This year marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece GoodFellas. The film will close the 14th Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 25, 2015 at the Beacon Theatre.
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book, Wise Guy, GoodFellas looked at the rise and fall of half-Irish, half-Sicilian mobster Henry Hill—and his rebirth as a government informant. Pileggi adapted the book for the screen, and the film starred Ray Liotta as a handsome, charismatic Hill; an unforgettable Joe Pesci as volatile Tommy DeVito; Robert DeNiro as the wise Jimmy Conway (“Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”); and a fantastic Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s beleaguered wife Karen.
The screening will also feature a discussion about the film, with creators and cast members moderated by Jon Stewart, who channels GoodFellas every time he does a wiseguy accent on The Daily Show.
The film has been remastered using a 4K scan of the original camera negative, overseen by Martin Scorsese. A Blu-Ray edition is set for re-release on May 5 and includes Digital HD with UltraViolet. The Blu-Ray edition will also include a documentary which includes interviews with the director, as well as some of Scorsese’s most notable gangster characters, including Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Jack Nicholson and Joe Pesci.
The late film critic Roger Ebert called GoodFellas the best gangster film ever made. It’s a subjective call, but it’s hard to argue with the excellent quality of the actors, writing, direction, and photography.
When the film was released in 1990, Ebert wrote that GoodFellas was a personal triumph for Scorsese:
Scorsese is the right director – the only director – for this material. He knows it inside out. The great formative experience of his life was growing up in New York’s Little Italy as an outsider who observed everything – an asthmatic kid who couldn’t play sports, whose health was too bad to allow him to lead a normal childhood, who was often overlooked, but never missed a thing.
There is a passage early in the film in which young Henry Hill looks out the window of his family’s apartment and observes with awe and envy the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street, impressed by the fact that they got girls, drove hot cars, had money, that the cops never gave them tickets, that even when their loud parties lasted all night, nobody ever called the police.
That was the life he wanted to lead, the narrator tells us. The memory may come from Hill and may be in Pileggi’s book, but the memory also is Scorsese’s, and in the 23 years I have known him, we have never had a conversation that did not touch at some point on that central image in his vision of himself – of the kid in the window, watching the neighborhood gangsters.
Everyone has their favorite scenes from GoodFellas. How about Joe Pesci at his most threatening, scaring the hell out of Ray Liotta before it becoming clear he was only joking? (Warning: Strong language)
Pesci won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito. The film was nominated for 5 other Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s wife), Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Is this the best gangster film ever made? It’s a genre that has kept Hollywood in the black for more than 80 years. Films like White Heat and Public Enemy may look and sound dated to us, but they were gritty and realistic for films made at the time. I thought that Bogie’s Key Largo was one of his best, and a gangster film you would have to put in the top 5. And some critics rank Miller’s Crossing at or near the top.
Certainly, the grand sweep in the telling of GoodFellas, following the life of Henry Hill from teenager to older adult, is an outstanding achievement, seamlessly accomplished. But what makes GoodFellas a cut above all the rest is its perfect evocation of a time and a place. Ebert notes in his review:
For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese’s new film, “GoodFellas,” the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn’t be missed, but were.
The Godfather trilogy told the story of one family. The fact that they were mobsters was incidental to the story. In GoodFellas, on the other hand, the mafia was the story. It was an ugly story, with little to redeem the characters. But most of us understood the attraction of the lifestyle and harbor a secret admiration for the “wise guys.”
It’s a guilty pleasure that all gangster pictures have offered for decades, which is why we keep going to the theater to experience it.