It’s been 25 years since the release of the gangster classic Goodfellas. Yet, as its recent 25th Anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival has shown, audiences are as charmed, shocked and entertained as ever by the life of Henry Hill. What is it about Goodfellas that keeps us hooked, and makes it arguably the greatest gangster film ever made?
Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an ambitious and daring gangster. Henry enjoys a life of money and luxury as he advances through the ranks, but his success quickly unravels. He falls prey to adultery, addiction and disloyalty and his relationships with his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and friends (Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci) begin to deteriorate. Desperate to survive, Hill must betray everything he stands for as he becomes an FBI informant.
Released in 1990, Goodfellas was Scorsese’s fourteenth feature film and had to compete with the director’s past body of work (including the highly praised Raging Bull and Taxi Driver). Goodfellas was a critical success, and now stands as one of Scorsese’s best films.
Having grown up in ‘Little Italy’ Manhattan, the territory of the Mafia, Scorsese had wanted to dodge any direct focus on the mob in his films. However, Goodfellas changed this; as Scorsese said in 1990 during an interview with Empire Magazine, it would be “too bad not to make [such an] exciting” film. Scorsese grew up surrounded by real life mobsters and gangsters and was acutely aware that the mob was its own microcosm, with its own laws, politics and society. Anything that tried to undermine this way of life, such as the police or government, was despised, hence why ratting to the police was the worst offence.
This same representation of the Mafia is in Goodfellas, as it encompasses the whole of Henry and Karen Hill’s lives. When Karen comments on life with Henry she talks of how the Mafia became your family. For example, when their children were born, it was Henry’s gangster associates who were first to kiss the baby’s head.
Scorsese has never been one to cut corners. As some of his acting partnerships have commented, he is a perfectionist. During the Tribeca screening, Nicholas Pileggi recalled how even during Goodfellas’ premiere in New York, Scorsese was still finding parts “we should have cut”.
What is most ingenious about the film’s structure is its importance as a life story. We know Henry’s whole life; therefore, we as the audience can judge his character. By the end of the film, our opinion of Henry and the price he pays is as reflective of our own morality and empathy as it is of Scorsese and characters in the film. Would we have taken the moral high ground if we were in Henry’s shoes? The effect of this on the audience is what makes the film so powerful. Scorsese repeats this same technique 23 years later in what some call his modern-day Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street. The life story of Jordan Belfort, a man lost in the drugs, sex and crime of Wall Street, has a very similar structure to the story of Henry Hill as we see every aspect of the characters’ lives.