Goodfellas (1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
By Alan Bacchus
What are best uses of voiceover in film? Terrence Malick in Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line perhaps, The Magnificent Amberson's maybe? The use of omniscient narration describing off screen action, motivation, character's inner thoughts can be seen as a lazy tool for screenwriters. But when it's done right, it's can be a magical thing. Few can argue the tremendous effect of the voiceover from Goodfellas, one of the great pop cultural landmark films of our time.
Martin Scorsese's return to the streetwise, low level gangster characters of Raging Bull, Mean Streets and served as kind of an antidote to the Godfather effect, that is, the glorification and romanticism of the mafia as charming, well dressed pseudo bourgeois aristocrats. Scorsese's gangsters are working class bullies who use the tantalizing temptations of capitalism to the extreme, living a life free of all control.
The opening scene in 1970, finding the body of Billy Bats still alive in the trunk of Henry Hill's car, is a classic, parachuting us into the narrative, then doubling back to continue the scene midway into the picture. And it’s not just an arbitrary scene, but the key decision in the film by the main characters which ultimately spelled their downfall. After this prelude Scorsese's hero Henry Hill opens up the story with one of the best lines - "as far back as I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster". It begins the amusing, violent, grotesque and bystantine epic story of the New York/New Jersey mafia in the 70's and 80's.
Henry Hill's voiceover provides an intimate entry into the world so familiar in movies and TV, yet completely fresh and authentic. In the opening act, Henry moves from child wannabe to young hot shot hoodlum who ingratiates himself deep into the mafia. While he surrounds himself with two of the most ruthless gangsters we've ever seen in film - Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) - watch closely and you'll see Henry characterized as an outsider who never really gets his hands dirty in the dirtiest parts of the business. The death of Billy Bats for instance, Scorsese is careful to show Hill's shocked reaction at Jimmy and Tommy's violent beating. This allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of a man with a conscience, and however delusional and drugged out, he's the film's everyman.
Back to the voiceover...the great moments occurs early in the film. Take the introduction Karen for instance. In the restaurant Scorsese switches from Henry’s voiceover to Karen’s voiceover, which comes completely of left field, yet, as cut by Thelma Schoonmaker and the sound editors, the transition is seemless. The voiceover reads not like inner monologue but documentary interviews. This style ties in so wonderfully in the end, in the inspired moment when Henry Hill, on the stand,suddenly breaks the fourth wall and starts talking to the camera. As if the entire movie were part of his confession to breaking the two cardinal rules told to him by Jimmy Conway, 'never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut'.
As much as the film is visceral and violent, his mix of violence with humour has never been done better. Again, the Billy Bats killing is brutal, but watch the transition into the next scene, the riotously funny dinner scene with Scorsese’s mother, a contrast which keeps the audience oscillated between these two extremes- what is it, a paw? A hoof?
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing compresses the time brilliantly, rendering an ambitious 20 year narrative into a elegant flow of image and sound that washes over the viewer like a bedtime story. One of the best scenes is the Bamboo Lounge sequence. In a matter of 60 seconds the restaurant is partnered with the mob, they make tones of money, then it’s a losing venture and its being torched.
But when they want Scorsese and Schoonmaker slow down to highlight the key moments in Henry's journey. The best scene, and one of greatest ever set pieces in motion picture history is the day which leads up to Henry's capture. After spending almost two hours over the course of 20 years, Scorsese throws a microscope on one particular day in Henry's life. A thrilling sequence which shows Henry giving instructions to his brother over the phone how to make the pasta, in paranoia watching the skies for a helicopter which may or may not be spying on him, driving around town delivering guns for Jimmy Conway and overseeing a drug deal while coking himself out to the max. In one great scene, Scorsese sums up the lifestyle of Henry Hill playing edge at all times, and a hair's breath away from being put away for life and the reason why Goodfellas is the greatest gangster film ever made.
"Goodfellas' is available on Blu-Ray as part of Warner Home Video's compilation of his recent work for Warners called The Martin Scorsese Collection.