It’s hard not to want to give Martin Scorsese a pass these days — despite his directorial output seeming to travel a consistently descending slope, he’s a master of American cinema and a great champion of classic film. So what if Shutter Island isn’t a whole lot more than a well-crafted pulpy genre exercise? It’s Scorsese after all.
Still, it’s nice to return to Scorsese at the top of his game from time to time, and with Goodfellas, we get his likely final masterpiece. A richly textured tapestry of growing up in the mob, Goodfellas is impeccably paced and unerringly engaging. Scorsese’s ability to capture the mood of an era, of a location or of an event with the combination of music and camerawork is at its best here, and the film will always remain a part of the top tier of his films whenever they are discussed.
Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) through his rise to prominence in the mob, from early days running errands as a kid in Brooklyn all the way to organizing major robberies and drug deals. He’s taken under the wing of mob bosses Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), rubs shoulders with the increasingly psychopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and marries a Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco).
Goodfellas shows Scorsese to be a master of pacing, as it’s a film that briskly covers a vast amount of time, but does so while letting its scenes play out to their greatest effect. It’s the sense of years passing and people changing, all while the presence of the mob stays constant, that gives us an intimate look into the life of Henry and Karen Hill, the real-life characters the film is based on.
While the fictional characters that De Niro and Pesci play give the film its sense of casual menace, the heart is the Hills. Scorsese makes the interesting choice to feature two narrators, with both Henry and Karen giving voiceover amplification to the events onscreen. One has had mob life ingrained into him, while the other is forced to do the same. The binary opposition in the narration that eventually folds into thoughts on a single wavelength is as much a commentary on the effects of mob life as anything that happens during the film.
Goodfellas has a grand sweep to it that makes it seem in some ways the greatest achievement of Scorsese’s career. While it doesn’t quite achieve that level for me, there’s no denying what a remarkable film it is.
The Blu-ray Disc
Warner Brothers here releases the same exact Blu-ray of Goodfellas as they did three years ago, with some extras thrown in to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the film. The film is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. One could speculate on why the visual presentation here is fairly underwhelming, but it’s quite possible that the disc — produced in the early days of Blu-ray, before the format wars had ended — didn’t benefit from the technical knowledge that tends to produce sparkling high def catalog releases almost every time these days.