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The Best Films of the 90s

Release Date: September 19, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese

It's one thing to glorify the mob, but quite another to look up to it as an aspirational bastion of respectability and honour. In a career-defining performance, Ray Liotta plays real-life mobster Henry Hill, starting out as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn with mafioso stars in his eyes.

"As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster," Hill says in the film's narration -- and the poster's tagline -- signifying intent front and centre. And the way Scorsese plays it, you understand just why.

Shot superbly by Michael Ballhaus, the film is quite likely among the finest examples of modern day editing artistry, with Marty and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker going from multiple edits to freeze frames, and constant, constant movement.

The filmmaker based the hyper-complicated visual style of his film on the chaotic brilliance of the first three minutes of Francois Truffaut's seminal Jules Et Jim, and the result was a visual masterpiece in almost-punk anarchy. There was more technical grandstanding in this film than in any of Marty's others, but characteristically the filmmaker ensures that his characters and their lives -- and their lines -- are riveting enough to leave the style in the background. But whatta background, this.

The film itself -- chronicling Hill's rise from enthused street kid up the various ranks of the Lucchese crime family -- focusses on three fantastically written and researched characters, all based on real-life gangsters: Liotta's Henry Hill, Robert De Niro's Jimmy Conway, and the man pumping the film with edge, Joe Pesci's Tommy De Vito. Even as the movie shows off the complicated mafia hierarchy, it's essentially a tale of these three boys playing with guns.

In one of the film's most intense scenes, Pesci's telling jokes at a bar, and Liotta's laughs are too-loud and too-instant, visibly sycophantic laughs to win Pesci's favour. Pesci enjoys this until Liotta, still overdoing the laughter, calls him a funny guy. Instantly Pesci's dropped the grin. 'Funny how?' he asks, 'Like a clown?' Liotta, flustered, tries to play it down but Pesci turns on him like a pit-bull, even as the others around try to diffuse the comment. It turns out, finally, that Pesci's kidding, and the table explodes in a flurry of relieved laughter.

The psychotic little devils are the scariest of all, you realise as you sit back and smile because it's all good -- only to see Pesci smash a bottle on the manager's head seconds later. Liotta's laughter at this is still as sitcommed, as appreciative. As scary.

It's an amazing scene, leaving you undecided about how much Pesci was kidding and how much he, in fact, needed to vent, and perfectly illustrates the dynamic between these two protagonists.

There is, in fact, little in this film that one cannot justifiably go on raving about, and it is with this enthused, unashamedly gushing feeling that I leave you with not one but three incredible video clips:

In this first clip, we have one of modern cinema's most impressive tracking shots, the camera following Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as they enter the club's side entrance, go through the stairs, the kitchen, the service entrance all the way to the front of the club where a table is brought out to the front of stage especially for them. It's an incredible single-take shot, and the reason they had to shoot it from the back entrance was because Scorsese didn't have permission to shoot it from the front.

This one long scene shows the drug-fuelled madness in a day in Henry Hill's life, and while it is a masterpiece in psychotic camera movements and editing, it also shows why Scorsese is the master of the soundtrack: there is a delicious stack of backbeat-heavy classic rock through the sequence, right from the intoxicating bass rumble as the scene opens and Hill snorts blow. Turn up the speakers.

And finally, here's the scene with Pesci 'kidding around,' just so you can see the intensity -- and the madness -- we talked about. Funny like a serial killer, you better believe.

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