Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi
I don’t know why it took me so long to come around on Martin Scorsese. I certainly knew who he was — my adolescent loyalty to all things Star Wars took umbrage at Raging Bull consistently being named the best film of 1980 rather than The Empire Strikes Back — but I didn’t get around to actually watching anything of his until I saw The King of Comedy on HBO. Which I liked well enough, Robert DeNiro’s performance in particular, but it didn’t really explain to me why Martin Scorsese was MARTIN SCORSESE to so many people.
Jump ahead to GoodFellas and the veil being lifted. And even then, it wasn’t the entire film. I was at a friend of a friend’s house and they were watching it on VHS. I got there right around the part where Jimmy has Henry go down to Florida with Tommy to take care of some business. DeNiro does this little piece of business, just a facial expression, a knowing, reassuring nod, and the guys watching just went nuts over it. Having missed the beginning, I had to play catch-up as we watched the rest of it, which definitely dampened my appreciation of it somewhat, but I was still enjoying it.
Then came perhaps one of the greatest sequences in movie history: the “Layla” montage.
Scorsese is one of the masters of marrying image to song. The man has a near encyclopedic knowledge of popular music, with an unerring ability to find just the right song for any given scene. Be it the seemingly incongruous yet poignant marriage of the beauty of opera with the brutality of boxing in Raging Bull or the virtual career retrospective of Rolling Stones songs he’s used throughout his films, Scorsese can conjure up the exact emotion he’s looking for by trading on our existing feelings towards whatever piece of music he chooses to use.
GoodFellas is no exception, and it’s a rich playground for Scorsese, since it spans so many decades and so many eras of popular music. We go from big bands to doo-wop to classic rock, even marrying to two extremes with a raging punk rock rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way” over the end credits. But “Layla” is the high point, with Scorsese forever spoiling the use of Eric Clapton’s epic Derek and the Dominoes song in any other film. The piano exit from the song plays as we see the aftermath of Jimmy tying up the loose ends of the Lufthansa heist, the dead bodies of his crew found all over New York. Scorsese moves his camera in slow, graceful synch with the music, offering up the most lyrical tableau of murdered corpses ever put on film. But what really puts this sequence over the top is its thematic weight. We’re not just seeing the death of Jimmy’s crew, but the death of the gangster lifestyle that proved so alluring to young Henry Hill in the first place. Yes, these were bad men, but they had a code, a kind of soiled honor, a certain amount of respect from those who respected them. And now we’re watching an elegy for that time. The hazy nostalgic glow of the 50s and 60s is giving way to the harsh realities of the 70s. The good fellas aren’t so good anymore. And so “Layla” becomes a mournful dirge marking the end of an era. It’s all downhill for the characters from here on out.
This is also one of the films that never fails to make me hungry. Eating is an essential part of the Italian-American culture, so we get backyard cookouts and big family meals and boisterous dinners out and even a pretty fancy meal served up in a prison cell. In fact, at the height of his drug-induced paranoia, as he’s desperately trying to unload some guns for cash and pick up cocaine for a drug deal and avoid the helicopter he’s sure is following him, Henry makes it a priority to check on the sauce for dinner. Business is business, but a man has to eat.
For me, GoodFellas trumps The Godfather films as the definitive Hollywood portrayal of the Mafia. Not to discount the enormous craft to be found in Francis Ford Coppola’s films, but it’s the difference between listening to a classical piece by an orchestra and listening to a jazz virtuoso just riff away. You know one is good and good for you, it’s got the weight of history behind it. But you’d rather listen to the guy who just makes it sing. And man can Scorsese carry a tune.