Eric Gilliland with a review of Glenn Kenny’s expansive exploration of Goodfellas, Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas…
Now thirty years old, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob epic Goodfellas continues to be one of the most quoted and discussed films of recent memory.
The fast-paced editing style and innovative use of music in Goodfellas would prove to be a major influence on film and television in the years to come. Scorsese’s tragicomic gangsters continue to haunt the popular imagination, numerous lines have entered the language, “You think I’m funny!” Glenn Kenny’s insightful, in-depth history of Goodfellas belongs on the bookshelf of all movie fans.
Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill, an associate of New York’s criminal underworld until 1980 when he joined the Witness Protection Program.
Based on Hill’s 1985 book Wiseguy (Scorsese adapted the book with Wiseguy co-author Nicholas Pileggi), Hill’s insider/outsider perspective on organized crime offered a unique viewpoint and opened new possibilities for crime genre films. Ray Liotta was cast as Hill, a relative newcomer who made an impression as a hothead criminal in the 1986 Jonathan Demme film Something Wild. Lorraine Bracco was cast Hill’s wife Karen, Robert De Niro as mob associate James “Jimmy” Conway, and Joe Pesci in an Academy Award winning performance as the volatile gangster Tommy DeVito. Scorsese specifically designed the film to move at a rapid pace, mimicking news magazine TV shows that were in vogue at the time.
Kenny interviewed many of the cast and crew, including a revealing talk with Scorsese included in the book. A major portion of the book consists of detailed scene-by-scene analysis. Historical context and stories from the set will add depth to the film for those familiar and unfamiliar with it. For example, Kenny writes about the 1978 Lufthansa Heist, which drove the chain of events in the second half of the film. There’s a digression into the cuisine of Goodfellas, a detailed description of Henry Hill’s “Ziti with Meat Sauce” recipe which also figures into the plot. Kenny recounts the mood on the set for certain scenes, with De Niro often setting the tone and challenging his fellow actors.
Made Men is in some ways a biography of Scorsese.
Kenny traces his early work that was influenced by Italian Neo-Realism and John Cassavetes to his immersion in the culture of New Hollywood during his breakout years that saw the release of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver. Scorsese struggled to connect with audiences in the changing cultural landscape of sequels and blockbusters that ruled the 1980s. While Raging Bull won critical acclaim, mainstream success eluded him, not helped by the controversy surrounding his 1987 biblical film The Last Temptation of Christ. Prominent Christian leaders called for a boycott and the home movie video chain Blockbuster refused to carry it. Goodfellas allowed him to return to the terrain of Mean Streets and would also bolster Scorsese to a prolific career as a director and documentarian. Kenny also takes an intertextual approach, connecting Goodfellas to his other work.
Scorsese’s cycle of crime films including Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman all exist as a sort of narrative of American history (Gangs of New York possibly serving as a prelude). If Mean Streets and Goodfellas deal with low level figures in organized crime, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street explore the convergence of organized crime with legit capitalism. The Irishman serves as an epilogue, a journey into the dark shadows of American power told in a contemplative and mournful tone.
Kenny points out that Goodfellas is far from a nostalgic trip to the past despite it often being viewed in those terms.
Hill’s contradictory narration reveals his own hypocrisy. The racist and misogynistic structure of the criminal organization breaks its own rules all the time, “getting made” offers no immunity as Billy Batts and Tommy discover. The final act of the film which follows Hill during a hectic day that led to his arrest is a riveting portrait of paranoia. The soundtrack of Goodfellas proved to be another part of the film’s legacy. Scorsese and his team created a tapestry of music to enhance and comment upon the narrative. Kenny analyzes each music selection and how it relates to the story:
In Goodfellas Scorsese moves freely between songs coming from jukeboxes and live performers and songs that just in the air, so to speak. There’s never a scene as in Mean Streets, in which a song explicitly disconnects from an in-scene source and goes back to functioning as background – the closest we get, in my estimation, is the much-cited use of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” playing as Jimmy muses on murdering Morrie. What Scorsese does in the mix, generally, is more subtle: songs playing in one scene will segue, or bleed, so to speak, into the next. Scorsese also selected music to create a specific mood, for example the pop psychedelia Donovan’s “Atlantis” used during the killing of Billy Batts contained the ironic line, “way down below the ocean.” The innocent romantic tunes of the first half give way to the manic use of music in the final act that leads to Hill’s downfall.
Made Men is an analytical and engaging study of Goodfellas. Chapters on the editing of the film by Thelma Schoonmaker and evolving critical opinions of are informative. Kenny’s insight on Scorsese as an artist will hopefully encourage readers to seek out his full filmography and view Goodfellas through a new lens.