After reviewing The Irishman this week, what else could I watch for this week’s TBT post? So many people have given Martin Scorsese’s latest film the title of his “best film since GoodFellas“. It was the perfect excuse to back and watch the classic film. GoodFellas is one of those films that will always stand the test of time. This year marks its 30th anniversary and, though it has 2 years on me, it has held up much better than I have. And, on the plus side, Robert De Niro looks like a real human being. Of course, he was only in his 40s at the time. It also features a wonderful performance from Ray Liotta who was last seen having a fun time as a smarmy lawyer in Marriage Story. Yes, The Irishman may have Al Pacino going for it but, I’ll be honest, I’d rather watch Scorsese’s earlier work than his latest. After all, you could watch it twice in the time you’d spend watching uncanny De Niro’s creepy eyes.
There was a point in the 80s when Martin Scorsese had decided he wasn’t planning on making another mob film. He had done more than enough in that area himself and Francis Ford Coppola had pretty much cornered the market in 1973. Then Scorsese got a copy of Nichola Pileggi’s book Wiseguy. He read it on the set of The Color of Money and thought it was the most honest portrayal of gangster that he had ever seen. He immediately knew that he wanted to make it. The book was a non-fiction book that the crime reporter had written about the life of Henry Hill. Hill was a mafia mobster who later became an informant. Scorsese knew how he wanted to tackle the film. He wanted to show the exhilaration that comes from a life working with the mob so he could showcase why people might be attracted to it.
The film starts with Henry as a young man being sucked into that lifestyle. He is mesmerised by the money and power that the people he saw in his neighbourhood. His childlike wonderment carries him through his career and he soon finds himself in deep. And you can see why. There is a scene early in the film where young Henry is arrested. It doesn’t lead to anything but, as he leaves the courtroom, the young boy is welcomed by a group of cheering men. He becomes one of them and feels the support and union that comes with that way of life. They have successfully corrupted a naive young man and we see them celebrating it. Scorsese understands where young Henry is coming from but he also knows where he’s going. Despite the glamour and the power that comes with this life, we never lose that sense that Henry is doomed.
As Henry (Ray Liotta) gets older, he finds his hands getting dirtier and dirtier. He meets a whole host of new characters including Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro). The three men form quite a connection and help each other out during sticky situations. When Henry falls in love with Karen (Lorraine Bracco), the pair are made to feel welcome by the whole family. They get caught up in the community and form strong bongs. Eventually, though, Henry and his friends are caught and sent to prison. When they get out, they start to descend even further into the dark. Although, with drugs, money and women come suspicion and murder. When the police start sniffing around again can Henry trust anyone?
I know that The Irishman is a masterpiece of a film but GoodFellas remains one of the greatest gangster films ever made. The cast are all phenomenal and Scorsese has complete control over everything. There are plenty of moments where you can see how great these people are together. They are all in there element. You just need to look at the scene where Pesci’s Tommy berates Henry for calling him funny. It’s an absolute stand-out moment. And then there’s De Niro. Jimmy isn’t as vocal a character but he tells you everything that you need to know with a look. And GoodFellas is technically brilliant. Scorses is on top form here. Everything comes together so perfectly.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t respond quite as well to Scorsese’s latest offering? GoodFellas is not only much shorter but still manages to get enough depth there. GoodFellas may be aware of the allure of the mob lifestyle but it never pretends it’s anything other than damaging. The cast of characters we meet here are never portrayed as heroes or as people to look up to. When you get up close, they are vulgar and greedy. You begin to realise that their lives are empty and that being feared is not all it’s cracked up to be. Henry is miserable with his life. He cheats on his wife and makes multiple mistakes. He finds himself surrounded by dead bodies and wondering if it’s worth it. When they eventually get caught, you know that it’s entirely their own making. They all get what they deserve.
Yes, The Irishman is an accomplished film. It if wins all the awards during awards season then it’ll probably deserve it. But, I can’t pretend that GoodFellas isn’t a better film. It has everything going for it. Robert De Niro’s eyes are a normal shade of blue. It doesn’t drag on for 100 years. And it still manages to ask the same questions about these types of people. If The Irishman doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars then people we say it’s because the Academy hates Netflix. Many may well call it the worst snub of all time. Not true. The 1991 Best Picture snub of GoodFellas was an absolute disgrace.