What Makes Goodfellas So Compulsively Watchable?

Some films earn critical acclaim and you only want to watch them once. Goodfellas? We could watch it on loop...

What is the most compulsively watchable film of all time? Not the greatest film – there are lists dedicated to solving that particular conundrum scattered all over the internet. Rather, the one film that begs you to return again and again, the one you can’t help but see through to the end when you happen to bump into it on a late night channel surf. Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 8 ½: greats, undisputed classics long vaunted by critics, but not necessarily the kinds of movies with the irresistible pull of a truly, compulsively watchable movie.

What could be the best of these? Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with its peak-Spielberg action-adventure stylings? Airplane!, a riotous and unfailingly quotable comedy that spawned a thousand imitators? Could even one as recent as acid-tinged carmageddoner Mad Max: Fury Road, already considered one of the greatest action movies ever made, lay legitimate claim to being the finest example? These are films that, through some divine formula, can seemingly never cease to entertain: Friday night movies for the ages. What, possibly, could top such feats of filmic engineering?

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Consider Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s crime saga, which is currently on re-release as part of the BFI’s Scorsese season, turns 27 this year, but in cinematic terms it hasn’t aged a day. What was breathlessly energetic and almost indecently engrossing back in 1990 is just as so now. From its opening scene, which simultaneously disarms the viewer with an act of violence – the film’s grisliest – and draws us in with a perfectly timed collision of sound and image (a rapid track into Ray Liotta’s shocked face that culminates in the ecstatic opening horns of Tony Bennett’s “Rags To Riches”), Goodfellas is propulsive. This is not just a great, highly influential movie, but an endlessly watchable one as well.

In part that’s down to the acting talent – Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, an Oscar-winning Joe Pesci, all doing their finest work, as well as Scorsese’s muse Robert De Niro operating at full volume – and the way they’re allowed to flourish in a loose, lightly improvisational environment. The actors jabber over one another and make scenes up on the fly, the most famous example being Pesci as sociopathic mafioso Tommy DeVito putting a visibly unnerved Liotta – playing our gangster ‘hero’, Henry Hill – on the spot with his notorious “Funny how?” diatribe. The style of performing gives Goodfellas a kinetic, unpredictable feel. You remain on edge, even if you’ve seen the film so many times you can quote it line for line, because the players perpetually seem to be too.

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The film’s craft, addictive like a drug, similarly keeps us alert. Goodfellas is the product of an unparalleled filmmaker and editor team (editor Thelma Schoonmaker is at least as important to Scorsese’s filmography as De Niro) taking all the technique they ever learned and applying it to one feature. There’s voiceover, flashbacks, handheld and POV shots, freeze frames, slo-mo, and some still unbeatable tracking shots, while the film closes with Liotta talking directly to the audience and Pesci firing into camera with a pistol, replicating a shot from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. It’s a history of cinematic technique in one picture – and it’s all set to what might be the greatest assemblage of non-score music in any movie.

If you had to label it, Goodfellas is most definitely a crime flick, arguably a black comedy (every actor is wickedly funny, but anyone who’s ever disputed De Niro’s comic chops in particular should watch him again here, parroting mob speak and flying into apocalyptic rages at the drop of a hat), and at a not-unreasonable stretch a musical. In the background, singalong-able pop and rock hits play constantly. They serve a dual purpose: 1) setting the tone and pace of the film, and 2) denoting the period any one scene is taking place in without Scorsese ever having to signpost it. From the buoyant ’50s, through the bubblegum ’60s, and into the punkish ’70s, there’s nothing but a wall-to-wall mash of tunes.

It could almost be exhausting. In less than two-and-a-half hours, we fly through three decades of a life of organized crime. Yet the film is edited with such a feel for rhythm, Schoonmaker always careful with the ebb and flow of the story, that it never induces feelings of fatigue. Thanks to Scorsese, none of the flashy direction ever feels indulgent or hollow, either. Goodfellas inspired plenty of directors to attempt to replicate its fast-paced pop style, but all too many failed to realise that the film is never just surface, is never art for art’s sake. Ultimately, Goodfellas rewards repeated watches because there’s real substance woven into its style. Here, the style has a purpose.

Scorsese’s movies tend to be designed in such a way that they reflect the experience of the protagonist. Taxi Driver has a woozy, nocturnal daydream feel, mirroring Travis Bickle’s insomnia and increasing disconnect from reality, while Scorsese’s latest, Silence, is slow, minimal and unsettlingly quiet, demonstrating both the purity of Father Rodriguez and the sense of discomfort he feels in closed 17th-century Japan. The more high-energy films of Scorsese’s that are made in what casual fans might consider his signature style, like The Wolf Of Wall Street, Casino, and Goodfellas, perform the same function. They are extravagant, darkly comic and whiplash fast, not simply because that’s entertaining, but because such a style conveys the rush felt by a protagonist living a glitzy, morality-free existence.

Goodfellas is where this style originated for Scorsese, and Henry Hill is one of Scorsese’s archetypal amoral heroes – a man with a voracious appetite for life, out to enjoy whatever he can get while others are screwed over (or beaten, or killed) in the process. Even as the film descends into hell in its last act, Scorsese – accompanying the cocaine-fuelled, adrenaline-pumped Hill every step of the way – directs with such verve that the film remains irresistible. Such is the skill of Scorsese, he allows us to judge such an unpleasant character while we at the same time get high on the thrill ride that is his life right to the bitter end.