As the decades have gone on some of the films on the Oscar Challenge have become more violent as film-makers began to push the envelope. The 1970s in particular featured plenty of nominees that had a violent tone and often focused on those operating outside the law. The gangster genre was revived to an extent in the 1990s with two films focusing on mobsters with both being slightly different in tone.
The first was Goodfellas, a film I’m ashamed to say I’ve never watched up until this point. The film covers 25 years in the life of Henry Hill who famously always wanted to be a gangster. The opening of the film sees Henry ingratiate himself into the gang and proves himself to them when he refuses to give them up when he first appears in court. Henry’s main associate throughout the course of the film is the incredibly volatile Tommy DeVito, who even clashes with his friends on occasion. The other character who recurs throughout the film is the more senior Jimmy Conway who is seen as a gentleman by those who know him. The majority of the film’s first half sees the glamorous life that Henry’s new position has earned him especially after partaking in numerous robberies. At the same time Tommy’s temper gets the trio in a lot of trouble and they end up trying to bury an important member of the mob who was trying to humiliate Tommy. In fact Tommy later kills a young bartender just for insulting him, this coming after he injured the boy’s feet. As the years pass Henry find himself in jail, whilst his relationship with his wife Karen deteriorates when he takes on a mistress. The final third of the film deals with Henry’s new line in drug-dealing, something he started in prison, and the gang’s involvement in the Lufthansa Heist at JFK airport. These latter scenes strip away the glamour of the criminal life as Henry’s associates are either murdered or jailed. Despite all that’s happened to him Henry still longs for the glamorous life that he no longer has now he’s in witness protection.
Goodfellas is often held up as one of the best films of all time but while I enjoyed it throughout there was nothing particularly remarkable about it. Narratively the film has issues as it is led by an expositional voiceover delivered by Ray Liotta as the adult Henry Hill. Voiceovers like this are one of my pet hates in visual storytelling as part of the film mantra is usually ‘don’t tell us, show us’. In fact Goodfellas really riled me up when it introduced a second voiceover by Lorraine Bracco who played Henry’s wife Karen. Although it does have faults, the script moves along quite sharply so we get all of the key facts about Henry’s life without every settling down for too long. Director Martin Scorsese really focuses on the opulent life the gangsters enjoy, both at home and in their social life at the Copacabana. I feel that both the art direction and the costume design deserved to be recognised at the Oscars with the latter brilliantly changing to indicate the style of the time. In the role of Henry, Ray Liotta was a dependable presence who really came alive in the latter scenes when his character started to develop a serious amount of paranoia. As we’ve seen him become a star name over the past couple of decades it’s odd that Robert De Niro was used sparingly until the film’s final third. I think it works quite well as Jimmy is an interesting character who is explored more as the film goes on. But obviously the most famous performance in the film, and the one that won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, was that of Joe Pesci as Tommy. From the moment he delivers his iconic ‘Funny how?’ speech you know you’re in the presence of an actor at the top of his game. He employs a frantic energy which means you never know what Tommy will do next but at the same time he makes you sympathise with him when he unsuspectingly gets murdered on one of the happiest days of his life. Action-packed, well-shot and with a fantastic cast; Goodfellas is definitely a fun film to watch but I wouldn’t add it to the list of my all-time favourites.