While reading the New York Times, director Martin Scorsese noticed a rave review for crime writer Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction bestseller Wiseguy. Although Scorsese had touched upon organized crime in earlier films and had no specific desire to revisit that realm, Pileggi’s brash, complex saga of the New York underworld, seen through the eyes of a low-level gangster, offered a real-life angle that piqued the director’s instinct for great storytelling. “It was interesting to me because the character of Henry Hill was, very simply, a foot soldier,” Scorsese explains. “The kind of person he is, or was at the time, made him trustworthy to many people on different levels, so he was privy to a cross section of that whole world, from the very minuscule to the top of the line.”
Scorsese and Pileggi adapted the book into what would become one of the most popular and acclaimed films in contemporary American cinema. A freewheeling, dynamic and well crafted crime drama, Goodfellas breathlessly charts the life of Hill (Ray Liotta) from his youthful seduction into criminal camaraderie in the Brooklyn of the mid-1950s to the fast-paced, lucrative and violent New York gangster lifestyle of the 1960s and ’70s, finally steamrolling into Hill’s drug addiction and eventual placement in the FBI witness protection program in the 1980s. The story unfolds in an exhilarating, constantly moving, non-linear fashion, with amusing and ironic narration from Hill and his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco). Clearly, Hill is thrilled to be part of the organized-crime crew of “boss” Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Hill’s exploits over the years with cool customer Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and trigger-happy Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) as well as rival wise guys, assorted law-enforcement officials, numerous girlfriends and his tempestuous wife, provide a mosaic-like portrait of the day-to-day life of a criminal who, in spite of his ultimate downfall, “always wanted to be a gangster.”
One of Scorsese’s trademarks is surrounding himself with highly skilled collaborators, and one of his most frequent is director of photography Michael Ballhaus, ASC, who was involved in early discussions about mounting the story. The filmmakers agreed that there should be considerable camera movement that would accelerate as the narrative progressed, from an enticing quality to a slightly out-of-control kind of motion as the characters’ lives fell apart. Ballhaus also felt this seductive but ultimately cruel world should look as real as possible.
In honor of Goodfellas 20th anniversary, Warner Home Video recently released a new Blu-ray edition of the film. In one of its supplements, Ballhaus talks specifically about the film’s “dirty” look; he wanted the many featured restaurants, bars, back-room and basement locations to keep their grittiness. “I worked a lot with available light and light fixtures,” he says. “It was not normal movie lighting. I was trying to keep the same atmosphere each of these places had. [I thought] it should never look lit.”
This high-definition image transfer is generally satisfying, offering a solid rendering of the picture. Colors are well balanced, and there are detailed blacks and fairly good contrast throughout. This appears to be the same transfer used for Goodfellas’ first Blu-ray release, in 2007; it retains the minor drawbacks of that presentation, which are inconsistencies in the overall sharpness of detail and occasional imperfections in the source material. (It seems likely that the black line that appears through the frame for a few seconds at 1:16:43 in both this Blu-ray and the 2007 edition would be easy to erase digitally if a new transfer were done.) The 5.1 digital audio is satisfactory, giving surround life mostly to the film’s incredible jukebox of pop music and occasional gunshots. There is a satisfying, heavy-bass presence, and most of the film’s intricate sound design falls to the front channels.
This edition is packaged in a bound “digibook,” with 33 pages of bios, commentary and stills. Two very busy, entertaining, feature-length audio commentaries with cast and crew members are included. There also are three standard-definition documentary segments that repeat much of the commentary insight, a look at story boards, and the film’s trailer; these supplements first appeared on the 2004 standard-definition DVD. The only new feature in this package is a second disc, a standard-def DVD that presents the 107-minute documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film, featuring interviews with filmmakers (including Scorsese) and historians of the genre. Finally, the disc has more than 30 minutes of vintage, crime-themed cartoons.
If you already own the 2007 Blu-ray, there is really no reason to acquire this one. But those who haven’t made this extraordinary film part of their Blu-ray collections will want to “pinch” this new edition right off the shelf. This vivid, thoroughly engaging and remarkably influential film shows a great director at the top of his game.