GoodFellas (1990)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround
Warner Home Video, $26.99

When GoodFellas was released in 1990, expectations for the film could not have been higher. The mere idea of a mob movie directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, had fans of the genre salivating with anticipation. And unlike many of today’s overhyped “event movies,” GoodFellas delivered — bigtime — to become an instant classic and one of the most influential pictures of the decade. (Indeed, echoes of GoodFellas have reverberated in countless crime sagas since, most notably Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos.)

With The Godfather firmly ensconced as the Citizen Kane of the gangster canon, Scorsese wisely took a different tack in his ambitious attempt to give Francis Coppola a run for his money. Instead of the high opera of the mythical Corleone clan, Scorsese delivered a blend of hard-hitting realism and pitch-black comedy that revealed the inner workings of the real Mafia. The Oscar-nominated screenplay was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s best-selling true-crime book Wiseguy, which traced the rise and fall of crook-turned-canary Henry Hill (memorably played in the film by Ray Liotta, who brought remarkable charm and intensity to a role that seemed tailor-made). Filling the screen with fascinating details of mob life, Scorsese captured the very essence of his rogue’s gallery of hoods, who were played to the hilt by a pitch-perfect cast of both stars and shrewdly-chosen character actors.

Technically, GoodFellas is a tour de force, artfully blending exhilarating cinematography, dynamic editing and an eclectic soundtrack of classic pop tunes that span the story’s 30-year arc. Michael Ballhaus, ASC supervised Scorsese’s relentlessly roving camera, which initially conveys the intoxicating rush of Hill’s hustling rise, but eventually captures his manic freefall into coked-out paranoia. (During the disc’s cast-and-crew commentary, Liotta notes that a number of recovering drug addicts have told him that these scenes hit so close to the bone that they actually cue them up as a deterrent whenever they feel the urge to get high again).

Ballhaus enlisted the talents of Steadicam operator Larry McConkey to accomplish several jaw-dropping sequences, including the now-famous four-minute tracking shot that follows Hill and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they are squired to prime seats in New York’s Copacabana nightclub via the service entrance and a series of labyrinthine corridors. The cinematographer reveals that the sequence required a mere eight takes, although several were ruined at the very end when the scene’s Henny Youngman impersonator blew his lines from the Copa’s stage.

To be sure, Ballhaus did his utmost to achieve Scorsese’s grand stylistic ambitions for the film: “There is nothing unfilmable for me in a way, because you can do anything you want,” he maintains. “Sometimes it’s a matter of time [or] money, but everything is possible. A director would never hear from me that I can’t do it, or I don’t want to do it, or it’s not possible. It doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”

However, the cinematographer admits that he nearly balked at shooting the film because of the ultra-violent script, but eventually acquiesced because Scorsese’s stated goal was to deglamorize Mafia life. Ballhaus plotted his visual approach accordingly: “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.”

The cinematographer is joined on the DVD’s commentary track by Scorsese, Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and all of the key cast members, but this democratic approach elicits far too many general observations and few truly insightful details about the production. Most of the comments tend to be along the lines of “Marty’s a genius” (we know), but there are refreshing moments of candor, such as this admission from Schoonmaker: “Editing is often given way too much credit, because you have to have those powerful shots … you have to have extraordinarily good footage, and I get it from Marty — all the time.”

In addition to the cast-and-crew commentary, this set’s first disc also offers a fascinating analysis of the film by the real Henry Hill and former FBI agent Edward McDonald. Disc Two serves up a series of generally worthwhile documentaries, including Getting Made: The Making of GoodFellas (from which, repetitively, many of the commentary’s quotes were culled); Made Men: The GoodFellas Legacy, in which an array of young directors discuss the film’s considerable influence on their own work; The Workaday Gangster, which examines the grim realities of mob life; and Paper Is Cheaper Than Film, a series of storyboard-to-screen comparisons.

The real reason to own this package, of course, is to savor a sleek new transfer of one of the greatest gangster movies ever committed to film.

— Stephen Pizzello

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.