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The Comedy of Errors

Goodfellas

11 May 15 words: Ashley Carter
"Just before its release in 1990, it screened so horribly for test audiences, Scorsese was forced to re-edit"
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I will always have something of a soft spot for Channel 5, for it was they who first introduced me to a film that, in that horribly clichéd way, made me think differently about film as something more than just a form of entertainment.   

I devoured historical epics like Spartacus and Ben Hur as a child, and my parents’ love of classic British cinema ensured I was fairly well versed in David Lean, Powell & Pressberger and the Ealing Comedies. Although I was engrossed in them, they were my mother and father’s films, not mine. But the first time I stumbled across Goodfellas as a thirteen-year-old, it was so entirely different to anything I had seen before in its ferocious, vibrant violence and magnificent pacing, it felt as if it had been made just for me. The way Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci looked straight down the lens in the closing minutes blew my young, idiot mind. I had never heard of Martin Scorsese, I had never seen anything from the American gangster genre and I certainly had never seen people talk and act like that.

That weekend I begged my older sister to take me to HMV where she begrudgingly bought me the film on VHS (I also bagged Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in a 2 for £10 deal). I watched it twice that night, and again the next day, during which my mum demanded I turn it off, exclaiming that “the language was a bit rum”, a phrase I still have never heard another human repeat. Her interruption came during the “Fuck You, Pay Me” narration, and maybe she had a point. 

I continued to watch the film daily for what felt like months, but was more likely weeks, before the VHS broke. I bought another, which faired better, lasting me until I purchased the film on DVD. I slept underneath the movie poster hanging on my wall, and a copy of Nicholas Pileggi’s original book under my pillow. It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I’d estimate I’d seen the film at least 150 times. ITV 3 used to show a film during the week, every night from Monday to Friday. While I was at university they showed Goodfellas, and I watched it every single night. For my last birthday my girlfriend hired a local cinema to show a film for me. The choice was obvious for her.

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Just before its release in 1990, it screened so horribly for test audiences, Scorsese was forced to re-edit. Seeing an already violent life through the eyes of a cocaine-addicted mobster was too much, and the rapid editing caused some to walk out. Fortunately, it is now regarded as one of the finest films on the nineties, and arguably Scorsese’s best. 

One of the reasons Goodfellas remains so perennially watchable is the sublime pace at which the narrative unfolds.  I don’t know of another example of narrative cinema that moves at such a perfect speed. As well as fascination and excitement, the overwhelming emotion that returns to me with every viewing is surprise at just how quickly two and a half hours can pass in the company of Henry Hill. 

Too often dismissed as a director of overtly masculine, violent films, Martin Scorsese’s contribution to film both as a director and as an enthusiast has been immeasurable.  Few could argue that his recent output can match his glory days, but even Scorsese on a bad day will create a better film than almost all other directors of American popular cinema. 

Its exploration of the dichotomy between the perception of the gangster life from young Henry Hill’s eyes, with all the glamour, privilege and respect to the ruthless realisation of its true cut-throat nature in his adult life is perfect. It never ends well. You either go to prison, or you die. There’s no retirement, no true friendship and no happy endings. Even the greatest sex you ever had in your life ends with someone duck-waddling awkwardly to the bathroom looking for a towel. It’s the classic story of innocence versus experience, of expectations versus reality.

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It also succeeds in showing the female perspective of mob life, as Karen’s narration joins Henry’s following their first meeting. In one of the most engrossing scenes, Henry marches across the road to confront a neighbour that has harassed Karen. Without saying a word, he grips the back of the poor guy’s head with one hand and, with the other, pistol whips him repeatedly until he’s left in a bloody, whimpering mess. The man’s friends watch on horrified, in button down, pastel cardigans, sipping glass bottles of coke. They’d previously been waxing the car on a sunny day in an otherwise quiet, suburban American town. Their side of the street was the old America of the fifties, outwardly conservative and innocent, an America before the JFK shooting, still built on the foundations of strong Christian family values. As Henry crosses, pistol tucked into his brown slacks, he brings with him the experience and violence that had previously remained hidden in society. As he marches back, handing the bloodied pistol to Karen, he’s ushered in a new era, for himself, for the film and for America as a whole. And her response? “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.”

Goodfellas produced countless similarly iconic scenes, from the sublime tracking shot for the Copacobana scene to the glorious opera of death presented to the piano ending of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla. I’ve since seen many films that I’ve come to consider superior to Goodfellas (several of which I would never have been exposed to had it not been for Scorsese), but none that have given me the same rush at seeing it for the first time. While I might no longer consider it one of the best films ever made, it remains the film that affected me the most, and as I eagerly await the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray UK release, I will continue to watch it on a monthly basis.  

 

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