For almost as long as cinema has projected images on the big silver screen the American viewing public has been enthralled by the mobster. There appears to be something captivating about these men that live outside the law that perhaps appeals to us, the ability to vicariously live as these glorified criminals without breaking the laws ourselves. There are three films that have transcended this genre to become American classics and even part of our culture, The Godfather, The Godfather Part Two and Goodfellas. The later depicts the rise and fall of a real mobster, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). As a young boy he ran errands for the local mob, dreaming of becoming a made man, part of a crime family and virtually immune to both sides of the law. As an Irish kid in Brooklyn Hill had an uphill climb to actually become part of the family, but he demonstrated a persistence and loyalty that did not go unnoticed by the bosses. As a teenager Hill was seduced by the view of the mob he had out of his window, the low level gangsters had fast cars, faster women and a seemingly unlimited amount of money, power and respect. This albeit tainted view of the American dream drove this young man to almost casually perform the most heinous of acts as he strove towards his goal. Eventually Hill makes the grade and even marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco) a nice Jewish girl that wraps herself in the thickest denial ever seen as to what her husband does for a living.
Part of the appeal of films like this is the self contained world that the Mafia lives in. Although they break all the laws of society they live by a stringent set of internal rules, more swiftly and strictly enforced than any in the penal code. There is also an almost feudal hierarchy enforced. There is Don Paul (Paul Sorvino), Boss Jimmy the Gent Conway (Robert De Niro) and Hill’s fellow soldier Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Everyone knows his place and his responsibilities, there is a strange comfort afforded by such a structure. Breaking these rules has dire consequences as Hill finds out when he becomes involved in the murder of a ‘made man’, someone that can only be killed by the express order of a boss. Unlike our law abiding lives the people in the ‘family’ have a degree of order to their existence. Even the wives find that their social structure emulates that of their hubbies and is just as self contained.
Just as is found in the Godfather this film as the ultimate perfect cast. Ray Liotta is the actor we love to hate. Although his character is reprehensible in his conduct there is a certain likeability that Liotta gets across. He narrates the film with an excitement that draws us immediately into the story. Joe Pesci’s performance in this film is one of the most famous in the history of film. His comical yet sinister off the wall antics in the nightclub is legend. He plays his role on the fine line of madness like no other actor could have achieved. This is also one of the best showcases for the immense talent of Robert De Niro. His character controls the screen with an explosion lurking just below the surface. Lorraine Bracco, like many others in this film, is known for other mob related roles. Where her character in the Sopranos is one of reason and control here she is a woman deeply in love with her man and willing to turn a blind eye to his real job. Even when she is on her knees in the bathroom pouring cocaine into the bowl there is love for her husband.
Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors film has ever seen. I relate to him so well because I am a New Yorker like he is. He brings the neighborhoods of Brooklyn to life in a realistic way that makes me remember a lot of my own childhood. He is also a master of presenting a story through the use of his camera work. In one scene he holds the shot, unedited, as Hill and Karen leave their car and enter the nightclub, breaking the scene only as the show starts. By use of such imaginative camera work he makes the lens part of the storytelling. Each scene is perfected crafted, none too long or too short, just right to impart that portion of the tale. He uses lighting to the ultimate advantage, the interplay of light and shadow literally showing the audience the duplicitous world we are viewing. Scorsese allows his actors to grow with their characters over the thirty year time span of the film. This is a director that knows how to work with actors and get the very best out of them. Like most films by this director he takes his time in the telling, the movie clocks in at about two and a half hours. Unlike other films of this length you will not be watching the clock; you are pulled in and emotionally invested in the characters within minutes.
This two disc special edition is indeed special. The Dolby 5.1 audio lets you hear every shell casing as it is ejected from the gun and still permits each brilliant line of dialogue to come across loud and clear. The anamorphic video shows every detail that Scorsese placed in the film. This is the way a DVD should be done. The audio commentary by Scorsese may seem overly technical by many but, personally, I found it fascinating. He practically gives a course in cinematography and film direction as he elaborates on the action and gives the details of what went into the shot. On disc two there are four features that provide every detail possible on the production of the film. For a film of this enduring greatness the previous DVD treatment was able to do justice, this release finally gives us this film the way the serious collector demanded. Warner Brothers has done it right here, I hope the other studios take note, the bar has just been set higher for the presentation of classic films.