[box cover]

Goodfellas: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci,
and Paul Sorvino

Written by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi
Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

How has Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) become so overlooked as a modern classic? Perhaps his release of another Mafia-themed movie five years later had the result of wedging Goodfellas into the middle slot — post-Mean Streets and pre-Casino — of the generic category "Scorsese mob movies." Or maybe it's because, despite its critical acclaim, audiences didn't exactly flock to see the blood-drenched gangster flick in theaters. The $25 million picture grossed a little over $6 million on its opening weekend — while it certainly made a profit, finally grossing $46 million at the U.S. box office, it was hardly a runaway hit.

And yet, Goodfellas may well be Scorsese's finest picture — it's certainly the equal of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and may very well be superior to both. Goodfellas is a brilliant, assured, mature film by one of cinema's greatest directors at the top of his game — but it's a brutal, intensely violent masterpiece, one that alienated test audiences before its release (despite viewers walking out in droves, literally flinging their test cards down in disgust, Scorsese ferociously battled the studio and refused to cut any of the carnage), and one that stands as a scathing indictment against the made men that Scorsese's often accused of glorifying.

Based on the book "Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family" by Nicholas Pileggi about real-life mobster Henry Hill, Goodfellas begins with an exceptionally brutal killing as Hill (Ray Liotta) and his associates Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) realize that the body in the trunk of their car isn't quite dead. So they pull over, open the trunk and finish the job — De Vito with a butcher knife and Conway plugging the dying man with several bullets. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," begins Liotta's voiceover as Hill. "To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States." We're then brought abruptly into Hill's world, seeing it through his 13-year-old eyes — in his Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1950s, the local wiseguys were like rock stars. "They weren't like anybody else, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a fire hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops." Through Henry, Scorsese shows us what he must have seen himself, growing up in that same place and time — assured men with expensive, shiny shoes and new cars who had real power in a struggling, working-class neighborhood. Gangsters, to the young Hill/Scorsese, were glamorous.

Starting out as an errand boy for the local mob, Hill rises in the ranks selling stolen cigarettes, working as an enforcer, and eventually becoming a made man. As he moves up the ladder along comes more money, power, and privilege — in the film's most famous segment, Hill escorts his not-yet-wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana nightclub, bypassing the long line at the front door and entering instead through the kitchen — gliding down service corridors, greasing palms and shaking hands in one long, uncut Steadicam shot, finally emerging into the luxe interior of the club to be greeted like visiting royalty. "What do you do?" Karen asks him, awed as a table is set up for them in the front row and a bottle of champagne whisked to their side. "I'm in construction," he answers, smiling. She knows better, of course, but she's too enamored of the power and money to care.

Karen adds her voice to the story, too, giving the film a resonance that most mob movies lack. An obvious precursor to the character of Carmela Soprano — indeed, HBO's "The Sopranos" as a whole owes an enormous debt to Goodfellas — Karen's love for Henry is largely inspired by his crude power. After pistol-whipping a man who's hit Karen (a scene which Scorsese presents, like virtually all of the violence in Goodfellas, in one brutally unvarnished, uncut shot) Henry gives Karen the blood-covered gun and tells her to hide it. "I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide," she says in voiceover. "But I didn't. I gotta admit the truth — it turned me on." Through Karen, as with Henry, we're seduced by the glamour of mob life, even if we grimace over the way she justifies the escalating violence and criminal activity of their lifestyle. "None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for handouts."

As Henry's story progresses, however, Scorsese moves from the dreamy quality of a Godfather-like fairy tale into rougher, nastier territory. The killing of associate Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) — the fellow in the trunk at the start of the film — is a turning point for both Henry and for Goodfellas, with Henry spinning increasingly out of control as events around him become crazier and more violent. The camera moves less in a swooping, elegant fashion and the shots become quicker, tighter and more static as Henry's cocaine use and the demands of mob life turn him into a haggard, paranoid wreck. What will happen to Henry — to whom we remain sympathetic throughout, thanks to the groundwork laid by Scorsese and Liotta in the first third of the film — is unclear to the very end of the movie. Yes, the story is told in voiceover by Henry but, brilliantly, it's also told by Karen — so it's highly possible that Henry may not make it out of his own story alive.

The performances in Goodfellas are top-drawer, down to the smallest roles. De Niro, as always when working with Scorsese, is impeccable, finessing even the smallest details of his character from the way he holds a cigarette to his slicked-back, graying hair (in one of the DVD's featurettes, the real Henry Hill tells an amazed Liotta that De Niro would sometimes call him four or five times a day, asking questions about the mobster he was playing). Pesci, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for the film, played the sociopathic Tommy De Vito so well that he's never quite shaken the character — of course, it didn't help that he played the exact same role in Casino. Despite having become the stuff of jokes, the famous scene where Tommy demands of Henry, "I'm funny, how? I'm funny like a clown, like I amuse you?" — a scene which was fleshed out during improvised rehearsals and reportedly stemming from a real-life incident that happened to Pesci — is full of such menace that it still inspires chills.

Anchoring the film is Liotta, in the best role of his life. With only a couple of top-billed performances under his belt before this, Liotta was cast because he had qualities that Scorsese knew his usual leading man, De Niro, lacked — first, there was his relative youth (De Niro was 47 when Goodfellas was released) but also a sweetness necessary for the film's earlier scenes, when it was vital that the audience identify and sympathize with Henry. Liotta's made over 25 films in the years since Goodfellas and, as of this writing, shows no signs of slowing — but he's never had another role as good as this one, nor one that he's worn so perfectly. As Henry's life spirals madly, violently out of control, it's Liotta's performance that holds us in our seats, rooting for him no matter how terrible his decisions are, no matter how obstinately he remains blind to the nightmare that he's brought upon himself. By the film's end, we loathe the life and the characters that were so charming and enviable at the start of the film — that Scorsese should ever be accused of glamorizing Mafia life is dead wrong, as anyone watching Goodfellas will leave the film knowing without a shadow of a doubt that the last thing they should ever want to do is become a gangster.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's two-disc special edition DVD release of Goodfellas — available on its own or as part of the "Martin Scorsese Collection" box set — replaces an earlier, bare-bones, "flipper" DVD that was released during the digital format's launch in 1997. The new digital transfer in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) is very good, richly saturated with beautiful contrast, although some scenes (the nightclub scenes in particular) seem a bit murky. And, unlike the previous DVD, all 145 minutes are on one dual-layered side, so you won't need to flip it over mid-film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English or Spanish, with French, English and Spanish subtitles) is solid, if unimpressive. Scorsese spends a lot of time thinking about the music for his films — and this one boasts a wealth of '50s and '60s songs ranging from "My Way" and "Bells of St. Mary's" to "Layla" and "Gimme Shelter" — he's never been one for complicated audio mixes. But the audio offers all that's needed to enjoy this dialogue-driven film — the music never battles with the talk, and the gunshots are plenty loud.

Disc One offers the film with two optional commentaries — the Cast and Crew commentary features Scorsese, Pileggi, Liotta, Bracco, Vincent, Paul Sorvino, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoomaker. All were recorded separately, but it's still scene-specific, very detail-oriented, and fascinating to listen to. It's hard to imagine that there's much left to learn about the background of the film, its production, or mob life in general after listening to this track. The second, Cop and Crook commentary features Henry Hill and former FBI agent Edward McDonald — McDonald is the agent who got Hill into witness protection and he mostly plays straight man as Hill riffs on different scenes, telling one hilarious, outlandish story after another. It's very, very entertaining and a terrific addition to the movie. There's also a menu listing the many awards that the film won, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the British Academy Awards.

Disc Two features a handful of extras, including a 30-minute "making-of" featurette, Getting Made, which offers new interviews with Bracco, Pileggi, and Liotta, plus 1990 interviews with De Niro, Scorsese, and Pesci, plus some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of Scorsese directing. Also on board is The Workaday Gangster (8 min.), which focuses on the realities of mob life, Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy (13 min.) with sound bites from a number of directors, including Richard Linklater, the Hughes Brothers, and John Favreau, waxing rhapsodic about the film but offering little insight, and the genuinely interesting Paper is Cheaper Than Film, which illustrates how Scorsese's little stick-man sketches in his scripts translate to thoughtfully planned shots on celluloid.

— Dawn Taylor

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