November 21, Flying from SFO to JFK: Goodfellas is the most satisfying gangster movie ever made. It’s all about the music. Scorsese pulls from the popular music of the era across Henry Hill’s sordid career, starting right at the beginning with a perfect blood-stained, red-lit freeze frame scored by a swell of big band, right after the very first line of voice-over: “As far back as I can remember, I’d always wanted to be a gangster.”
That technique sticks out throughout the film: I could watch that slow zoom into Robert DeNiro’s face over the overmodulated “Sunshine of our Love” a hundred times and not be sick of it.
It continues right into the end of the film which kicks into black over a punk cover of “My Way”. Scorsese is using all the tools in his toolkit to bring the coolness Hill feels to us, the audience. That incredible (and famous) tracking shot through the Copacabana as Henry brings Karen there for a date… it is so smooth and so effortless and subliminally it’s Henry that’s doing it, not Martin. Or the snappy editing of scenes like Henry getting in the car, popping a pill and saying quickly: “Now take me to jail.” (Hard cut.)
There’s not a thing about this movie I don’t love. Every actor is a treat to watch, Liotta most of all. Karen and Henry’s relationship, which is so fucked up by the end, is so charming to watch nonetheless. That scene of her yelling at him on the street after he stands her up for their double date is priceless. Him laughing and loving it, her furious but pulled in by his gravity. Watching her change, watching that grin creep up the side of mouth: so good.
As cool and charming as the whole thing is, Scorsese succeeds in not over-glorifying the life. You are as disgusted as you are entranced by Joe Pesci. Even DeNiro’s quickness to brutality is more frightening than his sweetheart charisma is attracting. That’s a difficult balance to strike; I felt like Scorsese lost that battle in Wolf of Wall Street for example, and the balance tipped from midway to moral judgement to all the way to full glory. In Goodfellas the balance is perfect. You are seduced by the cool, but you are sickened by the realities. And that’s the hardest and most important thing to accomplish in an American gangster movie. You have to hit that balance with the accuracy of a tuning fork. And god, does this movie succeed.
You know you want to re-watch Goodfellas. You should do it tonight.