Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is considered one of his greatest films. Its violent subject matter, brilliant acting, and masterful direction set it apart as one of the most influential mafia movies.
Goodfellas centers around the rise and fall of real life gangster Henry Hill. Born to a poor family in New York, he becomes seduced by mafia life at a young age. Hill begins working by parking cars for a local mafia boss before quitting school. The film then covers his gradual rise through the ranks and establishment as a major player in organized crime. However, drug abuse, marital problems, and run ins with the law take their toll on Hill’s well-being, until he enters the witness protection program.
The audience is introduced to the romanticized mafia lifestyle early in the film, like Hill was as a young man. However, as the movie progresses Henry and the viewer are exposed to more unsavory aspects of organized crime. The precipitous fall of Henry Hill following decades of decadence and crime does not come as a shock. However, the feeling of righteous satisfaction from this criminal’s plight is tempered with irony, Hill’s foolish, selfish behavior leading to his downfall. His betrayal of lifelong friends to save his skin further highlights his greed and cowardice.
Based on a true story, Goodfellas offers an uncompromising portrayal of mafia life. The real life Henry Hill maintains that the film is 95% accurate, with the remaining 5% being a failure to portray the violence in a violent enough manner. Despite the film’s reputation, there are only 5 murders depicted onscreen. The real suspense comes from the threat of violence and the unpredictable behavior of psychotic characters.
Scorsese’s direction was in top form for Goodfellas, embracing his classic tropes by including long tracking shots, narration, addressing the camera directly, explicit violence, and an outstanding soundtrack. Scorsese has stated that when choosing songs for movies he has simple criteria. The song must vaguely relate to what is transpiring onscreen, and the song must be from the same time period the movie is portraying.
True to Scorsese tradition, Goodfellas contains more than 300 variations of the word “F*ck”, giving it the 12th highest concentration of F-bombs in any movie. However, Scorsese went on to top this record with 422 uses in Casino, and more than 500 in The Wolf of Wall Street
However, to be fair, a significant amount of the movie is improvised, including the infamous “funny like a clown scene”, which is purportedly based on an earlier event in Joe Pesci’s life. His performance would win him his only Oscar. Unfortunately, it would also be Goodfellas only Oscar, despite 6 nominations. Dances With Wolves came out in the same year, sweeping the academy awards.
Despite its poor showing at the Academy Awards, Goodfellas’ critical acclaim, cult following, and influence in subsequent movies indicate the high quality of the film.