By Barry Lord
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”
The line that opened one of the most iconic movies of the 1990s and would cement its place in the lexicon of epochal film quotations.
Now after 27 years, it’s back in cinemas.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas will be screened in a brand new print at the Irish Film Institute on January 20 and a new generation of movie-goers will see for themselves what made this epic gangster saga so special.
If Francis F. Coppola’s Godfather trilogy was the story of the mafia’s aristocracy, this was definitely the blue collar, working man’s take on the criminal underworld.
It’s also a true story, taken from the novel ‘Wise guy,’ which chronicled the life and times of the film’s protagonist, Henry Hill.
Ray Liotta plays Henry – the kid who ‘always wanted to be a gangster’- a half Irish/Sicilian delinquent growing up in a small Brooklyn neighbourhood where he looks on enviously at the local crime figures – ‘wise guys’.
These men park their fancy cars on the pavement outside his home every weekend and gamble into the wee small hours of the morning, without ever having to answer to the police.
Henry dreams of being part of this world and before long is indulging in bootlegging, vandalism and other forms of petty crime.
His exploits see him impress the linchpin of the local crime syndicate, Paul ‘Pauly’ Cicero (Paul Sorvino) who quickly puts him in the hands of his two most trusted lieutenants, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).
What follows is a story spanning three decades and focuses on the trio’s long standing friendship and successful rise to the top of the criminal food chain.
One daring heist follows another and the ill-gotten gains are plentiful.
But Scorsese is never afraid to show the pitfalls of the gangster lifestyle; a world filled with financial and material reward but also fraught with danger.
Henry marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco, also Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos) a Jewish girl from the neighbourhood, and appears to settle into domestic bliss, but he is dangerously addicted to the thrill of the next caper and the sharp end of the law is never far away.
For me, this is a masterpiece of modern cinema, a three-course meal of a story which charts the humble beginnings of its leading character to his irresistible rise up the criminal ranks and finally the disintegration of his carefully cultivated professional and home life when heroin becomes his vice of choice.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Joe Pesci’s psychotic Tommy (a role that earned him an Academy Award) still has the power to terrify, whether tormenting a friend for having the audacity to call him ‘funny’ or coolly carrying out a hit, he is the dominant screen presence despite his diminutive stature.
De Niro and Liotta are also sensational, representing the professional and the reckless side of the gang.
The movie is also littered with great cinematic moments. An extraordinary handheld shot of Henry and Karen entering a restaurant through the kitchen stands out, as does the brutal assault of ex-con Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to the strains of Donovan’ s Atlantis.
For Scorsese, this fulfilled the promise of his earlier work like 1973’s Mean Streets, and should have seen him clean up at the Oscars in 1991.
Unfortunately, he was up against Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves, which took most of the major honours and clearly in the wake of the Gulf War, America was in need of something life-affirming so the story of a cavalryman and his relationship with a soon-to-be extinct tribe of American Indians won over the more violent and gritty world envisioned by Scorsese and his co-writer Nicolas Pileggi.
On January 20, you’ll get the chance to see for yourself if the voters got that one right.
Watch the pscyhotic Tommy DeVito played by Joe Pesci in the “I’m funny how…” clip here but only for over 18s.