Yesterday, this column reviewed "Scarface," a gangster film that has stood the test of time. The strongest of these movies do more than just depict the nuances of a life of crime. They offer an understanding of the motives of the protagonists and also show us how they cope with family and other everyday pressures. Also, they establish the cultural context for the characters. An excellent example is "Goodfellas," which came out in 1990. Unlike "Scarface," this film is based on a true story.
"Goodfellas" stars Ray Liotta as the charismatic crook Henry Hill. As Henry grew up in New York in the 1950s, he idolized the lifestyle of gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood. As a gutsy young adult, he becomes one, working for neighborhood crime boss Paulie (played by Paul Sorvino). His gangster friends include Tommy (played by Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (played by Robert De Niro). His hot-tempered wife, Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco), also enjoys the plush lifestyle his criminal pursuits provide for them. Although these characters have a lot of money, their lives are very dangerous. Cops are always looking to bust them and other gangsters try to kill them. As illegal drugs become the key profit centers for gangsters, and the Hills develop their own addictions, their lives spiral out of control.
"Goodfellas" is directed by Martin Scorsese, who is known for making violent crime epics. He makes this film fascinating. We see why Henry is attracted to this lifestyle, and we see why it is ultimately not a good one.
The ensemble cast works together extremely well. Ray Liotta is great as Henry, who loves his family and friends and enjoys living on the edge. Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his excellent work as the violent, ill-tempered Tommy. Lorraine Bracco is also impressive as Karen, who sticks by her husband, even though she knows he is cheating on her.
"Goodfellas" is Martin Scorsese's best crime film.