Thursday, November 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.13: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 99/A

Martin Scorsese has made plenty of great movies, but few as formally and viscerally exciting as Goodfellas. The 1990 gangster film is one of the most culturally significant films of the past several decades, both for its vast influence over film and television (Boogie Nights and The Sopranos couldn’t exist without it), but for bringing Scorsese back to the top of his game. Certainly the director’s work in the 80s was exciting and worthwhile, but after Goodfellas, it was undeniable that he was the greatest of all working American director. Oh, sure, Dances with Wolves won the Oscar, but it’s Goodfellas that inspired more people to become directors than just about any other film of its time.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) grew up admiring the mobsters next door, and in his adulthood, he became one of them. Over the course of three decades, Henry goes from working-class kid to successful crook in the Lucchese crime family under capo Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). He and his friends, coolly violent Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and psychotic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), make the bigtime. Henry also marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a Jewish woman attracted to his lavish lifestyle and charm. But there’s only so long one can stay at the top before the violence of the lifestyle becomes overpowering, and when Henry and his friends get into drugs, it threatens to send them crashing down.

First thing’s first: Goodfellas is bar none the best-edited movie of all time. Scorsese envisioned the film as a 2 ½ hour trailer, and the film plays like a ganster movie directed by a caffeinated French New Wave-acolyte (indeed, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim was a major influence). The film moves beautifully, rushing through Henry’s teenage indoctrination in the mob thoroughly but quickly- it takes twelve minutes, but it feels like two, and we learn everything we need to about how the mob represented a way out of working-class life.

Better yet is the seductive pull of the rest of the film’s first two hours, which fluidly transitions between the see the ins-and-outs of the life (Scorsese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi’s perfectionism is at its best here), the perks, and just about the best cinematic food porn ever. Scorsese throws in just about every editing trick he knows- whip pans, freeze frames, quick cuts, you name it. The spectacular pop soundtrack (everyone from Tony Bennett to The Crystals) only help make it more seductive, and Liotta’s narration only further helps explain the rules and the attraction of the lifestyle. But Scorsese punctuates it all with brutal violence that shows how Henry’s in over his head, and that at any moment, it could all end.

Goodfellas is also the best showcase yet for what Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus are capable of when they work together. Much has been made of the legendary Copacabana tracking shot, where Henry and Karen enter through the underground backdoor and the shot shows the whole world ahead of the two. But equally impressive are the slow zooms and pushes in the famous Billy Batts scene, which bring a certain unease to the audience just before all hell breaks loose and Tommy kills a made man. I’m also particularly fond of a dolly-zoom in a late film diner scene between Henry and Jimmy- before Henry even realizes that Jimmy is planning to have him killed, we know that there’s something terribly wrong with the scene, and that Henry has to get out of the life as soon as possible.

Goodfellas also has one of the best casts Scorsese ever assembled, where every bit part is memorable (Catherine Scorsese as Tommy’s mother, Chuck Low as the ball-busting Morrie, Michael Imperioli as some poor kid who pisses off Tommy). Scorsese has a penchant for letting his actors improvise in rehearsal and then rewriting the scene to include their best additions. The actors all take to it perfectly, whether it’s Sorvino as the cold Paulie or De Niro as the increasingly paranoid Jimmy.

Ray Liotta was best known for his livewire performance in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (another influence), but he never saw a better showcase for his talents than in Goodfellas. As Henry, Liotta is a weasel amidst wolves, a man who wants all the perks of the gangster lifestyle but doesn’t have the stomach for the bloodier aspects. Oh, sure, he’s not afraid to rough someone up, and he’s willing to live with the worst parts of his job if it means he’s accepted by his friends and he’s treated like an important man. But the look on Liotta’s face whenever it’s clear someone is going to die is one of fear. When he and his friends spend some time with Tommy’s mother after they whack Billy Batts, it’s key that Henry is quiet where the other two are more than willing to chat. When Imperioli is shot by Tommy, most of the gangsters treat it as an irritation, where Henry sees just how quickly it could all end.

The fear is even greater with Karen, played with real fire by Bracco. The life is just as seductive to her, but she sees how things can go wrong even more clearly than Henry. There are no outsiders, and when Henry is taken to jail, she becomes an outsider, someone with no friends and no one to help her. What’s worse, she becomes not just complicit with Henry’s actions, but a victim of his entitlement, as he cheats on her. She’s also a tragic character- in a better world, the two would just divorce (as they did eventually when they went in the Witness Protection Program). But Paulie and Jimmy give Henry a talk, the two are forced back together, and she’s dragged into addiction right alongside Henry.

But the highlight performance of the film, almost without question, is Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. The real character was burly rather than diminutive like Pesci, but the change serves the character. Played by Pesci, Tommy’s a short, not physically imposing guy with a funny voice, and that gives him “too much to prove”. Every insult is a big deal, every slight a reason to kill someone. When the famous “How am I funny?” scene comes around, Scorsese places us right at the table like we’re one of the wise guys, forcing us to watch in horror as he seems about a step away from murdering Henry before he finally reveals he’s just fucking with him. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a sign that this guy is capable of anything. So when Billy Batts is killed for referencing his shoeshine boy past and Spider is shot for telling him to go fuck himself, it’s shocking, but wholly believable.

As things go on, the violence gets rougher, the pleasures of the gangster life more meager. It’s notable that we don’t actually see the famous Lufthansa Heist, but instead see its aftermath. Jimmy has grown more paranoid and more controlling, and rather than turn money over to the people who helped him or risk getting caught, better to whack them. The “Layla” sequence is brilliant not just for how beautifully cinematic it is, but for how the melancholy of the song underscores how things are falling apart for Henry and company. Henry says that he doesn’t care, but as they start “finding bodies all over”, it’s clear that Henry knows there’s only so much he can trust Jimmy. That feeling gets even worse after Tommy is whacked- it’s not just that their best friend is dead, but now they’ll never be part of the mob’s inner-circle (Tommy was the only one who was 100% Italian).

Now comes one of the two or three best sequences Scorsese ever directed, where the pull of the first two films gearshifts into a nervy, cocaine paranoia-fueled rhythm. The way Scorsese plays with jump cuts (often several in a row), whip pans, Steadicam rushes, and a layered soundtrack (“Jump Into the Fire” leads into “Memo from Turner” which leads into “Magic Bus”…) throws us into the same paranoia and panic that Henry is in. It’s an exhilarating scene (likely informed by Scorsese’s own past problems with cocaine), and when it reaches its peak and Henry’s paranoia is justified, the good times are over. Now that paranoia takes over the film for good, whether we’re with Karen as Jimmy (probably) tries to have her killed or we’re with Henry and Jimmy definitely tries to set up a hit.

Scorsese’s films are about guilt, about men pulled at by all sides. Here, Henry does feel guilt over the horrible things he’s been involved in, and that he’s doomed his family to looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. But he’s also guilty over betraying his friends, over being permanently thrown out of the family he was in, and that he doesn’t have the same privileges he had.

The end of the film is best remembered for that brilliant moment where Henry breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera, making the narration part of the dialogue and furthering the idea that we’re complicit with his crimes. But it’s just as notable for those zooms on Paulie and Jimmy’s faces as Henry identifies them, for the heartbroken look on Jimmy’s wife’s face, and for the shot of Pesci (in a tribute to The Great Train Robbery) shooting at the camera, implying the betrayal that whole world feels. He’s lost everything, he doesn’t have a clear conscience, and he has to wait around like everyone else. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

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