Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #6: Goodfellas (1990)

After taking last week off from movie reviews to celebrate Halloween, I’m back with my #6 pick for the best movies of all time.

Unfortunately, I’m struggling with some manner of fever-cum-sinus infection (probably not The Virus, but who even knows anymore), and after an unusual week, I fell behind on my rigorous pre-scheduling of posts.  As such, this review of a truly fantastic film may be a tad shorter than usual.  I doubt it will reach Pontian lengths, to say the least.

That said, I’m excited to write about this flick, even as I’m over here hacking up a lung.  It’s a movie that combines two of my favorite topics—mid-twentieth-century social history and gangsters—into one thrilling package.

I’m referring, of course, to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas.

The first time I saw Goodfellas was a little less than twenty years ago, when I was in college.  It came on television and I was instantly hooked, not so much by the story—which is itself incredible (and mostly true!)—but by the style.  Scorsese captured the essence of 1950s Italian-American New York City—or at least, what I imagine is the essence of 1950s Italian-American New York City, such is the ponderous influence of this film—matchlessly.  The music, the outfits, the cars, the clubs.  The iconic scene of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walking his girlfriend through the kitchen of the Copacabana, all in one continuous shot, says it more than this humble review ever could.

In two minutes, we learn everything we need to learn about Henry and his world—the free-flow of cash; the high-roller lifestyle; the thin veneer of respectability.  It all belies the brutal nature of Henry’s job.

What Scorsese accomplishes in Goodfellas is remarkable:  one part biopic, one part historical drama, one part buddy comedy, one part gangster film—somehow, he takes all of these disparate ingredients and weaves together a multi-decade story, the story of the rise and fall of one “wise guy,” Henry Hill.

Goodfellas is also nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but it never feels like it.  The pacing is so crisp, so perfect, and the story so engaging, I’ve never felt bored or fatigued watching it.  I have watched many Marvel films with similar runtimes and found myself wondering how much longer the big final fight was going to take (usually because I needed to rush to the restroom after consuming 128 fluid ounces of Diet Coke); I’ve never experienced that with Goodfellas.

The film is based on the book Wiseguy by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, which I strongly recommend to readers.  If you’ve seen Goodfellas first (and you probably will have), you’ll have Ray Liotta’s voiceover in your head the entire time, but that’s not an indictment.  As I recall, the film is remarkably true to the book, although the book, naturally, has more space to explore the world of postwar gangsters than the movie, even at the flick’s considerable runtime.

It’s also fascinating seeing how the tumultuous decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with their rapid social and economic changes, impact the Mafiosos.  Henry Hill’s caporegime Paulie Cicero warns Henry to stay out of the hard drug trade (something that comes up in The Godfather novel as well), but like many gangsters of the time, Henry can’t resist the easy money of drug trafficking.  The older gangsters in both Wiseguy/Goodfellas and The Godfather are right—unlike their usual crimes, the drug trade is an entirely different animal, one that is far more destructive to the law and order and to the Mafia alike.

That’s something that has always intrigued me about the Mafia:  the elaborate code of ethics and honor in an organization that is fundamentally built upon hardcore violence—often quite arbitrary and frightening.  An organization that lusted after money and power still recognized the short-sightedness of peddling hard drugs like heroine and cocaine, but was unable to keep the rank-and-file from breaking ranks, thereby bringing the whole system down.  There’s something intriguingly human about how the greedy, in attempting to rein in their greed, still fall by it.

It’s also interesting to consider that the Mafia was, in many ways, probably what early governments were like—brutal organizations that extorted subjects in exchange for protection against the government itself, not just enemy tribes.  Even modern republics are based—as all governments are based—to some degree on the threat of force, and the legitimate use of it to maintain order.

I’m not suggesting we’re no better than the gangsters—there’s quite a bit of social and political refinement between us and the heavy club of the state (unless you took a selfie in the US Capitol on 6 January 2021)—but it’s interesting to consider the roots of human society, and how the Mafia, in its own crude, violent way, functioned as a shadow government for many years (and perhaps still does).

But I digress.  If you want to ponder these questions and more—not to mention the fragility of life, and the constant paranoia that must come with being a gangster—watch Goodfellas.

16 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #6: Goodfellas (1990)

  1. A brilliant choice, Tyler. Goodfellas is a superb film and I was so glad you used the clip to the long take restaurant scene – those shots (which, if I remember rightly, used to be called mis-en-rique) take in everything, giving you an idea of the world Hill is entering and the privileges the wiseguy enjoys. If he hadn’t gone state, you could see how he could succumb to that environment, even with the nastier side of it.

    I hope you get well soon. I went through my hacking last night (it doesn’t help that I’m a smoker) but I’m recovering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ponty. I thought you’d appreciate this pick—way more apropos than _Krull_, haha. That long shot is what I immediately think of when I think of this flick. I also love the way the tablecloth billows as the waiter carries it. Everything about that scene is perfect.

      I slept abysmally last night and am not doing well, but I forced myself to come to work today. Apparently, we have seven teachers out (!), as well as our Associate Head of School. I’m surprised we’re able to operate, but we’re running a skeleton crew. Meanwhile, I’m doped up on all manner of over-the-counter medications, and sweating like a floozy in church, with my internal temperature oscillating all over the place. Gotsta grind it out, though, and take one for the team.

      Liked by 2 people

      • When you’re able to, curl up on the couch with a Lemsip (or Tina’s tried and tested rum toddy – rum, honey and a little lemon juice; trust me, it works!), cover yourself with a blanket and watch something good. You work too hard mate and it wouldn’t surprise me if your hectic lifestyle has finally caught up. You need to slow down. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “… I’m over here hacking up a lung …” Indelicate but hilarious! I’ve been coughing for two weeks now but the nasal part has abated. I wonder what they let loose now?

    Loved Goodfellas! It’s a good story well told and everyone likes that. How could you not? And an assemblage of outstanding actors. Joe Pesci goes from an absolute nightmare of a human being in Goodfellas to Lethal Weapon’s Leo Goetz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzXFRmgG4H8. That’s quite a range in characterization, lol!

    I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t give folks a warning; the language in Goodfellas will curl your toes. Just sayin’ … be advised before you watch it. (Apologies to 39, lol!)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I should mention that while this film is excellent, the pizzas are not. They always look good on the packaging or the adverts but they never turn out that way in reality. Like the breakfast burger Michael Douglas despises in Falling Down.

    Liked by 2 people

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