Hard to believe, but 'GoodFellas' wasn't the instant classic it seems like today.

Before its release 20 years ago, on Sept. 19, 1990, Martin Scorsese's mob epic screened disastrously for test audiences. Some viewers walked out after the intense first 10 minutes, while some who remained were irritated by the rapid, cocaine-addict's-eye-view editing of the long climactic sequence of Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) last day as a mobster. The ratings board found the film too bloody even for an R rating until Scorsese trimmed 10 shots.

20 years later, however, 'GoodFellas' is acknowledged as a masterpiece, arguably the best film of both the '90s and Scorsese's legendary career. Its influence over other movies and TV shows, and not just in the crime genre, is hard to overstate. Yet watching it again today, it still feels fresh, a sustained, 2-1/2 hour rush of outlaw energy. Here's why 'GoodFellas' has been so important over the last two decades, and why it still retains the force of that first explosive test screening.
Hard to believe, but 'GoodFellas' wasn't the instant classic it seems like today.

Before its release 20 years ago, on Sept. 19, 1990, Martin Scorsese's mob epic screened disastrously for test audiences. Some viewers walked out after the intense first 10 minutes, while some who remained were irritated by the rapid, cocaine-addict's-eye-view editing of the long climactic sequence of Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) last day as a mobster. The ratings board found the film too bloody even for an R rating until Scorsese trimmed 10 shots.

20 years later, however, 'GoodFellas' is acknowledged as a masterpiece, arguably the best film of both the '90s and Scorsese's legendary career. Its influence over other movies and TV shows, and not just in the crime genre, is hard to overstate. Yet watching it again today, it still feels fresh, a sustained, 2-1/2 hour rush of outlaw energy. Here's why 'GoodFellas' has been so important over the last two decades, and why it still retains the force of that first explosive test screening.

It was really the first movie about what mobster life is like as a day-to-day job, from the point of view of Mafia footsoldiers, rather than kingpins. It was adapted from Nicholas Pileggi's true-crime book 'Wise Guy,' based largely on the recollections of real-life mob associate Hill of his quarter-century as a career criminal. (In the screenplay Pileggi co-wrote with Scorsese, the title became 'GoodFellas' to avoid confusion with the then-current CBS undercover-mobster saga 'Wiseguy.') Hill's colorful voice (as read in voiceover by Liotta) really makes the movie, with its endlessly quotable observations and boasts about how great it felt to be connected and to be treated like a bigshot -- even while the reality presented on screen, with its petty greed, garish style, and hair-trigger violence, contradicts Hill's nostalgia. The movie also broke ground in showing what daily mob life is like for the gangsters' wives, as represented by the incredulous Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) and her kaffeeklatsch of big-haired, polyester-clad gun molls.

When they're not busy committing robbery and murder, Hill and his cronies (notably, Robert De Niro's Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito and Paul Sorvino's family boss Paulie Cicero) mostly spend their time hanging out, cooking and gabbing. Of course, even the talk has a delirious, headlong rhythm of its own, and it's perhaps here that the film made its greatest mark. Without 'GoodFellas,' the chatty, philosophical thugs and killers of Quentin Tarantino's early films (particularly 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction') are unthinkable. So are the bored, pensive mobsters of 'Donnie Brasco,' and especially the meditative, therapy-seeking Tony Soprano of HBO's 'The Sopranos' (which turned at least half a dozen 'GoodFellas' actors into series regulars). The 'Sopranos' depiction of mob life as a banal, middle-class existence occasionally punctuated by bursts of violence and delicious meals owes a huge debt to 'GoodFellas,' self-consciously so.

'GoodFellas': The Copacabana sequence


In a way, 'GoodFellas' unmade the myth made by 'The Godfather' saga two decades earlier, with mob life as a sweeping parable for the immigrant experience in America and the entry of once-penniless strivers into the mahogany-walled corridors of power. In those films, Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis invented a new cinematic grammar (darkly lit, sepia-toned shots, ironic cross-cutting) in order to relate the epic triumphs and tragedies of the Corleone family. Scorsese, with his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, had to do the same, only the new grammar they came up with involved lengthy tracking shots (like the celebrated sequence in which Henry ushers Karen through the Copacabana via the kitchen -- no corridors of power for them); jump-cut editing, freeze-frames, and voiceover narration (borrowing the verve of early French New Wave films, particularly Truffaut's 'Jules and Jim'); and perfectly apt pop and rock songs on the soundtrack. (Come on, you can't hear the long piano coda of Derek and the Dominos' 'Layla' without thinking of the montage sequence where the bodies of Jimmy's accomplices in the Lufthansa heist are discovered.)

'GoodFellas': The 'Layla' montage (Contains NSFW language)


There were two ironic results to Scorsese's dazzling display of technique. One was that it began to be copied in non-mob films, movies that also told sweeping stories of colorful, seedy milieus, like the X-rated movie business in 'Boogie Nights' (which has many visual and aural nods to 'GoodFellas'), or the world of university students-turned-Vegas cardsharps in '21,' or even the nascent Internet porn industry depicted in this year's 'Middle Men.'

The other was that Scorsese and Pileggi's effort to de-glamorize the Mafia had the opposite effect. Like Henry, many viewers looked past the violence and saw only the old-school style, the energy, the food. A mini-industry was born: not just fictional and true-crime mob movies and TV series, but also posters, websites and books, especially cookbooks. The real Henry Hill couldn't help but try to capitalize on his newfound fame, even if it meant leaving the witness protection program. Today, he has a website called GoodFellaHenry.com, where he touts 'GoodFellas' merchandise, food products he's endorsed and his own personal appearances. The movie may end with Liotta's Henry lamenting that he'll have to live the rest of his life as a regular schnook, but the movie has granted the real Hill a kind of fame that seems to prove that, for some, crime really does pay.

'GoodFellas': 'How am I funny?' sequence (Contains NSFW language)


Other ways the movie's influence lingers: It effectively launched the acting careers of Bracco, Debi Mazar (Henry's mistress, later Vinny Chase's publicist on 'Entourage') and Michael Imperioli (who played the ill-fated Spider and eventually got to shoot a peon, Spider-style, as Christopher on 'The Sopranos'). It gave major career jump-starts to Liotta, Sorvino and, most of all, Joe Pesci, whose largely improvised "How am I funny?" sequence won him an Oscar and a lifetime of work as tough guys and psychopaths. It marked the first of many great death scenes for Samuel L. Jackson (as Lufthansa heist wheelman Stacks, unceremoniously whacked by Tommy over breakfast after he carelessly leaves the getaway truck on the street for the cops to find). It inspired the brilliant 'Contemporary American Poultry' episode of 'Community' earlier this year, in which film buff Abed retells the story of the study group's takeover of the cafeteria chicken-fingers racket in the form of a 'GoodFellas' parody.

'Community': 'Contemporary American Poultry' episode


Most of all, it proved a high-water mark for Scorsese, one that seemed a grand summation of his stylistic approaches (the swooping camera, the ear for well-chosen rock tunes) and themes (crime, machismo, sin, redemption, violence, loyalty, family, Italian-American culture, the history of New York City). It also seems, today, to have set a bar so high he's never reached it again. (Yes, it was 2006's Irish mob drama 'The Departed,' not 'GoodFellas,' that finally earned him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, but as well-made and exciting as that film is, there's no one who thinks it's better than 'GoodFellas,' is there?) The movie was a rare event; Schoonmaker has compared it to riding a horse, saying, "It had its own energy, it had its own drive ... We were sort of riding it, trying to stay on top of it and stay ahead of it." Scorsese may not have caught up to it since, but it's still galloping along, untameable as ever.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.