Friday, November 23, 2012

Goodfellas (1990)

USA, 146 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Editors: James Y. Kwei, Thelma Schoonmaker
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Chuck Low, Henny Youngman, Jerry Vale, Michael Imperioli, Illeana Douglas, Vincent Gallo, Catherine Scorsese, Debi Mazar, Samuel L. Jackson, Welker White

Goodfellas is the first movie since Mean Streets on which director Martin Scorsese took a writing credit. Somehow that helps me make sense of where I think it fits among his films—on the short list of his best. As brash and kinetic and sustained as anything he has done, it is personal, defiantly anti-formal (all rules delimiting voiceover narration and freeze-frames cavalierly tossed, for example), and a critical twist on the operatics of gangster pictures as we had understood them until then. If, like Pulp Fiction, it now has much to answer for in terms of setting in motion clichés and other noxious pop culture memes still calcifying (looking at you, retro lounge), this original suffers none of their deficiencies.

In fact, that is one of its great surprises again and again. I am always impressed by the pure crackling energy of Goodfellas. Somebody in the special features on the DVD remarks that no one flipping through TV channels and landing on Goodfellas has ever changed the channel again until the movie is finished. It's true that it is insanely engaging, with a powerful narrative current. Part of the trick is the shift in focus, which moves away from the wood-paneled and predictably corrupting counsels of power of the Godfather franchise (or even De Palma's Scarface) and instead concerns itself solely with the foot soldiers of the criminal enterprise, out hustling to earn. It's the same sickness of the soul, but now it's Chekhovian rather than Shakespearean.

The other part, and the great power of this picture, lies in the voiceover narration, which emerges as the most pungent character in the film. I'm not exactly talking about the gangster Henry Hill whose story this movie tells, nor Ray Liotta who plays Hill and provides most of the voiceover (one more rule broken, while there's mostly just one main narrator, another voice does almost impolitely intrude). That nervous, jittery voice that propels the story is fascinating, charming, repellent, vitally alive. It is as much as anything co-writer Nicholas Pileggi's contribution, based on his extensive taped interviews with the real-life Henry Hill (who says in one of the special features that the events of Goodfellas are 95% to 99% true, for what that's worth). Ultimately, it is Henry Hill's actual spoken words that we hear much of the time. That makes this, in many ways, effectively a documentary embedded inside a lot of basically familiar cinematic gangster gestures. The tension between these two elements somehow combine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

Consider the first three minutes. I'm sure there are other examples—and perhaps you can help remind me of them in comments—but I am hard put to think of any other movie, certainly in wide release, that has ever started with such sickening violence, handled so playfully. It starts in the middle of everything, awkwardly, the only point being to shock. It's almost as if Martin Scorsese, Henry Hill, and the movie itself are testing how serious we are going to be about this. Admittedly it gets one's attention. If you can take that you're up for anything here. It's like a hard slap to the side of the head to reorient. Much of the dread of this movie—and there is a good deal of dread here—is in the threat of the violence. By showing it so early and so vividly it never has to be shown again for long or that often for it to have its effect on us again.

This last time through I spent some time with the special features in the DVD package and one of the points that most fascinated me was about how sections of the screenplay were written. As part of the creative process, Scorsese would work with usual suspects Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci (and others) on improvisations that he recorded and transcribed and used to patch together the script. For example, the set piece scene in the nightclub where Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) tells a funny story and Henry tells him he's a funny guy and Tommy has a strange reaction. That was all worked out as scripted lines more or less by the time the scene was shot, but once again the weird amalgam is produced of the cinematically expressive and the documentarian, which preserves a tremendous amount of energy and tension in the scene.

It is a little tour de force in its own right in a picture full of them, large and small. The largest and best of them may be the one that occurs in the last third, in the long section headed "Sunday, May 11th, 1980, 6:55 am"—Henry Hill's very bad day. The whole movie seems to come untethered before our very eyes (I seem to keep wanting to refer to "the movie" as an agent in its own right—this is what I mean about it being deeply personal), entering Hill's cocaine-fueled delirium and observing him closely as he tries to keep it together on what otherwise appears to be only a moderately more stressful day than usual for him. He zips around town on errands with a helicopter often flying overhead above him. It is absolutely riveting with its free-handed jump cuts, rambling breathless voiceover, bizarre panicked behavior, dread as far as the eye can see, and all powered by a truly remarkable sequence of soundtrack choices: "Jump Into the Fire" by Harry Nilsson, "Monkey Man" by the Rolling Stones, "The Magic Bus" by the Who, "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, and others, which perfectly punctuate the images and narrative events swimming by.

In fact, Scorsese makes his reputation in this section and all through Goodfellas as one of the great movie soundtrack artists. It could arguably be (vying with the screenplay, principal performances, and cinematography) the greatest single thing about it. He hand-picks hit singles from the '50s and '60s and tracks from rock albums with a judgment so singular and so apt that it almost works retroactively to redefine some of these songs: "Then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals, "Roses Are Red" by Bobby Vinton, "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, "Atlantis" by Donovan, and "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos. I found a list on the Internet with 43 songs, from "Rags to Riches" by Tony Bennett to "My Way" by Sid Vicious. That is approximately exactly the scope of this remarkable movie, truly one of the greats. It is gangster ethos straight up—nothing else matters except what you can get, and family (next stop, of course, The Sopranos). Goodfellas is exhilarating and sickening and always mesmerizing.

Top 10 of 1990
1990 is another off year for me but I think generally an off year for movies as well. Metropolitan is probably high because I am high on Whit Stillman at the moment. I haven't actually seen it for a long time. Close-up and Dances With Wolves are relatively recent catch-up work, the rest is from memory. Can't go wrong with any of 'em!
1. Goodfellas
2. Edward Scissorhands
3. Metropolitan
4. An Angel at My Table
5. Reversal of Fortune
6. Close-up
7. Dances With Wolves
8. Jacob's Ladder
9. Pretty Woman
10. Truly Madly Deeply

Didn't like so much: Ghost, The Godfather III, Misery, Vincent and Theo, Wild at Heart

Gaps: Back to the Future Part III, Dick Tracy, The Grifters, Home Alone, To Sleep With Anger

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