GoodFellas: five films that influenced Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic

Which movies were on Marty’s mind when mounting his mafia masterpiece GoodFellas?

Amy Simmons
Updated:

GoodFellas (1990)

GoodFellas (1990)
Credit: © 1990 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

Endlessly quoted, imitated and parodied, GoodFellas (1990) is one of the gold standards in modern American filmmaking. Its director, Martin Scorsese, was drawn to the 1986 book Wiseguy, by New York crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, because it was the most authentic portrayal of gangsters he had ever read. According to Pileggi, Scorsese cold-called the writer and told him: “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.” To which Pileggi replied: “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”

Eighteen years after Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) portrayed a mafia ethos founded on family ties and a code of honour, GoodFellas came along to expose the sordid underbelly of organised crime at street level. There is no looking out for one’s people here. Instead, GoodFellas simply follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his cold-blooded associates, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), as they steal, kill and ultimately betray each other. Scorsese summed up his subjects’ ‘wiseguy’ lifestyle in three words: “Want. Take. Simple.”

Martin Scorsese filming GoodFellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese filming GoodFellas (1990)

The startling opening sequence of GoodFellas, depicting the brutal stabbing and shooting of mobster Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in a car trunk, plunges the audience smack into the lethal fast-track world of the professional hoodlum. The scene ends with the camera frozen on the face of Henry. “As far back as I can remember,” he infamously narrates, “I always wanted to be a gangster.”

We then go back to Brooklyn in the 1950s, at the beginning of the story, where we learn how young Henry (played by Christopher Serrone), a brash half-Irish, half-Sicilian kid, got his start as a runner for neighbourhood capo Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Scorsese charts Hill’s rise through the Mafioso ranks during the 1960s and late 70s, culminating with his gang’s $5m theft of cash and jewels stored in a vault at JFK airport. The plot is based on the December 1978 Lufthansa Airlines heist, the largest robbery ever committed on American soil at the time.

The film’s style is intoxicating. The early scenes have the aesthetic appearance of an Edward Hopper painting, where a melancholic, buttery light spills out from street lamps and tenement windows. Michael Ballhaus’s camera never stands still, and the lush colours are ramped up throughout, into something garish and nauseating. Later, Henry’s rampant cocaine use becomes the visual cue for rapid edits and tilted angles, all combining to capture his palpitating and paranoid state.

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Audacious in conception and in execution, GoodFellas remains unequalled in the crowded field of the gangster genre. But it’s also a movie – like all of Scorsese’s very cine-literate work – with its feet in film history. The director has always taken ideas and inspiration from the films he loves, and GoodFellas is no exception. Here are five of the most prominent influences.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Director Edwin S. Porter

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The final close-up shot of Tommy (Joe Pesci) shooting at the camera in GoodFellas pays homage to the grand tradition of outlaws on film, more specifically Edwin S. Porter’s 12-minute silent picture, The Great Train Robbery, where the bandit leader, played by Justus D. Barnes, empties his pistol point blank in the direction of the camera. In an interview with the American Film Institute, Scorsese explained the connection between his film and Porter’s: “Basically, in GoodFellas, it’s a bunch of criminals who do this incredible robbery. And then they all kill each other, and the police get them at the end. It’s exactly the same story.”

The Public Enemy (1931)

Director William A. Wellman

The Public Enemy (1931)

The first gangster movie Scorsese ever saw – “This picture led the way for all of us” – The Public Enemy remains one of the most influential hallmarks in the genre, and its influence can still be felt today. James Cagney plays the swaggering hell-raiser Tommy Powers, who – like Pesci’s later on-screen persona – is able to masterfully switch his character from periods of teasing and playfulness to unbridled, pathological rage. The similarities are undeniable. Scorsese has also cited the film for influencing his decision to pair popular music in GoodFellas with brutal on-screen violence.

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

Director Lloyd Bacon

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)

While play-acting the role of James Cagney’s character in the 1939 cowboy picture The Oklahoma Kid, Tommy – who thinks of himself as a western outlaw – commits a senseless and unprovoked attack at a card game. To speed up the young bartender, ‘Spider’ (Michael Imperioli), Tommy shoots at the floor “western style”, ordering him to “dance the fucking drink back”. He shoots ‘Spider’ in the foot, and at the next game kills him. It was the only scene Warner Brothers suggested cutting from the film.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Director Raoul Walsh

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Often cited as the template for GoodFellas and Casino (1995), The Roaring Twenties plays like a journal of the life of a typical gangster of the period, paralleled with the evolution of the country during a roaring decade. Achieving an epic scale – following the rise and fall of prohibition racketeer Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) from the trenches of the First World War to the stock market crash of 1929 – this archetypal gangster story encompasses both the flamboyance and the gripping realism of Scorsese’s movie.

Jules et Jim (1962)

Director François Truffaut

Jules et Jim (1962)

No other film gets mentioned more in terms of influences on GoodFellas than François Truffaut’s classic Jules et Jim. In an interview for the book Scorsese on Scorsese, by David Thompson and Ian Christie, the director describes how he wanted his film to look, in terms of narrative and structure. By utilising the storytelling innovations of the French New Wave – with its multiple freeze frames, voiceovers, direct addressing of the camera, long tracking-shots and flash-forwards – Scorsese combined them all together with a distinctly American story to create something extraordinary and unforgettable.

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