Criterion Prediction #274: Goodfellas, by Alexander Miller
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Illeana Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis: As far back as Henry Hill can remember, he’s always wanted to be a gangster… Goodfellas is the story of the exploits of the aforementioned half-Irish, half-Sicilian gangster from his early days as a cab stand gofer to a professional thief whose life of crime isolates him in a world where extortion, robbery, murder, and various acts of violence are everyday facets of life. However, his hedonistic utopia comes crashing down around him and his lifestyle and elicit enterprising puts him on a crash course with the law and the consequences of betraying his friends.
Critique: Someone recently asked me a question that every film lover hates, “Qhat’s your favorite movie?” I scanned my usual list of greatest hits, Grand Illusion, The Thin Red Line, Alien, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Red Shoes; sure, those are all indisputable classics, rightfully at the top of my headline list of favorites. But if I name the film I’ve seen the most, the one movie that always secures my attention, regardless if I pop in the Blu-ray, or if I catch it on TV 40 minutes into the runtime, it’s Goodfellas. Sure that would be the case for a few other titles but no other film can match the relentless wit, style, and propulsive energy that makes Goodfellas jump, flow, and captivate decades after its release. Like so many of Socrsese’s films, it revolves around all manner of debauched self-indulgent criminals, sociopaths and murderers.
By the time Scorsese started developing Nicholas Pillegi’s book, Wiseguy, he was no stranger to organized crime or any of the diverse layers of relevant themes apparent throughout his work. The ideal of American enterprising, toxic masculinity, the machinations of the mafia and Italian American cultural mores were present through Mean Streets, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and Raging Bull. He pushed into other, more challenging fare with the Kafka-esque dark comedy After Hours and he ever-relevant satire The King of Comedy–this playful thread is a primer to what fueled the likes of Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino. But it’s the residual Paul Schrader influence that feels central to Scorsese’s post-Taxi Driver oeuvre. The emphasis on voiceover narration, not to mention Schrader’s Calvinist baggage bumping up against Scorsese’s Catholic guilt; it’s all a glorious recipe for bravura style and kinetic storytelling.
The brilliance of Goodfellas is its deceptive simplicity. Granted, it’s anything but simple with a nonlinear structure, a veritable grab bag of eye-catching visuals, juxtaposing ironic edits, freeze frames, a deep bench of musical cues and needle drops. There’s a whole mess of everythingness that doesn’t let up for a second. And that’s where you have to wonder, “With so much being thrown at the wall, how does it all stick?” The answer is simple; Scorsese doesn’t leave anything out. He shows us not just what Henry is saying but goes a step further by filling in any details, blank spots or omissions that Hill’s voiceover can’t satisfy.
Virtually nothing is left to our imagination, and instead of broad obviation, there are gleefully exciting showcases of ribald violence. And in the best sense of superlative storytelling, Scorsese knows how to excite, even tantalize, his audience with this material.
When Henry quips that they had to “straighten out” his girlfriend’s boss, what does he mean by that? Well, it’s not a persuasive conversation but a harsh beating; the disproportionate level of violence and the anecdotal presentation isn’t just amusing but emphasizes the secularity of their world and our complicity as the audience. Even from our far remove, we too are curious, even partially seduced by Henry’s lifestyle.
Hill and Scorsese are two heads on the same body of a movie; they are locked in some tussle of unspoken competition. One rouses the other and they keep up some herculean momentum in an ever-captivating game of energy-fused one-upmanship; Scorsese’s zealous art is a marvel.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: When I started this column, there were so many movies I was tempted to feature but there were limitations. It wasn’t a coincidence that the only Orson Welles film in the Criterion Collection was F for Fake; bigger movies like Citizen Kane seemed out of reach. Then, everything changed.
With the ever-growing phenomenon that is streaming, the home video market is dwindling and titles that seemed too elusive, expensive, or were too precious to individual studios/distributors to be in the hands of some (some would say) niche boutique label like The Criterion Collection… Well, the advent of streaming might result in the dwindling presence of “mainstream” media but there’s an advantage in that upset; that is for the Janus Films catalog, at least. With the Netflix deal, we’ve seen the inclusion of Beasts of No Nation, Dick Johnson is Dead, Okja and, most recently Jane Campion‘s Power of the Dog, even if we’re still waiting for The Other Side of the Wind. But most importantly, in reference to this entry, Scorsese’s The Irishman and Rolling Thunder Revue. Furthermore, the uptick in Scorsese has been meteoric. Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, and the Scorsese Shorts collection are some notable inclusions. So, at this point, who’s to say that something like Goodfellas is off the table? If you told me that the Disney/Pixar classic Wall-E would receive a spine number, I’d have scoffed in disbelief. Not to the detriment of the movie–it’s wonderful and happily situated on my shelf–but if the house of mouse is willing to let a title like that loose, then who knows what’s next?
So what does this mean for Criterion? Will there be more commercial fare? Is anything up for the “Criterion treatment”? Well, it’s not a genre but a distribution company; they will license and distribute properties that generate capital and Goodfellas would do just that. Furthermore, they have a relationship with said director and the people who will pony up a few extra bucks to buy a special 4K edition of his movies are the same ones who line their shelves with Criterion titles. C’est la fucking vie!