By Brian Susbielles
This September, the legendary gangster flick GoodFellas will have been released for exactly 25 years. Already, the cast has come together to share stories of how they were cast and approached to their respective characters. I didn’t know Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero in the movie) wanted to leave days before filming began because he didn’t know how to play a gangster until he looked himself in the mirror, put on a tie, and realized that was the look he had to put on. Ray Liotta, who played the protagonist Henry Hill, had only done three movies when he was cast, virtually making him a rookie that then raised him to stardom. And writer Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book the movie is based on, was reluctant to adapt his book for the screen, but was convinced by his now-deceased wife, Nora Ephron, to go ahead because, well,it was Marty Scorsese who wanted to make it into a movie. That being said, I find GoodFellas as the best gangster film in film history – even better than The Godfather. AFI and its fans may call that blasphemous, but here are my three reasons for my belief in that:
1. It’s a True Story
As stated, Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster since he was a kid. Hill did become a member until he entered the Witness Protection Program; post-movie, he was kicked out of the program and died in 2012. The real-life stories of the mob are fascinating and the movie is fairly accurate according to Hill. The story of the Corleone Family is a great symbol of the American Dream through the Mafia, but it is a fictitious one, going back to the classical days of organized crime. The last names of some of the characters were changed for legal reasons, but the connections remain the same.
2. It’s Fast Paced, Swiftly Edited, and Shot In-Your-Face
The Godfather is timed at two hours, fifty-seven minutes. GoodFellas is timed at two hours, twenty-five minutes. That time doesn’t feel so long as Scorsese keeps the film upbeat and in the moment with its tracking shots, crafty cuts (thank you, Thelma Schoonmaker), and unorthodox camera angles that bring us in the center of the mafia-family life. Freeze frames, voice-overs, and jump cuts keep the audience’s attention to what is happening scene-by-scene. The scene where Karen sits over Henry, gun pointed at him, are close-ups and POV’s combined. The barrel is between the eyes and is very intense. We watch from the bottom when Henry is beaten by his father for not attending school, and, from above, when Tommy DeVito (played hot-headedly by Joe Pesci) falls onto the parquet floor after being shot in the head. Things are swift and fast enough that a viewer won’t realize it’s beyond 2 hours long.
3. The Soundtrack
Starting from Frank Sinatra’s Rags to Riches and ending with My Way by Sid Vicious (also a song from Sinatra), we are comforted by a list of classics that join the story all the way through. The songs fit each scene and the mood of the moment, notably the famous May 11, 1980 sequence, which includes Harry Nilsson (Jump Into The Fire), George Harrison (What Is Life), and The Rolling Stones (Monkey Man). The Copacabana tracking shot could not have been any better with The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me going on through the entire scene. The piano ending from Derek and the Dominos’ Layla shows off the ballet of dead bodies as Jimmy Conway cuts ties from him and the major airport heist. It is part of a trend to where Scorsese does not use an original score and relies on past songs as its soundtrack, like he did in Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. While Mario Puzo and Carmine Coppola are credited for the haunting music of The Godfather, it is a conservative score that keeps in line with the conservative style of the Mafia’s way. For some, it is a boring pace, which doesn’t speed up the story.
The Godfather is a film that maintains the classic Hollywood feel and is filled with bravado acting and haunting dialogue with its one-liners. GoodFellas fills up the short-attention spans viewers tend to have with an attention-grabbing scene – the body in the trunk and Hill’s defining statement – and have the audience hold on for the rest of the way. It is one of those films where throughout the brutal violence and constant profanity, audiences have seen through it a realistic portrayal of the Mafia, and not the glamour that people had seen before, now that the Mob was crumbling piece-by-piece. The Godfather is a mob classic regardless, but against the Goodfellas of Queens, they lack the viciousness and color of the Mafia in the 1950s-1980s.