels the film’s first hour. All values are turned on their head: Bad is good and crime is an honorable profession. The Mafia characters Henry meets all have a broad, Runyonesque swagger. They gather in saloons to roar with drunken laughter at their own bravado.
Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) runs the gang like a sagacious Oriental potentate; a mere nod or gesture sends chills down the spines of tough, street-hardened men.
Henry’s hero is James Conway (Robert De Niro), a legendary wiseguy who, like himself, cannot ascend the heights of family leadership because of his Irish background.
Among pals Henry’s own age is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a fellow soldier and psychopath whose condition goes unnoticed in such company. Henry soon grows up to be a full-fledged family member in the person of Ray Liotta. With this performance, Liotta fulfills the promise of his film debut in Something Wild.
His choir-boy face perfectly masks the character’s dark behavior. As portrayed by Liotta and Scorsese, though, Henry never entirely loses the “good” in the goodfella handle.
Murders — called “whacking” — are left to others. Henry stays clean in an amoral sort of way. So he’s our eyes and ears into this strange tribe of men above the law. We watch as Conway and DeVito grow more treacherous. We watch as Henry courts and marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a feisty Brooklynite who finds herself married to the mob — and liking it.
We watch as Henry gets busted and joins Cicero and Conway in prison — a country-club atmosphere where the trio cooks rich Italian cuisine. And we watch as the repercussions of such a life gradually set in.
Scorsese opens the film with an act of gruesome violence. Even at its jauntiest, the threat of bloodshed hangs over the film. But Scorsese pushes the violence into the margins. Whackings happen quickly or even off-camera. Wiseguys try to dispatch each other as speedily as possible.
Funnily enough, just as with law-abiding, middle-class families, it’s drugs that break up the old gang.
Goodfellas leaps through four decades in machine gun-like bursts. A great soundtrack of rock oldies drives the film. And Thelma Schoonmaker’s staccato editing keeps each scene jumping with restless movement.
Scorsese lingers on nothing. So the murderous shifts in behavior happen subtly. Killings go from simple matters of “business” to perverse pleasure, where a wiseguy whacks somebody for insulting him or failing to pay him proper respect.
Michael Ballhaus’ camera prowls the dark alleys and corridors of mob power like a relentless, unseen force. He gives the street life a seamy glamour so we feel the pull of this lifestyle.
Richard Bruno’s period costumes are on the money — always a little behind each era’s fashions. Kristi Zea’s production design goes for a hilarious joke. As the wiseguys’ lifestyles become more suburbanized, the decor grows tackier. The wives take over the interior decorating, so their version of the good life serves as a denial of how their money is earned.
The acting is spectacular. The huge ensemble cast (136 actors receive credit) perfectly catches the spirit and flavor of the era and its people.
Complex, volatile, ironic and disquieting, Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a masterly achievement in intense observation. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Sept. 7, 1990
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