GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

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Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1968)

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Martin Scorsese’s debut is pretty amateurish but nonetheless interesting for the array of influences integrated into a familiar story utilising those tropes that became enmeshed in his narratives – Little Italy, immature men on the make, guilt. An absurdly young looking Harvey Keitel is JR who falls for the arty Girl (Zina Bethune) but can’t deal with her after she tells him she was raped. The visual and verbal cues to Anger, Ford, Godard and Hawks are clear and the film’s centerpiece is more student than expert – a sex dream choreographed to The End by The Doors. But the final images are more clearly Catholic than anything else you’ll see in his work and kudos to his NYU film school professor Haig Manoogian who pretty much financed this. Read The Film Maker’s Art if you get a chance – published in 1966, it’s still a fine piece of work. His wife Betzi contributed to the dialogue, Mama S made calzone, while Thelma Schoonmaker edited – not for the last time. And Mean Streets was yet to come…