It’s been 25 years since Goodfellas stomped then stabbed then buried someplace upstate stupid romantic ideas about the honorable lives of criminals. Time and imitations, some from director Martin Scorsese himself, have not diminished the film, an eccentric marvel whose rhythms are dictated not by plot but by coke and crime: The worse things get for Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his crew, the more clipped the movie gets: scenes short, cuts jittery, but each shot still as rich in detail as that marinara Hill worries over between panic attacks about helicopters. Those final scenes gush at you, all surfeit, too much to take in. They put us in Hill’s position, overwhelmed by his life — the friends he can’t trust, the errands he can’t skip, the sauce he can’t stir, the drugs he can’t hide, not from the feds or Jimmy (Robert De Niro) or from Paulie (Paul Sorvino), who made him promise to stick to the more genteel business of protection, theft, and whacks.
Contrast the raggedy gallop of Goodfellas‘ climax — and of Hill’s heart — with the cool clockwork assassinations presided over by Michael Corleone as The Godfather wraps up. Hill never has that kind of control. Much of the power of the famous long-take tracking shot, the one trailing Liotta and Lorraine Bracco from the street through the kitchen to that stageside table at the Copacabana, comes from our awareness that Hill is playing the part, that he’s as turned on by it as we are, that he only seems singular because he knows his place, keeps his mouth shut, greases the right palms. Like us, he can’t quite believe that moment, and he wants to keep it going. During Goodfellas‘ early highs, Hill has mastered his world, and the movies offer few indulgences as wonderful.
But at its late lows, his world is shattered, and those smooth long takes are, too. His life is in pieces, but what it was was so grand that some dopes you know still think the movie’s a fantasy, either brilliant or irresponsible — a simple reverie on how great it feels to be a gangster.
Instead, it’s the rare honest gang picture. Coppola staged operatic tragedy, complete with a love theme and aspirations to Shakespeare; Scorsese gives us pricks from the neighborhood. Hill never goes down shooting, like a Jimmy Cagney tough, and there’s no crime-doesn’t-pay moralizing. Scorsese tells the truth: Crime might pay, for a while, but the hustle will grind your life until it breaks into wicked jagged shards — and if you survive that, you’ll still be craving the highs. That lesson is borne out, in many ways, in Scorsese’s two quasi-sequels, both opulent and imperfect Goodfellas upgrades: Casino, which deepens Goodfellas‘ relationships — it’s actually round three for hothead Joe Pesci and keeping-it-together De Niro — but errs so far on the side of sadism that nobody mistakes it for romantic. Wolf of Wall Street, meanwhile, is aging well, having been predicted by a shouting goodfella as Paulie’s gang is wound up: “Why don’t you go after the real crooks, on Wall Street?”
This restored Goodfellas is being screened in DCP. It’s a little grainy where it should be, and it affords you the welcome opportunity to regard, on a large screen, Richard Bruno’s Oscar-winning costume design. But you won’t mistake this for film. It feels locked in a way I’m not sure is healthy for a pre-digital movie shown in a theater, flatly unresponsive to the particular light of a particular screening. The format is the only thing here that’s nonvolatile.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Opens June 19, Film Forum