GoodFellas review – Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece

(Martin Scorsese, 1990; Warner Bros, 18)

The gangster movie began in the silent era with DW Griffith’s primitive The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), but it was the talkies and their vibrant soundtracks of chattering machine guns, screeching tyres, hardboiled dialogue and thudding fists on yielding flesh that ushered in the first great cycle of gangster flicks. The enforcement of the Hays Office Production Code in 1934 tamed this first wave, but the gradual relaxation of censorship in the 1960s led to a grand revival of the genre focusing on the celebration of crime waves in the past (Bonnie and Clyde) and the criminal underworld of the present (The Godfather).

From the beginning of his film career, Martin Scorsese has been at home with crime both period and contemporary, starting with Boxcar Bertha (1972), a true story of outlaws in the depression, and Mean Streets (1973), which drew on his personal knowledge of Italian-Americans embarking on a life of crime in New York’s Little Italy.

I predicted in my 1990 review that GoodFellas “will take its place among the great gangster pictures”, a judgment confirmed by a special two-disc Blu-ray version published to mark its 25th anniversary. Neither glamorising nor moralising, the film is closely based on Nicholas Pileggi’s chilling biography of career criminal Henry Hill (a compelling performance by Ray Liotta). In 1980, to save his neck, Hill gave evidence that convicted several dozen mafiosi and then went into hiding under the federal witness protection programme. A peculiarly brutal pre-credit sequence of a 1970 underworld murder strips the euphemistic shroud off the phrase “taken for a ride”. It’s followed by Hill’s unrepentant declaration: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The picture observes his progress over some 25 years in a New York mafia family that has taken him under its wing, and twice he goes to jail without betraying his lethal comrades Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, but finally, after getting involved with drugs and sniffing too much of his own merchandise, he cracks.

The film is accompanied by a series of excellent documentaries in which his collaborators explain how Scorsese made crucial decisions about freeze-frames, long takes, voiceovers, the evocative use of popular music and so on to create the film’s elaborate texture. GoodFellas is a great auteur’s masterpiece, and the extras on this disc are an informal masterclass in moviemaking.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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