Thursday, 19 January 2017

The power and the glory: "GoodFellas"

A big hurrah for the BFI's comprehensive Martin Scorsese season, not least as it serves to open up new perspectives on this hallowed filmmaker's first major work in at least a decade and a half (Silence). Allow me to add a big hmm, however, over the fact the season's flagship film GoodFellas should already be in such wide circulation: like the annually reissued Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, here is a Scorsese film that's sat on the DVD shelf of every student flatshare for nigh-on two decades now. You do wonder what it would take to get Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (the rebuke to the old saw that insists this director doesn't do women) or The King of Comedy or After Hours or New York, New York, which might give all those whippersnappers getting excitable about La La Land what for, back onto our screens. Is it just that the numbers wouldn't add up? Or is it that we're now only really interested in Marty the wannabe tough guy - the nerd like us, in thrall to the masters of the universe? They're sending the heavies around again.

No denying that GoodFellas has a breathtaking, speedfreak energy that seems inseparable from this director: right from his opening line of voiceover ("As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster"), Ray Liotta's Henry Hill feels like a surrogate for Scorsese himself, the dreamy kid motormouth drawn in from the fringes of the Mob game only to be rattled by its ruthlessness and violence once he's installed there. This trajectory requires the kind of seduction Scorsese couldn't quite pull off in The Wolf of Wall Street, where the audience was forcefed altogether too much of a questionably good thing. In GoodFellas, we get just enough of the suits, the cars, the women, the free drinks, the laughs to want more; we are allowed to feel the exhilaration of entering a restaurant by the back door, and pulling off a bravura airport heist; and eventually arrive at a point where we, too, feel what Hill was ultimately lusting after - the respect, that power that allows some to walk the earth as feared gods among mere mortals. (Scorsese himself italicises that word with a fiery freeze-frame that positions GoodFellas as the thematic midpoint between Mean Streets and Silence.)

Revisiting the film this week, I was reminded of John Turturro's Mob-Macbeth variant Men of Respect, which opened around the same time; whatever its merits, it didn't stand a chance against the unrefusable offer Scorsese made viewers here. GoodFellas stands up as a gilded, fin-de-1980s update of the rise-and-fall Little Caesar narrative, a mobster movie deluxe: superbly fleshed out by its cast, scored to a selection of solid-gold pop platters, flatteringly cut by Thelma Schoonmaker, and polished to such a sheen that it's no surprise we should see its maker's reflection in it. You can tell that on some fundamental level Scorsese loves this world - its dumb jokes and Bobby Vinton songs, the men with funny nicknames lurking in the corners and shadows of garish all-day watering holes. What's great about this de Niro performance, and it endures as one of the greatest, is how peripheral it is for the first hour or so. His Jimmy hangs back from the action because he knows - unlike Joe Pesci's lethally insecure Tommy - that he doesn't have to make a scene: that's true power, we infer, but it's also crucial to the grubby, bloody, quasi-corporate battle for money and control that ensues.

For - more so than Liotta's starstruck, slightly dim-bulb Hill - Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi spot the fatal pitfalls of the Moblife very early on. The violence in GoodFellas is constructed like the comedy routines these in-every-sense stand-up guys lap up at dinner club on their off-nights - it's how they entertain one another - until the laughter stops and the red mist descends, around the point the narrative circles back to the film's nocturnal prologue. When Pesci's oft-quoted "Funny how?" routine is replayed, it ends with Tommy doing for Christopher Moltisanti (one of Scorsese's achievements here: handing half the cast of The Sopranos to David Chase on a platter); Chuck Low's bewigged unfortunate Morrie returns to the fold even after he's throttled by Jimmy - allowing Scorsese and Pileggi to make a sly, sharp point about the complicity that sustains the Mafia (everybody wants in, no matter that they might have first-hand experience of the strongarming involved) - but isn't allowed to stick around for long. Even Tommy, at the last, finds out it's a closed shop.

The masterstroke in the adaptation process may have been to split the voiceover between Henry and his wife (Lorraine Bracco), the closest the film has to a point of identification for viewers who don't have a criminal record: Bracco makes Karen smart enough to figure out what (and who) her man has been doing after dark, but she's so in thrall to a certain lifestyle that she's prepared to make excuses for him. (The implication: you might be prepared to go along with this carnage, too, if it put a few extra dollars in your pocket at the end of every month.) I can see the argument - pushed by David Thomson, among others - that it's a cold, unsparing, merciless bastard of a film, but you can't say that doesn't befit the subject, and it occasions such sinuous, muscular filmmaking that you fall for it every goddamn time. For two hours twenty, Scorsese allows his audience of schnooks the vicarious thrill of swimming with sharks, at risk of sleeping with the fishes - before dropping us right back where we began the evening, on our own recognisably (depressingly? comfortingly?) banal front doorsteps.

GoodFellas is rereleased in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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