Continuing his regular feature, Nick Bartlett dives into Scorsese to bring us a lesser-heralded, but still brilliant, scene from Goodfellas. It’s Henrys last day as a wiseguy.
American stand-up Bill Burr once described Martin Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas (1990) as the equivalent of a comedian doing a set comprised entirely of their best material, just one killer joke after another. It makes it difficult when writing an article about neglected scenes though. What is the stand out scene in Goodfellas? Is it the virtuoso single-tracking shot following Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the Copacabana? Is it the, “Funny how?” scene? Or how about the incredible montage revealing one after another of Jimmy’s (Robert De Niro) murdered accomplices, perfectly set to Eric Clapton’s Layla. Even the opening line, “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” is one of the most famous introductions to any film.
It’s strange then, that the part that I always think of isn’t one of these. If not underappreciated, it’s at least a scene that often flies under the radar. I’m talking about the sequence towards the end of the movie where Henry, now addicted to cocaine and increasingly paranoid, runs a series of errands while avoiding a police helicopter, before finally getting arrested; as his sardonic voice over registers, “If they’d have been wiseguys, I wouldn’t have heard a thing”.
In the first half of the film, Scorsese emphasises the opulent lifestyle of the gangsters – the editing is structured and deliberate. This later sequence isn’t as flashy as the early scenes, but… from a filmmaking perspective it’s the standout part of the film.
This scene comes at a crucial point, following the abrupt exit of Tommy from the story. Joe Pesci’s walking firework of a character is the most unpredictable, volatile character in the film, and his absence could quite easily have left a vacuum. Instead, Scorsese takes what could be a mundane sequence of events and turns it into the film’s most dynamic, energetic set-piece. It opens with a time and date stamp, (the first of many stylistic flourishes) as Henry snorts his first line of coke of the day, and the opening chords of Harry Nilsson’s Jump Into The Fire kick in. From here on the pace never lets up, with Liotta even walking briskly in time with the music to his car.
Scorsese’s choices for the soundtrack really help the manic feel of the scene, but it’s still meticulously ordered. He packs eight music cues into a ten-minute sequence, and it never feels overwhelming. Each song is there for a reason, and the changes of tempo and musical styles mirror Henry’s relentless plate-spinning. Jump Into The Fire is the one recurring song, and serves as a chaotic throughline for the sequence, picking up the pace as the day spirals out of control. Each of the other tracks represents a change in pace as Henry rushes from one meeting to another. George Harrison’s poppy, uplifting What Is Life plays as Henry thinks the helicopter has gone, and the sleazy, jarring opening chords of Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters crash onto the soundtrack as he takes a hit of cocaine.
The ‘Henry’s last day as a gangster’ sequence in Goodfellas.
Scorsese’s style is coherent but undisciplined; the camera never stops moving as Henry rushes around making calls, constantly panning back and forth between him and the phone, and Scorsese uses every filmmaking trick at his disposal to place you right in the midst of the action; from freeze frames and jump cuts, to extreme zooms and whip pans, all of which adds to the overall sense of chaos.
Throughout, the mundane and the criminal are treated with equal importance, as he goes from picking up his brother at the airport to picking up drugs from his dealer. The legal and the illegal, his wife and his girlfriend, Henry struggles the whole way through to stay on top of it all and keep everything separated, but it evidently takes its toll on him.
This is a great showcase for Liotta, who spends most of the film grounding the more colourful performances of De Niro and Pesci, but here shows Henry coming apart at the seams. Jumpy and wild eyed, constantly glancing skyward, Liotta is perfect at portraying the strain Henry is under. It’s also reflected in his voiceover, which is present throughout the film, but here takes on a more frantic edge, with his words tripping out rapidly until he virtually runs out of breath. Henry is convinced that the police are monitoring him, and Scorsese plays coy about whether he’s right or not. We see a helicopter, but sometimes we hear it when it’s not there, only adding to the sense that Henry is imagining it. There are also clues that he might be right though, with Scorsese utilising long shots to give the impression that he is being watched.
In the first half of the film, Scorsese emphasises the opulent lifestyle of the gangsters. The editing is structured and deliberate, as Henry and Scorsese essentially seduce the audience. This later sequence isn’t as flashy as the early scenes, but this is by design, as it comes at a point in the film where the sheen of the gangster life is wearing thin. Also, from a filmmaking perspective it’s the standout part of the film. Scorsese is firing on all cylinders, throwing everything into the mix, and it’s impossible to watch without getting caught up in the action. At it’s core the sequence is essentially just driving from A to B, but in the hands of a master like Scorsese it’s more exciting and tense than most modern action set-pieces. What it does, brilliantly, is showcase Scorsese’s knack for building momentum, as well as being one of the best cinematic depictions of a character’s descent into paranoia.