Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Even though this is a column that focuses on things like cinematography, and the depth or meaning of composition, I held off writing about the works of Martin Scorsese for as long as I could. The director is perhaps the greatest American filmmaker of our time and I didn't want to make it too easy on myself to sing his praises. Scorsese is an artist deeply revered by fellow auteurs and audiences alike. His monumental filmography has been a huge influence on filmmakers the world over – winning us over with his stunning visual style and raw emotionality. While I could easily highlight any number of films by the director, I've chosen to celebrate one of his most memorable movies – a film that has been dubbed one the greatest gangster films in cinematic history – 'Goodfellas.'
September 19th marked the 20th anniversary of the film, which Scorsese found inspiration for in the pages of Nicholas Pileggi's book 'Wiseguy.' He was fascinated by the author's account of the mobster lifestyle, applauding its brutally honest portrayal of Italian-American criminals looking to turn a fast buck. The two set out to work on a script for the feature, which Pileggi dubbed a "mob home movie" and the rest, as they say, is history.
[spoilery stuff ahead ... ]
It took 12 drafts for the duo to get things right, with Scorsese opting for a nontraditional narrative structure, short and snappy scene changes, and New Wave cinematic stylings complete with voiceover narration (modeled after the opening scene of 'Jules and Jim'), freeze frames, photo stills, disorienting panning shots (in the diner), long tracking shots (the four-minute take in the Copacabana nightclub) and more. All these techniques are designed to sweep the viewer away and carry them along for the ride.
We watch the story unfold through the eyes of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta, whose performance is based on the true story of Hill's life) who grew up with dreams of becoming "somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies." As a young kid he begins working for mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and quickly learns the twisted underpinnings of mobster life in New York City. Scorsese takes us through Henry's rise through the ranks – and relationship with fellow gangsters Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) – to his downfall, not only with drugs, but also with his emotionally fragile wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco).
It's easy to see why people compare Coppola's 'The Godfather' with 'Goodfellas,' but the differences are like night and day. If Coppola's romantic ode to gangster life is a swirling mythical force, then Scorsese's film is that which cannot be contained – uncivilized and nasty and ready to knock you out when you least expect it. The director does exactly that in first few moments of the film's opening where the title credits race past the screen like a bullet and gory violence thrusts the viewer into the mobsters' world immediately. It quickly becomes clear that these guys aren't so much a family as they are a feral gang – willing to bite the hand that feeds if it means saving their own necks from the chopping block.
Scorsese took every detail into consideration while building his fortress of crime bosses and crooks. Most of the wardrobe is straight off an Italian tailor's dummy. De Niro's wad of cash is real money and Bracco's gawdy jewelry collection is garish, genuine gold. Scorsese's mom cooked homestyle Italian for all the dining scenes (she also stars in the film) and the director cast actual wiseguys as extras and bit parts. Some of the most iconic scenes in the film were ad-libbed or improvised – including the oft quoted "What's so funny?" banter, where the director made transcripts of off-the-cuff dialogue and revised the script based on what he liked. This is the reason why I chose to discuss a straightforward, bare bones frame from the movie. Though it appears to be simple, it still displays the kind of gritty drama that makes 'Goodfellas' a true tour de force.
After a series of heists, thefts and other crimes that go off without a hitch and secure Hill a respectable place amongst his compadres (including the assisted murder and disposal of a made man), he and a few other goons are arrested for beating up a gambler whose sister happens to be a typist for the FBI. Four years later, Henry is released from prison, but he still hasn't learned his lesson. Paulie approaches him at a party and makes him swear to stay away from coke dealing. He also warns Henry about getting involved with Jimmy – a "good earner," but "too wild and takes too many chances" – and Tommy – "a cowboy" with "too much to prove." Even though Henry promises Paulie he'll stay away, he has no intention of letting his Pittsburgh drug ring die.
The financial allure is too strong and soon he has more money than he knows what to do with. He gets Jimmy and Tommy involved, which leads to the infamous Lufthansa heist – a robbery at JFK Airport that lands the crew a cool six mil. Everything goes off without a hitch, until Jimmy starts becoming increasingly paranoid about his partners making showy displays of their earnings. Eventually we learn that one of the guys (played by Samuel L. Jackson) screwed up by leaving a truck with fingerprints around for too long, and now the feds are closing in. Henry starts to freak out and approaches Jimmy with his concerns, who joined by Tommy, casually reassures Henry that there's nothing to worry about. Then the news comes out that Tommy is going to be made (Jimmy and Henry can't be since they're not full-blooded Italians).
In this frame of the trio talking in the back room of a bar, we learn a lot about the three men. Jimmy reassuringly grips Hill's neck but is shrouded in darkness and offset by the smoky bar room behind him. He's nicknamed "The Gent" because he tips the drivers whose delivery trucks he hijacks. It's no different with his partners. Jimmy is deceptively trust-worthy, but won't think twice about whacking one of his own – which he does by the handful when he eventually decides to cut every tie he had with the Lufthansa robbery. Later, he turns against Henry and tries to have Karen raped, so his menacingly lit figure is a nice bit of foreshadowing.
Henry is in the center – holding his hands out questioningly and offset from his two partners in a light-colored blazer. His placement here makes sense: "As bizarre as it sounds, Henry is the moral center of the movie. He is with a collection of totally amoral, aberrational sociopaths. And he is with them during the early years, when they are the most charming, funny, great guys ... But you pay a price. The world of the child ends," explains Pileggi. Henry is the peacemaker – he covertly stops Jimmy from killing the pesky Morrie (initially anyway) and enters the mafia almost as naively as he leaves (not abiding by the all-important rule: "Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.")
Meanwhile, we see a three-quarter profile of Tommy who also holds his hands out to both men. His back is turned to us, which is symbolic of the kind of bravado that Tommy always puts on display. He's a fast-talking hothead who shoots first and rarely asks questions later. He has no inhibitions about the kind of power he wields, which eventually catches up with him.
Scorsese hired Michael Ballhaus to paint his picture of greedy thugs at work. The German cinematographer was a protégé of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and would go on to work with Scorsese on over six films – somewhat of a miracle considering he abhorred the movie's violent scenes. "I wouldn't have done this movie with another director," the cinematographer said. "These discussions -- whether there is enough brain in the blood -- are so absurd that you almost want to throw up." Thankfully he hung in there. Ballhaus explains further:
"I wasn't planning to do a pretty-looking movie, you know? [I thought] it should have more like a dirty look ... when [we walked] into a location, like in a bar or restaurant, I looked at it and said, 'Okay, how this looks here is what I want to see on the screen later.' So I worked a lot in available light, [or] with light fixtures. It was not movie lighting that I was planning on this; [I] was basically trying to keep the same atmosphere that these places had. I think it worked pretty well. It should never look 'lit' and never look beautiful, because [the story] wasn't."
This is the kind of aesthetic we see not only in the selected frame, but throughout the film where low-lit, medium, still shots allow the body language of the characters and the space around them to do as much of the talking. The end result is a tense, bold authenticity.
I tend to think of 'Goodfellas' in snapshots – similar to how Scorsese highlighted the turning points of the film's story by freeze framing them. While there are dozens of frames from the movie that carried an emotional weight and pitch perfect style, I chose my final pick based on Scorsese and Ballhaus' grit and grime philosophy. Sometimes the simplest things are the most alluring. Scorsese makes it look so effortless – and like De Niro's Jimmy, that's part of his charm. He's allowed us to enter worlds we wouldn't dare venture with another guide, pushing our boundaries with his vision. Twenty years later we're still thankful he made us 'Goodfellas.'