Monday, January 5, 2009

My Favorite Scene: GoodFellas

Choose what you will: Joe Pesci’s manically brilliant “I’m funny how?” interrogation; discovering all the bodies to the piano-end of “Layla”; Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled, maddened day of demise scored by some of history’s greatest rock songs. Every scene of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mafia-crime saga is staged, pop perfection. GoodFellas is a film full of passionate sequences that have had a hand at influencing some of the best young filmmakers today.

I first saw GoodFellas when I was 12 and one scene in particular has been impossible to shake. A scene so shocking in its execution, that it has been known to ruin the rest of the film for some viewers. With a movie comprised of one startling scene after another, it comes as no surprise that its most breathtaking moment comes first.

The film opens with a car cruising down a dark highway. We cut to inside the car, Liotta behind the wheel, dazed and rubbing his eyes, Robert De Niro asleep in the passenger seat, Pesci dozing off in the back. Suddenly we hear a loud thud. Then another and another. Car trouble? Did they hit something? Suddenly a wave of disbelief forms over the characters’ eyes. “No,” Liotta exclaims, holding out the word in doubt.
They pull over in secluded woods. Lit by the harsh red glow of the taillights, the three Italian-suited men stand behind the car, looking at the trunk. De Niro motions for Liotta to pop the trunk. As Liotta moves closer to the car, Pesci reaches in his suit pocket, pulling out a devastatingly large butcher knife. The trunk flies open. It’s a nightmare.

A bloody mess of a man, beaten to a pulp, gasps for breath, pleading for his life. “He’s still alive!” Pesci yells as he moves over the man, stabbing him in the chest again and again and again (and again). De Niro moves in a shoots the man once, twice, six times. Liotta walks over to the trunk, suddenly his narration booms over the soundtrack proclaiming one of the best lines in motion picture history: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” BOOM, he slams the trunk and Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” begins to play.

It happens so fast, that you’ll have to remind yourself to blink, let alone breathe. What the hell just happened? Who the hell was that? Who ARE these people?
When Scorsese was done writing the script with Nicholas Pileggi, he knew he needed something more. A kick to jolt the viewers and prepare them for the life he was about to present. He did a risky thing. He took a scene from the middle of the movie and put it in the beginning, knowing the audience wouldn’t find out what it was for another hour. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t pay off.

For the rest of the film, you won’t be able to forget that opening. Even after we find out who the guy is and how he got in the trunk, you’ll remember the nod De Niro gives Liotta, the way Pesci casually pulls the knife out, how Liotta slams the trunk shut.

Rarely does a movie set its tone so perfectly. Yes, GoodFellas is a violent film. But Scorsese never stylizes the violence; he never makes it “look cool”.
Instead he presents three accurate decades in the life of the mafia. This is the way it was done and this is how he wants to paint it, butcher knives and all. Unlike the Godfather films, Scorsese wasn’t interested in slowly developing the characters; ultimately, he wanted to get your attention right away.

Not only does he get it, he keeps our mouths dropped in shock, where it stays for most of the film.

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