"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."
Quite possibly the best opening line in cinema history. Couple that with the opening scene, as our main characters are driving to upstate New York, when all of a sudden they hear bumping and think that they hit something. When they stop to check it out, there is a bloody body wrapped in towels in the trunk, and it is alive. But not for long, as Joe Pesci repeatedly stabs it with a large kitchen knife and Robert De Niro finishes it off with a few shots to the face.
"To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States," as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) describes to us.
And to me, Martin Scorseses' 1990 gangster classic "Goodfellas" is a sermon on why it is amazing to be a gangster. From the beginning of the film, we are transported to this world where anything and everything is just a phone call away, the law does not apply to you unless you want to get away from your crazy wife, and you are free to kill, destroy, say and do as you please.
It is not because of the ability to hold that power, but the respect and authority that comes with it. The narration by Liotta is overflowing with examples of why he adores the lifestyle and how he could not live life any other way. From a bunch of neighborhood kids carry his mother's groceries all the way home out of respect, to his first taste of authority over the mailman so that his parents didn't learn that he was skipping school to hang out with the mobsters.
The problem that I have with most gangster films is that they feel so removed from reality. That these seem like heartless men who are only interested in themselves and could care less about anything that isn't the mafia. It comes across like they don't like being gangsters.
While this can be the same thing in "Goodfellas," this film does leave one defining characteristic - the basic humanity in its characters. The need for these wise guys to go out and acquire more of everything. Not because they need to, but because they love to do it.
All three main characters - Liotta, De Niro and Pesci - are so gleeful anytime something works out in their favor. When they pull off a heist and return home with a fat stack of cash, distribute it among their friends and family, there is nothing better for them. Except for maybe the actual act of getting the money. It reminds them that they are alive and that they hold this tremendous power. To control lives and being someone in an area of nobodies.
These three love every minute of being gangsters.
Like with so many other gangster films, they live in their own little world, separate from ours. One that they probably think is above ours, so that they can look down on us and laugh at how we live from paycheck to paycheck, and they can buy ten safe houses in a day and a beautiful woman for each house. In this world, everything is influenced by the mafia and their whims. Their mad, crazy and mostly random whims.
Early on in the film, our cast of characters hang out at a local bar, where the owner asks for Pesci to pay his $3,000 tab. Pesci smashes a glass over his head and pushes him away. Afraid and left with nothing to do, the owner turns to Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the head of the mafia, to purchase protection for the bar. Paulie agrees, so now the bar is protected from rival gangs, cops, etc. But at a hefty fee, and one that seems to increase on a daily basis. Soon enough, the amount becomes too much for the owner to pay and he can't do anything about it.
So Liotta and Pesci burn down the bar.
This is the perfect example of what I'm talking about - Gangsters could not care less about the petty problems of anyone who isn't a wise guy. Gangsters will use them for all they've got, until you either run out of money or open your mouth. And then it's time to cut you lose.
Whether these people know it or not, their lives are at the mercy of these fickle, greedy gangsters, who only have one interest - power.
"Goodfellas" captures this better than any other gangster film. While it does make them seem a bit alien, it certainly does make them more appealing than most gangsters.
On top of that, the visual style of "Goodfellas" is intriguing, as it adds to the atmosphere of power and control that these wise guys exude. In particular, the long tracking shots that this film relies on. Uninterrupted takes where the camera must navigate long corridors and show dozens of character interactions, to show the scope of this world.
One that comes to mind is when Liotta and his girlfriend are on a date at an insanely popular restaurant and performing center, and Liotta nonchalantly works his way through the long line of people attempting to get in, gets in through a back door through several long hallways, into the kitchen while the chefs are hard at work, to the stage where the waiter recognizes Liotta and sets up a table right in front of the stage. All without ever cutting away and capturing every interaction along the way.
It is as if the camera is in love with this gangster and does not want to leave his side, because it respects his power and control as well. The entire world just unfolds in front of him and bends to his every desire.
Later on, as Liotta's life begins to fall apart, due to drugs and prison sentences, the camera style turns from stoic and broad, to frantic and claustrophobic. Always looking up at the sky to see if a helicopter is following him, excessively moving to get through his routine of selling drugs while still making time for his family and mistress.
The camera style matches Liotta's perspective of the gangster lifestyle. From the high points and rise to fame and power, to the prison years and paranoia, to the realization that his friends might turn on him. This not only makes the story of "Goodfellas" exciting, but also the cinematography.
Ultimately, "Goodfellas" is a tale of Martin Scorsese's love for gangsters and his need to share their story with us. From the expensive suits and shined shoes, to the joy that these fellas show while stealing, to the expansive and always pleasing narration that goes into elaborate detail about what makes this life so wonderful. Gangsters may be cruel, selfish and greedy people, but I'll be damned if they don't lead fascinating lifestyles.