Thursday, August 13, 2009

The opening to Goodfellas – the murder of Billy Batts – shows the beginning of the end of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Up until that point, despite the thieving and the violence, everything is rather light-hearted. There's a sense of solidarity amongst the criminals. But once Batts is murdered, infighting, greed and addiction take over. The life will get you in the end.

The opening scenes are great at establishing the allure of being a gangster. As the movies have always shown, it's a very seductive world. Who wouldn't want to be able to thumb their nose in the face of the law if they could get away with it? Therefore it feels completely normal that the film shows you all the fun aspects of this criminal life and that the camera lingers on all the accoutrements of gangsterism – jewelry, shoes, cars etc. The crooks here are almost like movie stars.

And at the beginning even the violence is intended to seduce you. There's a great bit where Henry's postman is threatened with an oven to make sure he doesn't give any school letters to Henry's parents. The way it's shot and scored make it seem like something of a lark. You're asked to respect the power and audacity of these guys. And the icing on the cake is the final freeze-frame of the terrified postman's face – these guys control life and death; if you don't respect them you're going in the oven.

But freeze-frames occur frequently in the early part of the film. There's a powerful shot where Henry's dad is beating him with a belt and it's stopped right in the middle of the whipping. It makes the beating seem even more violent than it already is and it makes you identify with Henry's rebellion; soon no one will be able to do that to him again. However, the most famous freeze-frame takes place when Henry sets a bunch of cars on fire. The image is held as Henry makes a Christ-like pose with flames behind him – he's finally in the life; welcome to hell.

Another early scene I like is when the young Henry gets pinched. He thinks the guys will be mad at him for getting arrested, but because he keeps his mouth shut he's welcomed from the court like a conquering hero. And the scene even ends with another freeze-frame. It might as well be a family portrait.

The good times extend into Henry's adult life. He steals trucks, makes lots of money and even falls in love. And this leads to another great scene – the long Steadicam shot when Henry takes Karen to the Copacabana. This is her seduction. This is when she's seduced by the life. And another seduction is the scene where Henry pummels one of Karen's neighbours. He's supposed to have touched Karen so Henry rearranges his face with the butt of his gun. But although it's incredibly violent and although the sound effects make you wince, you can see why Karen would be turned on. How many other men would do this for her? How many other men would protect her in such a brutal way? Not many.

However, like I said at the beginning, Billy Batts is when everything begins to go downhill. From that point on the murders become more frequent and collective greed is overtaken by personal greed. But I do have to say that the Batts murder is my favourite scene. The dialogue and the timing between Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent is outstanding and the beating has so much emotion. You kind of get whipped up in it yourself. And the choice of music ('Atlantis' by Donovan) is perfect. It raises the scene to another level.

But Scorsese's choice of music is always spot-on. The other musical highlight has to be his use of the closing music in 'Layla'. It's a beautiful piece, which makes it work well with the grisly murders it shows – the images kind of show an end of an era, which, what with the music, lends the whole sequence a strange kind of romanticism. And it also works well because the emotion of the song and the final piece of music go hand in hand with what Jimmy (De Niro) is feeling at the time – the song and the music is about yearning for someone and then having that love fulfilled, and Jimmy is beside himself with pleasure that Tommy (Pesci) is being made. He thinks his dreams are finally coming true.

Unfortunately, though, that sequence is when the real nightmare kicks in. After this, Henry becomes an addict and screws up so bad that he has to betray his friends. And the sequence that shows the day of his arrest is rather amazing. Again Scorsese proves himself to be a master of using music to emphasise emotion and mood, and it's shot in such a way with zooms and fast edits that you feel as strung out as Henry. It's coke film-making...but in a good way.

And I also like the final scene between Jimmy and Karen. With smiles and promises he tries to conspire to kill her, but she gets scared and manages to get away. It's a good way of showing what's wrong with this life without moralising – in this life you can never truly trust your friends; and who really wants to live like that? Nevermind the morals. These people obviously have none. For no other reason than fear of death, I don't understand why anyone would want to live this way.

But at the end, despite everything, you also get to see that Henry misses life as a gangster. And although it's supremely arrogant of him to say that he gets to live the rest of his life like a schnook, insinuating that us law-abiding folk are something lesser, you sort of know what he means. If only he and his pals weren't so damn greedy they would have had it made. But that's kind of the point, isn't it? There's never honour among thieves. It's a myth. Scorsese brilliantly builds up that myth and then takes a scalpel to it, showing how hollow and disgusting this life is.

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  1. awesome summary...watchin for the 30th time and each time i get a renewed love for this greatest of american gangster films. long live henry hill!