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Metronome Sessions

30 Years Later: GoodFellas

26 October 20 words: Manvir Basi

Manvir Basi looks back on one of the most celebrated films of the nineties on its thirtieth anniversary...

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Running time: 145 minutes

Martin Scorsese’s mob crime masterpiece GoodFellas celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year and the film shows no sign of ageing, as it is as vibrant and relevant as ever. Adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, Scorsese breathed new life in the gangster genre and in doing so, paved the way for the likes of Quentin Tarantino and David Chase. Without GoodFellas, there would be no Reservoir Dogs or The Sopranos.

For many, GoodFellas is Scorsese’s magnum opus and it is hard to disagree, as Scorsese fully immerses the viewer into the world of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Aided by the masterful camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the virtuoso editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, the film surges with the pace and energy of the mob world, with event after event collapsing into one another, as we follow Henry’s rise to the top.

A rise that is documented by a soundtrack to end all soundtracks, ranging from the Rolling StonesGimme Shelter through to Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches. Scorsese is the master of using music in film, with the music being used in rhythm with the camera movements.

If there are any doubters of this, then watch the sublime piano ending of Derek & The DominoesLayla play over the reveal of the mob killings, in particular the opening of the meat truck. When filming, Scorsese played the music on the set in order to set the pace of the scene.

To lead us into this intoxicating world, we have the almost confessional voiceover of Henry Hill, which drives the narrative of the film, a nod to Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Yet, Scorsese immerses us into Henry’s world not for sheer enjoyment but to force us to grasp with the morality that lies at the heart of the film: do we praise or condemn these people?

Scorsese highlights this from the get-go, with the help of the legendary Saul Bass, who designed some of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic title credits for films including Vertigo and North By Northwest. At the onset of the film, the credits appear in white but as soon as the killing takes place and we hear Henry’s voiceover, the GoodFellas title flies into focus, now in red. We, the viewer, are now implicit in this world, whether we like or not.

The fact that thirty years on, the film is still being watched, rewatched and analysed, tells you all you need to know about its status in film history

For me, the true radical nature of GoodFellas lies in the narrative structure, with Scorsese throwing the audience into the middle of the story and then moving backwards and then forward in time.

Scorsese is on record as saying that he wanted the film to have a documentary feel. Nowhere is this felt more in the film, then the infamous “11th May 1980” scene, that follows an extremely coked up Henry, battling paranoia in the form of a helicopter, as he rushes from place to place to sell guns and move drugs. Test audiences at pre-release screenings said that they felt tense and expressed anxiety when watching these scenes, so Scorsese ramped up the speed even more.

The opening night reaction to GoodFellas was by all accounts electric, with audiences and critics alike lapping up the film. Awards were showered on the film but unfortunately, like so many of Scorsese’s films, the ending was not so rosy.

At the 63rd Academy Awards, GoodFellas was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director but lost out to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The film’s only Oscar went to Joe Pesci, for Best Supporting Actor.

The durability of any form of art is not dependent on critical acclaim or awards and GoodFellas is no exception to this. The fact that thirty years on, the film is still being watched, rewatched and analysed, tells you all you need to know about its status in film history.

Earlier in the year, Scorsese courted controversy with his comments that Marvel films were “not cinema”. Yet, great filmmakers, like any great artist, use their medium to force us, the audience, to wrestle with deeper questions about our humanity and the world around us. In making films such as GoodFellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, Scorsese has done just that.

Did you know? 1990 was a big year for the gangster genre with Scorsese’s GoodFellas, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing all coming out in the same year.

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