Goodfellas (1990) Review

Goodfellas (1990)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Chuck Low, Samuel L. Jackson

Goodfellas is one of Martin Scorsese’s best received works and startlingly this year sees his mob masterpiece reach the tender age of 30. Unsurprisingly it remains as vital as ever and is still one of the finest films of the past 3 decades, as well as in the entirety of Scorsese’s legendary filmography. In light of the success found in his return to the genre with 2019’s The Irishman, it is worth revisiting one of the high points of a genre with which Scorsese has so clearly associated.

Goodfellas, whilst not being a hugely successful film at the Box Office in 1990, has become a cult favourite and one of Scorsese’s most recognisable films. With legendary critic Roger Ebert writing upon its release that “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather“ in an indication of public sentiment towards the film, Goodfellas is currently placed at 17 on IMDB’s top 250 films of all time and is Scorsese’s highest placed film on this particular list.

The film takes a detour from the narrative route Scorsese had taken with the likes of his character studies Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to focus Goodfellas on the life of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, from childhood to his fully formed part of Mob life. It is an unflinching look at the brutality of the life these characters choose to lead with violence aplenty.

Goodfellas is one of the finest acted films Scorsese has released and features the best career work of Ray Liotta as well as a strong supporting performance from Robert De Niro in what was at this point his 6th collaboration with Scorsese – his first since The King of Comedy 7 years earlier. In one of her earliest roles, Lorraine Brasco excels and was rightly nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress, this performance coming 9 years before her acclaimed role in ‘The Sopranos’. A case could even be made for Karen being one of Scorsese’s best female characters, certainly in his mob films. Some 3 decades on, and it’s Joe Pesci who remains the film’s particular highlight and the master of its superbly acted ensemble however, the actor displaying his full range and proving explosive in almost every scene, his performance winning the Oscar for Actor In a Supporting Role.

As one would expect with a Scorsese picture, the period attention to detail is sublime, really evoking the decade each section is set in. The early part of the film focuses on Henry’s childhood in the 1950s and the picture subsequentily works its way through the 60s to the 80s. Brilliant soundtracks are one of Scorsese’s hallmarks, and this is one of his finest, comprising an eclectic mix of soul, rock n roll, jazz and blues classics to fit the mood of the particular period the film is focused on. The sound makes use of a plethora of tracks from the Rolling Stones and features other iconic acts such as Muddy Waters, The Who and George Harrison. Scorsese would of course go on to make acclaimed documentaries on both Harrison and The Rolling Stones.

Watching Goodfellas after having watched 1995’s Casino and The Irishman, the trio work incredibly well as nuanced variations on mob life as they all touch on different aspects of the lifestyle. The Irishman and Goodfellas in particular are only really similar in subject matter, and as overall films are actually worlds apart in both message and style. It is perhaps a sign of the quality of Goodfellas that Scorsese’s subsequent films in this genre live somewhat in its shadow, Goodfellas remaining a high point in a career that has also brought us the aforementioned films and Scorsese’s only Best Directing Oscar for The Departed.

While there have been a fair few films focusing on the mob since 1990, few have achieved the same staying power, legacy and adoration as Goodfellas. Arguably it is not only Martin Scorsese’s most critically revered of the past 3 decades but it is also his most beloved by fans. In a genre that has produced some of the finest films of the 20th Century, from the Godfather Parts I & II, to Once Upon a time in America, Goodfellas rightly sits in the top tier of classics and showcases one of America’s finest directors at the top of his game.


Written by Christopher Connor

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