Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic

Goodfellas (1990), Director: Martin Scorsese

Few filmmakers have as much skill and cinematic vocabulary to marry the technical aspects of film with storytelling as well as Martin Scorsese. This isn’t training a camera on actors working through a script. The movement of the camera, shot composition, ordering and pacing, sound and soundtrack all contribute to the storytelling and to the audience experience of it. When the camera zooms up on Ray Liotta’s face just before he opens the thumping trunk in the opening scene, this shifting viewpoint contributes as much to communicate his unease as his expression. And because we are seeing through the unnatural zooming eye of the camera, we feel that unease too.

Most of us train ourselves to ignore the technical, and just let it work its magic on us. We’ve gotten good at adopting the camera’s point of view, even though the way it “sees” is radically different than the way we do. We don’t only suspend our disbelief with regards to the content of movies, we suspend our knowledge of physics, of eye movement and focus, of how sound carries. But if you want to see the slight of hand, the wizard behind the screen, Scorsese’s films – and Goodfellas in particular – are worth studying.

Goodfellas starts in media res at the climax or turning point of the story (even if we don’t yet know this). We flashback to the beginning of Henry Hill’s involvement with organized crime. The flashback is very much a cinematic device – it’s not nearly as effective in any other medium – one dated title card, a change in mise-en-scene, et voila! We are back in the past. The nostalgic sets, costumes and props, music, pacing and camerawork help us to become seduced by this criminal lifestyle along with Henry and Karen. We’re just as impressed as Karen when Henry leads us through one massive dramatic tracking shot through the backdoor and kitchen of the Copacabana, sweeping us down to a last minute front row table. Every shot, every sequence contributes to the overall narrative and taking us on the journey through it. The excitement and energy are enticing and even with the shades of danger and violence, we can still sympathize with Hill’s seduction. But eventually and inevitably, the danger becomes too real and too big to ignore. I’m always impressed by storytellers who manage to make us care and sympathize with characters who are beyond flawed. We shouldn’t root for Henry, Karen, Tommy, Jimmy or Paulie, but we do anyway.

Is it the scene where Henry’s father beats him that draws us in? Karen’s cool plucky spirit when dressing Henry down for standing her up? Tommy’s “How am I funny?” monologue that sets up his inevitable reaction to Billy Batts’ teasing? Seeing Jimmy as infinitely cool through young Henry’s eyes? Meeting Tommy’s mom (adorably played by Marty’s own mom)? The way they all relate to food? (I’m still inspired by Paulie and his razor blade method every time I’m slicing garlic.)

There is so much working on us here. I’d be remiss not to talk about the soundtrack – Scorsese has a knack of integrating popular music into his works. I challenge you to ever listen to the piano outro to Layla again without your mind immediately pulling up images and scenes from Goodfellas.

I first saw this movie when it came out on video, back when I was 13 or 14. I loved it then, even if I had no concept of how or why it was working on me. Even as a 14 year old, I knew this film got robbed by the Oscars, losing out to the forgettable white saviour syndrome vehicle, Dances with Wolves. 26 years later, I’m still mad about it. Madder even. Because my appreciation of the technical and narrative excellence of this film only grows with every re-watch. I’m training myself to see more of the sleight of hand, the artistry, each time.

3 thoughts on “Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic

  1. Thanks for your review, Melissa. I enjoyed Goodfellas. I was certain that I had seen it before, but upon (re)watching, it seemed more pointed than I recalled. I enjoyed the story and found the discussion of gangs and how they capitalize on a sense of belonging and power compelling, but not exactly relatable. I was not particularly drawn in, as you said you were.

    Perhaps I viewed the film differently, because of my ambivalence about the mafia themes. As a child growing up around criminal behaviours and addiction, the film was was both powerful and alienating. Like Andrea, I related to a childhood steeped in criminality. I saw gangsters gathered around tables smoking. I recalled seeing adults arguing with addicts about deals gone bad. I related to the distrust of police and the secrecy around those outside of the family. Goodfellas’ canny depictions of the cocaine induced frenzy, criminal paranoia, and protectionist secrecy were especially effective. But these scenes were also alienating because unlike Henry, I was not seeking belonging or prestige. Women don’t have the privilege to belong in these worlds. Besides, as a kid, I wanted out.

    Even though I have never been the mistress, mother, or wife of a crime boss,I found myself sympathizing with the women more- I kept wishing for a smaller feminine blindspot. The scant portrayals of women are rather stock and one dimensional (the hysterical nagging wife or the persistent sexually crazed mistress or the moron drug mule). I know that defenders might argue that Scorcese is writing what he knows- and he doesn’t know women. Or that he should focus instead on the perspectives he understands. Arguably he has never been a woman in nineteenth century New York City, either, but somehow, The Age of Innocence (which was originally written by a woman) was a much more nuanced portrayal of female characters. Despite the feminine energy of The Age of Innocence, I doubt it would pass the Beschdel test, any more than Goodfellas.


  2. Thank you for sharing some very personal insights, Veronica. I think what impresses me about this film is it takes a world and experience quite foreign to me and manages to somehow normalize it enough that I am compelled to follow the story and am able to sympathize with the characters. In the very first scene, we see Tommy and Jimmy kill a man already brutally beaten in the trunk of a car while Henry takes it all in and his voice over announces how he always “wanted to be a gangster.” There is absolutely no way that I would witness that kind of violence in real life and be prepared to follow along or develop any sympathy for the perpetrators. How is a movie able to subvert natural disgust? That is fascinating to me. (Even if that subversion doesn’t work for everyone. And I can absolutely see how it wouldn’t when the world depicted is not quite so foreign.)

    I also agree that there is room for feminist critique of Scorsese’s works and that his female characters in general are lacking in substance. But I think Karen Hill from Goodfellas is one of the better ones, partly because Lorraine Bracco is amazing, but also because her arc is fascinating. The scene that cements her relationship with Henry – when he hands her the gun to hide after pistol whipping the guy who groped her – was so interesting to me. It’s possible to read it as straight up male savior fantasy. But because its her voice over narration, not Henry’s, it got me thinking about the social conditioning of women to seek “protectors” and how much sexism and misogyny we internalize. It’s also interesting how involved she becomes in the business side of Henry’s exploits – we know he needs her help while he’s in prison, but the scene in the DA’s office, when the DA tells her how much of her he has on tape, makes it clear she hasn’t just been the housewife with her hand out for a while. I wish we had seen more of this, but it is there.

    Part of me wonders too whether audience bias and sexism plays in to character interpretations – when you make a movie where all of the people are kind of awful, is it harder in this misogynistic world to like awful women than awful men? Is Karen a crazy, nagging housewife because that’s the way she was written or because that’s the way we’re conditioned to see a woman who lashes out in anger or breaks down in tears when her husband’s behaviour hurts her?

    Overall though, I’m less interested in one particular filmmaker’s blindspot when it comes to women’s representation than I am at the overall lack of women’s storytelling on film. According to the Hollywood Reporter, last year, only 7% of all of the 250 top grossing films were directed by women. Women made up only 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers. And then we wonder why we aren’t seeing authentic women’s representation on screen. Some folks have started up a project called 52 weeks of women – a pledge to watch a film per week directed, written or shot by a woman and to pay for them, whether at the theatre or through streaming. Upping the takes = upping the stakes.


  3. More Thoughts on “Goodfellas” by Linn Teetzel

    When I looked at the course syllabus, and realized that the movie we would be discussing would be Goodfellas (1990), by Director Martin Scorsese, I tried to think of a reason, any reason, why we would spend so much time on this violent and depressing movie. My initial theory was that we would look at this to try to understand why so many people are drawn to this kind of work, and come to some enhanced comprehension of our society. Perhaps we would consider Montaigne’s, “On Cruelty” and his assertion that: “Amongst other vices, I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judgment, as the very extreme of all vices.” I hadn’t realized, yet, that our presenter, Melanie Friesen, had worked with Scorsese on this film, and was not alone in her view that the movie was a high form of art.
    If I had accidently gone to see this film in 1990, I would have left the theatre after the first scene. This was the one where the “dead guy in the trunk of the car” turned out not to be dead, but fighting for his life. When this was discovered, the murderers stabbed him with a knife, and shot him repeatedly, until there was no sign of life. In any case, I did not see it in 1990, but watched it for the first time, in preparation for our class.

    Normally, I would not have made it through a movie like this, but I had just had a major and painful visit to the dentist, and was on drugs for pain. (Well, OK, 600 mg. of Ibuprofen). Melissa’s review had not yet come out, so I had no moderating influences on my intense dislike for this film, and for others of this genre. (e.g. No Country for Old Men, where random brutality, cruelty and killing are all that I remember. I stopped watching the Oscars, after it won best picture in 2007.)
    Melissa mentioned her disappointment that this movie didn’t get an Oscar that year, and Dances with Wolves did. I loved Dances with Wolves, did not find it to be a “forgettable white syndrome vehicle”, as Melissa did, but that may be the result of my “inner Plains Cree” exerting itself! I can’t remember details of the film, but I do remember that I enjoyed it. I have a great deal of respect for Melissa’s opinion, and for the comments that Veronica made about this movie. Biased as I am, I have tried to look at their comments so that I can learn something about their different perspectives.
    Melissa appreciated the technical and narrative excellence of the film, and I have tried to re-frame my response to the film, using those criteria. She also asked, “How is a movie able to subvert natural disgust?” I really don’t know, because I am stuck and turned off, by what others see as an amazing film.

    Veronica discussed the “scant portrayals of Women” in the film, and I agree that Scorsese does not have any realistic portrayals of women, but this is not unique, even for a 1990 film.
    This course has been an amazing experience, from many points of view, and it has been enlightening to see and hear the different reactions and perceptions of our colleagues to the works we have experienced. We have been in the same room, with the same people, at the same time, but our experiences have been very different.


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