“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) muses near the start of “Goodfellas,” and in the fall of 1990, when that film was released, it seemed that every filmmaker of note wanted to make a gangster movie. Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” led the way that September, with Phil Joanou’s “State of Grace” and Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York” opening later that month. The Coen brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” followed in October. And in December came what was expected to be the biggest title of them all: “The Godfather Part III,” the long-awaited follow-up to the Francis Ford Coppola films that most audiences considered the gold standard of gangster pictures.
Such a wave of similarly minded movies hadn’t been seen since the glut of rip-offs that followed the release of the original “Godfather.” The torturous time and effort required of any major production made their rollouts more coincidental than coordinated, though it seems safe to surmise that studios were hoping to ride the wave of interest in “Godfather III.” Yet that film, the most hotly anticipated and (initially) the most financially successful, was the least enthusiastically received — and left the smallest cultural footprint.
Instead, the other gangster movies of that fateful fall 30 years ago would prove far more influential: they combined to draw a map of the routes the crime movie, and movies in general, would take in the coming decade.
The filmmaking is intoxicating because it makes Hill’s life of crime seem so seductive; it draws us into his world. So Scorsese crafts a subjective experience, often literally: in the shot introducing the various gangsters and hangers-on, all of whom speak directly into the camera (“I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers”), or the notorious “May 11, 1980” sequence, which uses jagged cutting, jittery camerawork and battling music cues to put us directly into the head of the film’s coked-out, paranoid protagonist. Compared with the respectful distance of earlier gangster stories (even “The Godfather” movies), the immediacy of “Goodfellas” feels like an earthquake.
Kenny also pinpoints the notion of “mobsters having other aspects of their lives,” everyday marital and familial woes, a key ingredient in David Chase’s subsequent groundbreaking series, “The Sopranos.” Chase has called the film “his Quran, so to speak,” drawing not only from the film’s tone and perspective for “The Sopranos,” but also from its cast, which features several future “Sopranos” co-stars.