The Rear-View Mirror: Goodfellas (1990)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

goodfellas

A car rides into darkness. The film cuts to the three passengers and we hear noise from the back of the car.

“The f*&k is that? … Jimmy?” says the man behind the wheel. “Did I hit something?”

“… the f*&ck is that?” the man in the back says. They pull over and get out. Lit by the red back light of the car the men draw their weapons. The man in the trunk is bloodied but still alive. Swearing, they finish him off. They are Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, our protagonists.

After this violent beginning Henry’s voice-over starts with what is probably the most famous line in the movie:

“As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

It is almost impossible for someone of my generation to think of the mafia film before Goodfellas. It is the boss – arguably the very best contemporary exponent – of the genre. It inspired The Sopranos, among many others. (I shall make no apologies here for preferring it over The Godfather, though you can hardly compare the two.) Goodfellas itself had its precursors of course, notably Scarface (1932). It is based on the bestseller by Nicholas Pileggi, about real people and events, though it sometimes seems to owe just as much to Scorsese’s own memories.

Consider the following exchange:

“You tell me what I gotta do? Whatever the f*&k I gotta do, I’m gonna do, no?”

“What could I do. If there was something I could do, don’t you think I would do it?”

Here’s an ear for the language, the way these people talk to each other. It defines them as part of a specific closed group. So do their clothes, their jewelry and the stories they tell. How closed this world is becomes clear later, from the voice-over of Karen, Henry’s wife.

“We always did everything together and we always were in the same crowd. […] We were all so very close. I mean there were never any outsiders around, absolutely never. And being together all the time made everything seem all the more normal.”

In the beginning, she is wined and dined by Henry. In an extraordinary and much-lauded shot he takes her into the Copacabana club, not through the front, but through the side entrance, via the kitchen, him shaking hands along the way, as they make their way to the the floor. A table is set right in front of the stage and they are seated in one of the best spots, between the other mafiosi present. Such influence, such connections are intoxicating to her.

Through Henry and Karen’s voice-overs we are introduced into this world, making us complicit in the dazzling lifestyle, as glitzy as it is garish, of a successful mobster.

The inevitable fall comes, as it must, after meteoric rise. About halfway through the film, we get back to the scenes which precede the prologue of the movie. The plot has too many pay-offs to rehash them all here, the real joy is in the details and character development the film allows.

The story goes that when Martin Scorsese was a small boy he watched the wiseguys from his window in Little Italy, much like Henry does as a young boy in the film. The suits, the jewelry, the stories. Seeing the affection the film has for its characters, the ear for dialogue and the countless period details: it’s not hard to believe.

There are many rewards in re-watching the film. Consider Scorsese’s use of food. The impromptu meal at Tommy’s house, for example, and the way Jimmy handles the ketchup. Who eats and who doesn’t. Note the use of popular music. Watch Jimmy’s face change with the opening chords of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, while deciding on someone’s demise. Because it’s so quotable and its scenes are so familiar, it is easy to forget how much the movie as a whole draws you in.

So next time you find yourself craving another mafia film or series that feels real: try and watch Goodfellas again. You might be surprised how seductive it still is.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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