Until this morning I hadn't seen Martin Scorsese's 'Goodfellas': a fact many of my friends regard as some kind of crime against cinema. But, happily, filling gaps like this is exactly the reason I began my "FilmQuest 2012" column last month. My first reaction to this seminal, oft-quoted gangster film is that I'm surprised how fresh it felt. I worried it could only be a disappointment considering its legacy and pervasiveness in popular culture (the mob oeuvre in particular). I worried that I wouldn't be able to see it as something original but as one of a million 'Goodfellas' tribute acts, a bit like when I saw 'Indiana Jones' for the first time a few years ago, having seen all the best bits parodied a thousand times on 'The Simpsons'.
Yet whilst a lot of movies have affected the accents, phraseology and look of the mobsters from 'Goodfellas' - with Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and, to some extent, Robert De Niro living in the shadow of these roles - its imitators have consistently fallen short when it comes to matching the film's historical and sociological heft. 'Goodfellas' is many things: it's a true crime story (closely based on real events), a look at the immigrant experience (Scorsese's own Sicilian routes come through in the 50s section and in the casting of both his parents in minor roles), and a plotted history of the American gangster (from small-time protection rackets to heavy-duty drug dealing). But best of all it examines the appeal of becoming a mobster (the movie star aura, the mythos, the idea of being somebody) to Liotta's impressionable, true-believer Henry, whilst also critiquing the romanticised view of who these people are (as best embodied by Coppola's 'The Godfather') through showing their ruthless disregard for human life and frail sense of loyalty.
This dichotomy is best demonstrated by the ending: as Henry (now in witness protection) bemoans his safe, average, white picket fence existence ("I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.") Here Scorsese cuts briefly to an idealised shot of Pesci's fallen mob enforcer Tommy DeVito who looks smart, stylish and handsome standing against a redbrick wall and shooting his handgun at the camera. This is the character as Henry remembers him, as a perfect movie star, as James Cagney: a charismatic anti-hero who didn't take shit from nobody. It's an image that sits in stark opposition to the angry, sadistic murderer whose violent unpredictability hangs over much of the film.
It's a theme which is brought into focus right away by the seeming contradiction between the opening shots of barbaric murder (a dying man being stabbed to death with a kitchen knife in the boot of a car) and the cheerfully optimistic first line of Liotta's voiceover which follows: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Scorsese sets up the horror and the reality and then goes about explaining its appeal, but without ever confusing his message and making the violence itself appealing. Whereas 'The Godfather' is sometimes poetic in its depiction of death, 'Goodfellas' never shows murder as anything other than senseless and brutal.