A review requested by Tyler Thibodeaux, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The critical line of dialogue in Goodfellas isn't, I don't think, the pitch-perfect "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." It sure as hell isn't "I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?", one of those scenes that's perfectly fine and well-done and has so completely ruined the way people talk about a great movie that I very much wish it didn't exist.

The line I have in mind is a bit of voiceover narration delivered by Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) after her future husband, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), has pressed a blood pistol into her hands: "I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on." It turned me on. That, right there, is the beating heart and soul of Goodfellas, a gangster movie about gangster movies, and about the whole culture of gangster worship that stretches all the way back to Prohibition. It is, I would quite happily go so far to say, the best gangster movie - not the same thing as "the best movie whose characters are gangsters", a title I'd reserve for Angels with Dirty Faces or White Heat or The Godfather and its first sequel. The best movie about who gangsters are, and how they came to exert such a magnetic pull on American culture. If you take the gangster to be the most (cynically) emblematic figure of the United States in the 20th Century, as I tend to - selfish monsters of greed, willing to do any amount of violence to everybody whose not in their immediate sphere if it gives them a leg up, somehow coating this this in a veneer of Romanticism about individuality and personal honor that makes it seem admirable; what could be more all-American than that? - then Goodfellas is as close as it comes to the Great American Novel done as a movie. And of course, the Great American Novel would almost have to be a movie.

It's based, relatively honestly as I understand it, on the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Sicilian kid from New York who idolised the local mobsters from the Lucchese family, and at a young age was able to ingratiate himself within the sphere of Paul "Paulie" Vario ("Paulie Cicero" in the film, where he's played by Paul Sorvino). Over the next 30-odd years, Hill snuggled into the world of organised crime, making an abbreviated stay in prison, and subsequently getting himself involved in drug dealing. It was this last crime that finally tripped him up, and got him in real trouble with the law; from here, knowing that his life was forfeit with the mob, he turned informer, sending a whole lot of mafiosi to prison, and entering witness protection. Insofar as somebody who spent the last quarter-century of his life writing books, posing for photographs, and generally pitching himself as a celebrity could be plausibly stated to be keeping the low profile of a man in witness protection.

One of the earliest books in the rise of Hill the ex-mobster celebrity was Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia family, completed in 1986 by journalist Nicholas Pileggi. This book caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who'd washed his hands of movies about Italian-American criminals, but found the epic story of Hill's rise and stumble so captivating that he worked with Pileggi to develop the book and Pileggi's unpublished research notes into a movie. Goodfellas was the result, but there's no trace of a crime reporter's non-fiction book to be found in the film's whirlwind first-person narrative, which mostly tracks Henry's own steam-of-consciousness recollection of the events of his life, almost entirely in chronological order, with a few interjections from his wife.

And it very definitely needs those moments from Karen's perspective to work as splendidly as it does: taken solely from Henry's point-of-view, and Goodfellas might feel more of a beautiful tragedy, in which the glamorous life of an up-and-coming mobster is lost through the mania of ambition and replaced by the sullen world of a suburban dad. The film pays just enough attention to Karen's side of things that it becomes less about the allure of mob life to some Brooklyn kid who'd never amount to anything. It is, instead, about the allure of gangsters writ large in U.S. culture, that curious blended desire for more and more, bigger and better stuff, clothes and houses and cars and sex, with the thrilling awareness of something evil and dark. I frankly think that Karen, not Henry, is the audience's identification point in all of this: he's our tour guide and chronicler, telling us what's happening in all of the film's episodic fragments and trying to contextualise it all within the past and future. Karen is the one on the outside, who sees all of the glitz and power, benefits from it, and knows that it's wrong, while simply not caring very much.

And that, right there, is the whole of American pop culture's relationship to organised crime, isn't it? Jimmy Cagney is an abusive thug in The Public Enemy, but we root for him. The Corleones ofΒ The Godfather are savage monsters, but they dress well and have a nice home and we admire them as the heroes of an operatic slice of costume drama Americana. Tony Montana in Scarface is a raving psychopath with virtually no appealing characteristics, but he's an icon in boys' dorm rooms across the nation. The key insight of Goodfellas is in recognising this, and making it the thrust of the plot. But unlike all of those films, Goodfellas doesn't do much of anything to glamorise the life it depicts: it's a gangster movie where, no matter how charmingly Sorvino or Robert De Niro play them, the gangsters are still coiled-up snakes, ready to strike. When violence hits in this movie, as it does routinely, it's never cool violence. It's usually shocking, swift, thuggish. (And yes, I'm entirely aware that Goodfellas is wrapped up in the same "gangsters are cool" fan reception that I'm suggesting it's critiquing; ultimately, I can't blame a movie for having stupid fans).

A hugely important component of this, I am confident, is in the casting of Liotta as Henry Hill. I don't tend to love him as an actor, but he's more than capable of giving a good performance, and there's a way in which that's all Goodfellas asks of him: he is, in essence, the straight man to the florid world of the mafia, meant to be a bit colorless in comparison to all the figures surrounding him (most notably, of course, Joe Pesci's foul-mouthed lout Tommy DeVito, a great performance of a deadly dangerous character that has unfortunately been buried in parody). What Liotta's great at, even in his bad performances in bad movies, is suggesting an internal disorder verging on lunacy, but tamped down enough that you can see why other people in the movie don't notice it. The film draws this out to great effect in the climactic "May 11, 1980", in which Liotta's face has been washed out by the make-up department to suggest the ass-end of a weeks-long coke bender, while on the soundtrack the actor rattles through the laundry-list of activities required of him that day in a sharp, annoyed tone. He is, in all ways, off-putting and upsetting, and if this is the way that the dreamed-of gangster life turns out, who in their right mind would romanticise it? But even before that point, Liotta is never an attractive figure; he always seems like something is close to breaking. And that, more than anything else the film does, is what allows Goodfellas to put the lie to the romance of the great American gangster. Who the hell wants to be Ray Liotta in this movie? Who wants to have him in their life? (It's primarily this reason, I think, that Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street - practically a remake of this film* - doesn't work for me: Leonardo DiCaprio is alluring in all the ways Liotta is alarming).

None of which is to say that Goodfellas is a tedious polemic, or any such thing. It's an unrelenting piece of filmmaking, maybe the most perfectly-controlled of all Scorsese's films - certainly the best piece of editing in Thelma Schoonmaker's extraordinary career, if only for the hurtling way she throws together moments in that same "May 11, 1980" sequence, letting the unpleasantly fast cutting and refusal to let scenes reach their appropriate stopping point to give us the same feeling of non-stop activity and exhaustion that Henry feels. If there is such a thing as the great cocaine sequence in cinema, I can't imagine that this isn't it. But it's not just the picture cutting that gives this sequence, and the film as a whole, it's propulsion. The film uses music extremely well, letting a collection of songs from '50s lounge music to '70s classic rock to set the scene, to comment on the action through the smirking use of lyrics (which, I'll be honest, feels a little beneath Scorsese at this point in his career), and most importantly, to provide a rhythm that the visual editing and narrative action always seem hypnotised into matching. I'm not terribly fond of the film's famous Steadicam shot, into a nightclub through a crowded kitchen - it's showing off rather than contributing much to the mood, character, or plot - but it would be a complete disavowal of the power of cinema if I didn't acknowledge the way the shot is paced and segmented by the use of "Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals, and turned into a rich multi-sensory event as a result.

This is the golden ideal of moralistic films: explain why a certain lifestyle is enticing, and then explain why it is bad. Most movies that are able to do the former are completely helpless to do that latter: once you've demonstrated, using all the tools of cinema, that [war is exhilarating] [a drug high is transcendent] [reckless sex is fun], it's simply ludicrous to expect that any but the best filmmaker can round the corner to making us feel, in our gut, that it's just not worth the cost. Well, Scorsese is - not the best filmmaker - but a fucking damn good one, and this was at the peak of his abilities (I'd say he had one more unassailable masterpiece in him, 1993's The Age of Innocence, and ever since then has spent most of his career stalled in "exceptionally good" territory†). And as much as he's able to use music, and Schoonmaker's driving editing, and the dreamily fragmentary script he and Pileggi wrote, and Michael Ballhaus's handsome, elegant cinematography, and De Niro's great performance as the boundlessly charismatic and magnetic James Conway, all in concert to strongly depict the allure of the world and power that capture Henry, and through him captures Karen, and through her captures all of us; as much as he can do that, he still makes it seem ugly. He still makes it seem dangerous. He still makes that ending, where Henry grouses about living a boring life in the suburbs, where he can't even get good Italian carryout, feel more like a relief for us, no matter what the character thinks - he, and we, somehow got out with our lives, and let's for God's sake not go back there.

Maybe that's why there hasn't been a great gangster film in the 27 years since Goodfellas came out (only the TV show The Sopranos comes close, and it still ran out of gas long before it ended): once this film confronted pop culture with the utter lie that is the gangster picture, where the hell was the genre to go? Once something has been perfected the way it was perfected here, what else can you say?




*Or more specifically, a remake of Casino, which is practically a remake of Goodfellas, and also a film that I don't think very highly.




†It is not, I know, a popular opinion, but I do still think that Hugo is Peak Scorsese.