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DVD Pick: "Goodfellas" Special Edition

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Based on a true story, Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990) is an unforgettable biopic about a low-level mobster named Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). I think what makes the movie so compelling is Scorsese's close observation of the details of Hill's extraordinary world, which includes his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), gangsters Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro), and Mafia capo Paulie (Paul Sorvino). Now this great film is available as a two-disc Special Edition DVD set.

"Goodfellas" is based on the nonfiction book "Wiseguy" by Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated with Scorsese on the screenplay. The book title refers to Henry Hill, who claims the mobsters in his world called themselves wiseguys or, apparently less frequently, goodfellas. But by the time Scorsese's movie was released in 1990, there had already been an unrelated television show titled "Wiseguy" that ran from 1987 to 1989. To differentiate Scorsese's film from the TV series, the rather faithful screen adaptation of Pileggi's book ended up being titled "Goodfellas."

One of my favorite sequences in "Goodfellas" is when Henry is about 21 and courting Karen, who will become his wife. He takes her to Manhattan’s famed Copacabana, where they bypass a long line of people waiting to get in and enter via a side door. They then take a long walk through the kitchen, during which Henry banters with Copa employees. Finally, they reach the showroom, where the maitre d' immediately has a table brought out and set up for them right in the front. I think Scorsese does a brilliant job in this sequence of showing how Henry and Karen are seduced by the special treatment that Mafia connections could get them.

To my way of thinking, Scorsese is a genius at choosing soundtrack music to perfectly complement his stories. For example, most of the Copacabana sequence described above is accompanied by The Crystals singing "Then He Kissed Me." Or consider how Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches" is used to communicate Henry's hopes and dreams when he was a boy growing up in poverty. And as the movie winds down, after Henry's decades as a mobster have come to an end, I can't think of anything more fitting than Sid Vicious doing his punk version of Sinatra's "My Way."
But one of the things I like about Scorsese movies is that they don't rely entirely on visuals and music to tell the story—the spoken word is important too. I think the best illustration of this in "Goodfellas" is built around the performance of Joe Pesci as the explosive Tommy. One night the wiseguys are hanging out at the Bamboo Lounge, and Tommy tells a story that makes everyone laugh, prompting Henry to tell him that he's funny. The easily offended Tommy seems to become more and more belligerent as he intimidatingly badgers Henry for an explanation. The tension mounts, and although Henry is eventually able to partially defuse the situation, Tommy still ends up bashing the Lounge's proprietor over the head with a bottle. It seems to me that one of the things Scorsese shows in this sequence is that a mobster can never afford to relax.

The "Goodfellas" Special Edition DVD set provides two separate audio commentary tracks, and I found the one titled "The Cop and Crook" to be much the more entertaining and informative of the two. I've never heard DVD commentary quite like this, which is by the real-life Henry Hill and the real-life Ed McDonald, the assistant U.S. attorney responsible for prosecuting the criminals depicted in the film. Hill says that the character Paulie in the movie is based on one of the four captains of the Lucchese family, one of the five New York crime families. McDonald states that the federal government wasn't much involved in the war against organized crime before the late 1970s, and it wasn't until they began to focus on labor racketeering that they made much headway against the Mafia.

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