Superlatives abound when people discuss Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film Goodfellas. “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime,” wrote the late critic Roger Ebert. “Breathless and brilliant,” is what Vincent Canby wrote in his review for The New York Times.

But the initial response from the public at studio test screenings was ominous: there were reports of people walking out and the audience becoming agitated as they watched this sometimes harrowing story of a real-life New York mobster. Despite these early anxieties, Goodfellas went on to triumph. It won widespread critical acclaim, success at the box office and earned six Oscar nominations. Twenty-five years later, its recognition as a classic is near universal. On 25 April, a special screening of Goodfellas at the Tribeca Film Festival will reunite the original cast to bring the 11-day celebration of cinema in New York to a close.

Goodfellas is based on author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 bestseller Wiseguy. At the heart of the film is a striking performance from Ray Liotta who plays mobster Henry Hill. It’s the story of how Hill, who died in 2012, entered the world of organised crime as a young boy, then deepened his mafia involvement in a range of activities that included robberies, selling stolen goods, loan sharking, hijacking, arson and drug dealing. Hill eventually became an informant for the FBI and entered a federal witness protection program. But all the principal actors in the film give remarkable performances, from Lorraine Bracco as Henry Hill’s wife to Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino as mobsters.

The ugly truth

Goodfellas had such an impact partly because it depicted the ruthlessness of mobster life quite differently from the mafia movies that preceded it. Jerry Capeci, who publishes a weekly column on the mob, Gang Land News, says: “The Godfather romanticised the gangsters and made them out to be people who killed only for reasons of honour. But Goodfellas showed them to be what they really are: violent, murderous guys who killed just at the drop of a hat, who shoot people in the legs just to make them dance for fun.”

Goodfellas also painted an accurate picture of what was really happening to the mob in the 1980s. “It responds to the rash of informants [that] the mafia suffered in the 1980s, which brought down a number of the families. It also reflected increasingly trigger-happy conduct in the mafia families,” says Robert Casillo, author of Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese.

The authenticity of the characters and storytelling stand out in the film. It has a semi-documentary style and there was ongoing fact checking while it was being made. Robert De Niro recalls how he was constantly in touch with the real-life Henry Hill during the shoot to make sure he was getting things right. “I would call Henry Hill every couple of days and check with him. I would just say, ‘I need to talk to Henry,’ and they would find him wherever he was. He was in a witness protection program at the time.”

Goodfellas didn’t just look authentic. For those who’d led the Mafia life it had a definite sense of the real thing. “Henry loved the film,” recalls Lorcan Otway, co-founder of the Museum of the American Gangster in New York, who hosted a 20th anniversary screening of Goodfellas in 2010 which Henry Hill attended. But perhaps the film hit too close to home; Otway remembers Hill being fidgety when watching the picture. “Henry was always a hyperactive fellow, that’s kind of the core of his dysfunction. He would pace throughout the film, going from the front of the house, watching the audience watch it, to going backstage to watch the film,” he says.

A made man

For many cinephiles, Goodfellas represents Scorsese’s finest hour as a director – especially through the way he paired images with a very distinctive pop/rock soundtrack to provoke a visceral reaction in audiences. Much of the credit has to go to Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, who brought it all together with the editing.

“The movie sort of grabs you by the throat from the very beginning and doesn’t let you go for two and a half hours,” says Moviefone columnist Gary Susman, who’s seen Goodfellas some 20 times. For him, it’s a “pleasure to be in the hands of a filmmaker who is at the top of his game. The story itself was fun too but it was just great to be taken on this ride by these insane people.”

Scorsese wasn’t just deploying showy techniques that were divorced from the storytelling they added to it. A case in point is the film’s legendary tracking shot in which Ray Liotta walks with Lorraine Bracco into the Copacabana night club in New York. 

“That tracking shot where they go into the Copacabana is maybe the most famous tracking shot in modern cinema,” Susman says. “It goes on for three minutes, about the full length of the song Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals. It shows you in that three minutes an entire universe of privilege and payoff and relationships, and power.”

Goodfellas was a sharp portrait of mafia privilege and power but it was also a film that reflected wider social and cultural forces at large in the US at that time. To Casillo, Hill is a man captured by consumerism and desire in the film. “This is just a magnified, perverse embodiment of similar features in mainstream America, but carried to a level of grotesqueness,” he says.

Gangster’s paradise

Given the potency of Goodfellas it’s not surprising to find that it’s left a lasting legacy that’s evident in both film and television.

“I would say that Goodfellas introduced the idea of the talkative gangster,” says Susman. “We used to think of the Mafioso as somebody who operated under a code of omertà and was fairly quiet about what he did. Here we get a gangster who can’t shut up.” From this, he says, we get “the chatty gangsters and philosophers with guns ”of later movies.

That phenomenon is seen in the early films of Quentin Tarantino, as well as in pictures like The Usual Suspects. And the HBO television series The Sopranos with its garrulous gangsters owes a huge debt to Goodfellas. In fact a whole contingent of the film’s actors ended up working on The Sopranos.

At Tribeca this weekend fans will congregate to watch Scorsese’s film – for many it is an almost perfect New York mobster picture.

“I could never say, ‘This will be a classic,’” recalls Robert De Niro as he thinks back to what was on his mind when he was making Goodfellas. “At the end of it, you don’t know how a movie will be embraced. I know it will be special with Marty [Scorsese] of course doing it,” he says.

Twenty-five years on, Goodfellas is more than just special, it’s viewed as a real masterpiece, among the best pictures of the 1990s and possibly the best movie Martin Scorsese has ever made.

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