Henry Hill is a small time gangster, who takes part in a robbery with Jimmy Conway and Tommy De Vito, two other gangsters who have set their sights a bit higher. His two partners kill off everyone else involved in the robbery, and slowly start to climb up through the hierarchy of the Mob. Henry, however, is badly affected by his partners success, but will he stoop low enough to bring about the downfall of Jimmy and Tommy?
There isn’t much that I can say about 'GoodFellas' that hasn’t been stated before in far more elegant and scholarly terms by equally appreciative reviewers and fans alike. It truly is a modern American masterpiece, in which every line of dialogue deserves your attention, and almost every scene stands out as its own dramatic set piece. I’ve seen this movie in one form or another at least once a year (heavily edited on commercial television, or when I pop in my nearly ten year old Blu-ray), and I’m constantly bowled over by the sensational ensemble acting by Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Paul Sorvino (Paulie Cicero) and Tony Darro (Sonny Bunz) and the fast-paced storyline which keeps me transfixed for the entire two hours, twenty minutes. From the gritty cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, to the pitch-perfect editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, punctuated by a soundtrack which is composed of timely pop songs rather than an orchestral score, 'Good Fellas' is a textbook example of just how astounding cinema can be.
‘GoodFellas’ begins with a simple introduction spoken fondly by the main character: “As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” The movie ends with a self-loathing admission: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like as a schnook.” In between those bookending statements is a propulsive and fascinating story, adapted from a book by co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, about the rise and fall of gangster Henry Hill. ‘GoodFellas’ documents his experience in a mafia family, and presents characters which populate his lifestyle, including the violent and reckless Tommy DeVito played with manic energy by Joe Pesci, and the more level-headed Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro
Raised in a middle-class household by a Sicilian mother and Irish father, Hill has nothing but disdain for the working class (“For us, to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked sh-tty jobs for bum paychecks, who took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls.”) and devotes his life to a criminal organization who work and play together like a cult. (“I knew everybody, and everybody knew me…I was part of something...”) He gets married and has a family, but makes his living pulling heists, stealing money, dealing cocaine, and buying off the police, lawyers and judges. In time, however, Hill finds himself caught up with the drugs and the violence, and jeopardizes his personal and professional family as his actions catch up to him.
Aside from the compelling storytelling, 'GoodFellas' rewards the viewer with a dramatic depth and richness beyond all the smart dialogue and lively characters. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ movies which portrayed the mafia families with an air of royalty and stateliness, ‘Goodfellas’ approach is far more down-to-earth. (Compare the Corleone family’s close relationship with the Frank Sinatra-character, who serenades the bride at a grand wedding on their opulent estate, while Hill and his girlfriend “merely” get a front-row seat at a Bobby Vinton performance). Scorsese’s view of the mafia isn’t romanticized to the point where the viewer loses touch with the main characters' carefree world of playing games, entertaining new girlfriends, and spending limitless amounts of money every night.
Further, the mafia family's initial introduction is done with dark humor and a good dose of satire. As Karen Hill observes on her wedding day, “There must have been two dozen “Peters” and “Pauls” at the wedding, plus they were all married to women named “Marie” and they named all their daughters “Marie”. This approach makes characters like lead gangster Pauly Cicero and Henry’s stereotypically Jewish mother-in-law (played briefly, but memorably by Suzanne Shepherd) easily likable. Even young Henry Hill himself (Christopher Serrone) somehow charms viewers with his smiling demeanor and youthful enthusiasm, as he deals with stolen merchandise and blows up cars on command. Soon, however, the shocking brutality of the gangster lifestyle reminds us just how amoral most of these people are, especially when longtime friends and acquaintances are “whacked” systematically.
Other highlights of this movie include the classic and largely improvised “how am I funny?” exchange between Pesci’s and Liotta’s characters, along with verbal confrontation between made-man Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and “Spitshine Tommy.” Scenes where Tommy laments the ethnic discrimination by a “Jew broad” he’s “trying to bang” while later criticizing a different girlfriend for her expressed admiration for Sammy Davis, Jr. illustrate the frank complexity of these characters. And of course, the montage of killings which occur after the successful "Lufthansa heist" (which is never shown, but merely discussed) set to the tune of Derek and the Dominos's “Layla (Piano Exit)” playing prominently on the soundtrack, and while Liotta provides an expository narration of the meaning of "goodfella," is undoubtedly one of the most affecting scenes in film history. Yet as repulsive as those images of death are, they still aren’t as shocking as the execution which happens afterwards.
Following those pivotal moments, the movie suddenly switches tempo to one of frenetic paranoia as Henry Hill grows more out-of-control conducting “business” in a drug-induced state. The jarring cuts of Henry speeding off from one place to another, scanning the skies for helicopters, stirring sauce and preparing cutlets for a big family dinner, then packaging drugs for transport and eventually getting arrested right outside his door create a final act which is both exhilarating and exhausting. To paraphrase Karen Hill, “by the time I finished the movie, I thought I was drunk!”
The Blu-ray Disc: Vital Stats
‘GoodFellas’ is presented as a two Blu-ray disc package in a standard slipcase. The main feature occupies a single BD-50 disc, allowing high bit rates to maximize picture and audio quality. The digital supplementary materials are presented on the second Blu-ray platter, while the remaining extras (a book, a typed document by Scorsese, and written instructions on accessing a Ultraviolet digital copy) are bundled in a cardboard slipcase tinted brown and gold.
Originally released on Blu-ray in 2006, ‘Good Fellas’ disappointed fans with a somewhat sloppy transfer, marred by a washed out picture and riddled with defects. The 20th Anniversary Edition DigiBook served up the same release in a more elaborate package with addtional bonuses. This Blu-ray boasts a 4K remaster in which the final transfer was apparently approved by the director himself. The movie has an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 which fills most standard widescreen TVs.
As with many recent classics remastered for Blu-ray, speculation and controversy regarding the “true look” of a beloved film are sure to follow, especially when digital alterations, color timing, print restoration and revisionist artistic changes all contribute to the final presentation, for better or for worse. I compared this Blu-ray with the original release rather casually, and without the use of screenshots or constant switching between sources. Still, even based on visual memory, it was apparent how much better 'GoodFellas' now looks. There is a vibrancy and freshness to the picture which outshine the original version. Production details stand out more vividly, particularly in scenes crowded with people and general domestic clutter deliberately placed in most settings like restaurants, apartments and homes. Colors appear less murky, especially on clothing which boasts brighter whites, more accurate blues and more lustrous browns. Even the pool of blood which seeps through carpet after a major character is shot takes on a more natural look. Surprisingly, I noticed details about that scene which somehow eluded previous viewings - specifically, the rhythmic spurting of blood at the wound site.
The natural grain structure is kept intact, but rarely distracts even during scenes which take place at night. I did notice a brief moment in which the picture appeared to be littered with excessive visual noise (where Henry Hill wakes up on the floor after he and his wife having a nervous breakdown at 2:07:20), but that is a minor complaint. Thankfully, obvious defects like the shaky opening credits and that infamous, distracting vertical line which intrudes on the scene where Hill is advised to tone down his extra-marital activities, have all been finally removed. Overall, the more I watched this Blu-ray, the more I appreciated this new presentation.
GoodFellas has a busy soundtrack, with overlapping lines of dialogue in many scenes, as well as sixties and seventies rock music playing almost constantly in the background and sometimes upfront. This release carries a DTS-High Definition Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack which preserves all the details and fidelity of the original mix. The original Blu-rays had competent and serviceable sound quality, but this disc is definitely a big step-up. Still, with the exception of gunshots, dynamic range is modest even at higher volumes so viewers shouldn't expect a dazzling aural experience.
The front channels come to life whenever a well-chosen song emerges from the soundtrack, and the vocals and lyrics embellish or diffuse the action going onscreen. For example, an innocent mailman is cruelly assaulted while “Hearts of Stone” by Otis Williams plays prominently, and “Then He Kissed Me” is heard dreamily as Henry escorts Karen into a night club and is treated like a celebrity. Stereo separation and fidelity vary depending on the pop recordings, but the soundtrack remains energetic and involving. Dialogue is appropriately anchored in the center channel, but Liotta’s voiceover is spread across all three front channels, enveloping the listener more dramatically. The rear surround channels are often subdued to the point of near silence during the majority of scenes. Occasional activity in the form of slight echoes and general environmental ambience occurs during busier onscreen moments.
Still, a few sonic surprises do stand out: a car explosion which precedes a still frame silhouette of Henry running away sounded a bit tighter and deeper than I recall. Similarly, a scene in which Tommy pulls away table cloths to cover a bloody body is punctuated by low end bass which is felt as well as heard.
The audio tracks provide two difference sets of commentaries, which are recorded from different sources but are clear and distinct. The remaining audio tracks are in foreign languages ranging from Hungarian to Japanese, and presented in Dolby Digital mono or stereo. For the hearing impaired, subtitles are also presented in a variety of languages. I also noticed that the English presentation has some paraphrasing and one or two mis-translated lines of dialogue.
This release carries over most of the bonus materials originally offered in the 2010 DigiBook edition (which in turn, expanded on extras found in the 2007 edition), and adds three more features, including a small hardcover book, an essay by Scorsese and a new documentary.
Two Commentaries: Cast and Crew and Cop and Crook: The first track is filled with discussions from actors Ray Liotta, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent and Lorraine Bracco, and production team Thelma Schoonmaker (editor), Nicholas Pileggi (writer), Martin Scorsese as well as Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina (producers). Though not all the recordings are from the same source, the track is fun and informative.
The second commentary is from the real Henry Hill and real life FBI agent Edward McDonald. Their discussions are even more involving since they offer their own perspective of events in direct comparison to what is portrayed cinematically. There are a few lengthy stretches of silence here and there (particularly during key scenes where Liotta is narrating) but their discussion should hold any fan’s interest.
Getting Made: (SD 29:39): Compared to the new documentary, this is a more conventional but studious behind the scenes featurette which unavoidably repeats information heard in the commentaries, interviews and other sources, but remains worthy of viewer attention. Scorsese is featured prominently, along with most of the supporting actors and editor Schoonmaker.
Made Men (SD 13:35): This featurette showcases a handful of today’s popular directors like Jon Favreau (‘Iron Man’) and Frank Darabont (‘The Shawshank Redemption’) paying their tribute to Scorsese and the movie. While enjoyable, none of the comments really expand beyond the obvious words of praise.
The Workaday Gangster (SD 8:00): This short clip focuses on the life of a typical gangster, as explained by the real Henry Hill and commented by the movie’s cast and crew. As with his running commentary on the main feature, Hill’s insight into what he characterizes as a “crazy, sick existence” is truly fascinating and supplements the movie well.
Paper Is Cheaper Than Film (SD 4:30): The storyboards envisioned by the original production are compared to what appearsd onscreen, and may be of particular interest to aspiring filmmakers. Some of this material has already been covered briefly in the ‘Getting Made’ documentary.
Public Enemies: The Golden Age Of The Gangster Film (SD 106 mins): Constantine Nasr wrote, directed and co-produced this documentary of 1930’s gangster films. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, this rather long and rambling film contains many excerpts from several classic black and white movies and interviews with film historians, critics and directors (including Scorsese). However, it doesn’t really offer any additional and meaningful insight into GoodFellas itself.
The same can be said for the four Warner Bros. cartoons which include ‘I Like Mountain Music’ (SD 7:02), ‘She Was An Acrobat’s Daughter’ (SD 8:39), ‘Racketeer Rabbit’ (SD 7:55), and ‘Bugs And Thugs’ (SD 7:14). While all four segments are gang-related, so to speak, they feel like they were added to the Blu-ray as filler.
Theatrical Trailer (SD 1:30): This is a well-assembled theatrical preview of the main feature, with nothing unusual like footage which didn’t make the final cut or alternate lines of dialogue. Today’s trailers rely more on fade-to-black images and boldly written text, so I actually smiled nostalgically when I heard a familiar voiceover repeat the now-liched introduction, “In a world…”.
GoodFellas (36 Page Photo Book): This hardcover booklet contains a well-written retrospective of the movie and its reception. Quotes by the late film critic Roger Ebert and directors like Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro accompany various productions stills, and offer an overview of the film’s influence. Strangely, no author is credited.
Letter From Director Martin Scorsese: This is a brief, but detailed essay by the acclaimed director where he describes his artistic intentions, and shows his appreciation for his collaborators.
Simply stated, 'GoodFellas' is one of those rare accomplishments in American cinema where entertainment and art come together with dazzling results. It lives up to all the hype and critical acclaim. This Blu-ray is a magnificent upgrade and a must-own release!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.