Roger Ebert is well-known for going against the critical grain (this is the man who gave 2/4 stars to Die Hard and 1/4 stars to Blue Velvet, remember), but I’m sure he really shocked a few upon proclaiming “No finer film has been made about organized crime [than Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas]—not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” Having somehow not seen The Godfather yet, I can’t offer my own opinion on that, but what I will say is this: it would have to be one heck of a great movie in order to trump the gripping, startling masterpiece that is Goodfellas.
Most of the gangster films I know of are turbulent “rise-and-fall” stories, and Goodfellas is admittedly no different. What makes it stand out from all the rest, however, is the unforgettably genuine approach it takes to the true-life story of Henry Hill (played to perfection by Ray Liotta), a young hoodlum who breaks into NYC’s underground crime world and stays there, gaining a loving wife and kids in the process.
Around this time, the shots are wide, the takes are long, and even when people are getting bloodily shot, stabbed, and generally roughed up, the film is still relatively (and surprisingly) relaxed. However, as Hill’s world finally crumbles from cocaine, his rapidly disintegrating marriage, and more, the cinematography and camerawork quickly adopt a faster, jumpier, more paranoid tone, like the film itself is on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Following along all the while is the narration by Hill and his wife, which blends so well into their gritty, fast-paced world that I couldn’t imagine the film working nearly as well without it.
And what an impressive world it is. New York’s bustling streets, towering buildings, and quaint little houses are depicted with the type of searing authenticity that could only come from Scorsese, and not a single moment with Hill or his buddies (among them vibrantly dangerous mobsters played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci) come off as false or stereotypical. They never feel anything less like real people, so even when they’re committing horrific acts of violence, you’re still extremely compelled by them regardless.
Speaking of which, the film’s violence is often shocking and brutal, but is never gratuitous in the slightest: it is simply an inescapable part of the life they’re all willingly stuck in, and to ignore or sanitize it would be pointless to the extreme. Same thing goes for the nonstop profanity (all right, not as nonstop as something like Uncut Gems, but still pretty constant), which supplies some of the most hilariously dirty one-liners I’ve heard for a long while.
Such grand, sprawling material simply cannot be fit into 90 or 120 minutes, so the extended 145-minute length (which isn’t even nearly as imposing as the runtime for Scorsese’s other gangster flicks—his next one, Casino, is 178 minutes, and his newest one, The Irishman, clocks in at 209) isn’t just richly earned, but never shows a single trace of excess. Equal parts masterful, stressful, and very entertaining, Goodfellas is an irresistibly engrossing crime classic. Even if you want to, it’s impossible to look away from it.