Goodfellas At 30: The Life And Crimes Of Scorsese’s Gangster Masterpiece

This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most renowned and critically praised crime films in American cinema, director Martin Scorsese’s epic tale of life in the mafia, Goodfellas.  Although the auteur had previously made films tackling the subject of growing up on the tough streets of New York, and had even told stories of gangers and career criminals, it was 1990’s true-life tale of Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill that resonated with filmgoers and critics alike, earning Scorsese status as one of America’s most accomplished—and controversial—filmmakers.  With an all-star cast of Robert DeNiro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci and then-newcomer Ray Liotta, telling the multi-generation story-arch, coupled with Scorsese’s breathtaking kinetically-driven cinematography and editing, Goodfellas defined both the modern crime epic, and inspired decades of younger directors.  Now celebrating the three-decade anniversary of the film, modern commentators and YouTubers weigh-in on the lasting impact of what is widely considered Scorsese’s masterpiece.  To many, Goodfellas is especially represented by the director’s use of long tracking shots and rapid-fire editing techniques, as the YouTubers at Razz Reviews mentioned:

This is an extremely fast-paced movie. You’re really on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. The movie actually feels like a two-and-a half hour trailer than a movie … [Scorsese] actually uses non-linear storytelling to give us this experience and right into this movie and into this world. Sometimes [however], this movie does slow down and gives us some of the most memorable scenes in Goodfellas. One of the coolest editing techniques that happens in the film ‘freeze-frames,’ which is something we don’t really see a lot of these days, but Martin Scorsese uses freeze-frames to give us insight into the mind of the main character.

Scorsese’s use of various old-style Hollywood camera techniques was both a deliberate showcase for filmmaking stylistics, but his selection of which “tricks” to utilize in a given scene was largely dependent upon the emotional and narrative content, such as the “freeze-frame” within protagonist Henry’s childhood, or slow-motion when displaying the inner workings of a character’s thought process, as noted by Film-Drunk Love:

In Henry’s mind, gangsters aren’t restricted by anything or anyone—they have the power to do whatever they want [and] that freedom is what entices him to the lifestyle … One film technique that Scorsese uses heavily in the childhood section is the ‘freeze-frame.’ Each freeze-frame used when Henry is a child an important memory for him and they can tell us something different about what he considers important as an adult.

To many, Goodfellas has stood the test of time because of the sheer amount of technical mastery and flourishes used for dramatic effect; while the “freeze-frame” usage has long been cited as a core element of Goodfella’s narrative, the one scene that is mentioned repeated as a clear representation of the director’s encyclopedic knowledge of film theory in advancing story and character, is the often praised “Copacabana scene,” in which Henry woos his eventual wife, Karen, by taking her to the famous Copacabana club, using his gangster status to bypass the long line of entry and thus displaying his “above-the-law” attitude that is the at the core of Goodfellas’ perspective on the American Dream.  For this, Scorsese masterfully used a long tracking shot, three minutes in duration, from the perspective of Henry’s soon-to-be-bride as a stand-in for the audience’s POV.  As Film-Drunk Love indicated in their re-assessment of the film:

To show off this extravagance, Scorsese uses really long, sweeping shots. They allow our eyes to really take in the subject and the environment around them, the most famous of which is the ‘Copacabana’ shot: the three-minute unbroken take of Henry confidently leading Karen through the secret entrance for the club. The camera hovers at Karen’s eye-level, taking her perspective on their walk. The scene is all about sensory overload.

YouTuber Tony Baker Comedy humorously commented that Scorsese’s energetic use of such tracking shots were a definitive element to Goodfellas’ distinctive visual style, which a viewer can’t help but be swept up in, along with the characters portrayed, commenting:

Martin Scorsese loves [to use] the ‘roaming shot’ through the venue—he did it like twice in this movie. We have a continuous shot throughout the venue … And I just loved it.

The YouTubers at Storyteller elaborated on the technique’s importance in expressing what they viewed as the integral “kinetic energy” of the film, which was a deliberate act on Scorsese’s part in order to put us, as the view, in the same emotional state as the characters, while transporting us into the film’s all-encompassing world of crime and luxury, stating:

[The ‘Copacabana scene; is] a brilliant scene which captures the ‘kinetic energy’ of the film perfectly, and it’s this energy that combines Scorsese’s drive for realism and his tendance towards expressive stylization … It seduces us as much as it does Karen and Henry. It’s an energy that drives the story forward, like a never-ending momentum.

Razz Reviews shared this assessment, adding that the frenetic pacing and editing was one of the most important elements of the film.  She continued:

Goodfellas is pretty famous for its epic, long-take, sweeping shots that take us through the world of the wiseguys. This, pretty much, is what its known for, I think … All in all, this film, visually, serves the purpose of Martin Scorsese in the sense that he wants us to be intoxicated by the world of the gangsters and to understand why people make choices to join the mob, to join this crazy, criminal, lethal, life-threatening world.

But such a dramatic use of quick pacing and rapid-fire editing can have its drawbacks, as some critics and commentators have noted over the three decades since Goodfellas’ theatrical release.  In her reassessment, Razz Reviews noted those minor criticisms, agreeing that in place of slower pacing, Scorsese’s signature use of speed on screen can run the risk of lacking the proper emotion.  She noted:

Some people might argue that Goodfellas is a little too fast. A lot of stuff whizzes by real quick and you get a lot of information. The problem with this high speed is the fact that it compromises the emotional intensity of the film.

YouTuber Storytellers remained adamant, however, that the famous, swift pacing of the film was a deliberate element on the director’s part, and something that Scorsese later admitted was his intention before the cameras ever even rolled.  They added:

Scorsese was supposedly so impressed by the gritty realism and attention to detail [of source material, Henry Hill’s memoir], that that he decided to treat his movie adaptation ‘like a staged documentary,’ or, at least to preserve ‘the spirit of a documentary,” the most obvious of which is Scorsese’s use of the voice-over.

According to Film-Drunk Love, nowhere is Scorsese’s thesis better demonstrated—aside from the classic “Copacabana scene,” than in Goodfella’s final half hour, in which Ray Liotta’s antihero is shown frantically running errands—both illegal (drug running) and mundane (taking his brother to doctor)—while under the influence of cocaine and under watch by the FBI.  To convey Henry’s paranoia and express the whirlwind nature of the character’s scatterbrain schedule, Scorsese switched editing style and camera technique from the film’s earlier half, literally changing the “language” of the visuals in order to meet the demands of the narrative’s twists.  The YouTuber added:

Henry’s eventually arrests from moving drugs gives us one of the most interestingly edited sequences of the entire film: Henry is coked up and trying to balance multiple responsibilities in one day. Scorsese uses this moment to drastically ramp-up the pace of the movie … Those long-lasting shots that we usually see are replaced by quick-cuts, fast camera movements, and abrupt music changes … That style of editing let’s us feel henry’s paranoia when he’s being watched by the police. The entire portion is designed to be intense.

But for those casual viewers who simply enjoy an excellent dramatic crime epic with touches of humor and a classic pop music-infused soundtrack, Goodfellas is best remembered for the performances of it’s a-list stars, led by Scorsese favorite, Robert DeNiro.  YouTuber Tony Baker Comedy joked that, as is the case of all of the legendary actor’s most famous performances, Goodfellas is another instance where age and the narrative transition of time holds no boundaries on the quality of the convincing portrayal, commenting:

Robert DeNiro is so good as an actor, he [can play] somebody in his twenties when he was clearly in his forties. When they showed Jimmy as a flashback, when they introduced this character, he was supposed to be in his twenties … you bought it.

In a more serious vein, YouTuber Razz Reviews praised Goodfellas as a movie that truly stood the test of time, both for its status as the filmmaking tour-de-force that not only re-invigorated Martin Scorsese’s career, but made his one of the preeminent director’s in American history—and it was the successful combination of technique and dramatic performances that make the film a timeless American classic.  She concluded:

You can’t really lose with the epic combo of Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta—these people established iconic characters that everybody knows and scenes that are so re-watchable, it’s nuts. Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy is a character that represents the kind of life that people want to live when they think they want to be gangsters … Everybody wants to be somebody, nobody wants to be nobody—everybody wants [this] kind of status and power, and that’s what makes [Ray Liotta’s] Henry Hill such a relatable and intriguing character … And, of course we have Joe Pesci in his Oscar-winning performance as Tommy, who is this insane psychopath.