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.