By the time Martin Scorsese released Goodfellas in 1990, he’d already established himself as one of the greatest film directors of the second half of the 20th Century. His early films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver drew acclaim, as did his efforts in the 1980s, such as Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.
The 1990s proved to be another wildly successful decade for the filmmaker, with hits including Casino and Cape Fear. But it was Goodfellas that kicked off the decade in imposing style, a movie that, even today, many cinema fans consider one of his best. It starred his frequent collaborator Robert De Niro, as well as Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci.
The legendary director had written the film in partnership with Nicholas Pileggi, who’d previously written the 1985 nonfiction book Wiseguy. The book detailed the life of the notorious Italian-American Mafia criminal Henry Hill, who rose through the ranks of organised crime until he became a police informant. In fact, the reality of the story and Pileggi’s book was the main contributing factor for Scorsese to make Goodfellas in the first place. He’d already explored the notion of organised crime in some of his previous films and did not want to dive further into the topic without it providing something new, and this new tale was just what he was looking for.
In an interview with Barry Norman, Scorsese once said, “If I was just gonna make another film dealing with the gangster subculture, it wouldn’t be of interest to me. Mean Streets was one particular thing that was very important to me; myself, my old friends and the lifestyle I grew up in.”
He continued, “Raging Bull had elements of it, but this one was interesting in that Henry Hill, his recollections or his stories, whatever you want to call them, this incredible marathon narrative that he and Nick Pileggi put together with all these tapes that he had, had such a wonderful honest about it.”
Scorsese called Pileggi’s book “A really accurate look at the spirit of the lifestyle”, adding, “How they dress and what they eat, the ritual of eating. All of this adds up, for me, to making a film that approaches them as human beings.” It’s true that the brilliance of Goodfellas is that it just feels so real.
This echoes the sentiments of Harold Ramis, who once spoke glowingly of the movie. In the book You Gotta See This, Ramis said, “Goodfellas is the reality of organised crime. It was about stealing cigarettes. It was about getting shot. I know Scorsese’s view of New York is much more realistic. You feel like you were really there. He was really able to depict that life.”