In the middle of the NFT (or BFI for the new-fangled) screening of Scorsese’s classic, the fire alarm went off. A blur of red encroached on the screen as Liotta’s lover’s boss was being given the once over. For a second, I thought it was another of the director’s tricks, before the film came to a sudden halt and it was apparent the red blur was the house lights. In this instance it wasn’t a Scorsese device. But what’s so refreshing about watching Goodfellas is to note how playful and adventurous it is. With the lighting, or in the edit or the soundtrack. In the program notes, Scorsese acknowledges his debt to the French New Wave. The freeze frame, the way of narrating using a feverish Godardian edit style, the irreverence of the music. It’s hard to think of any mainstream filmmakers in the US or the UK who are willing or allowed to do indulge themselves and play with the medium like this. In a comedy or a musical perhaps, before anyone mentions La La Land, but not in what would now be described as a ‘drama.’
Scorsese’s bold narrative style is beautifully wedded to the epic narrative. He handles the passing of time dextrously, loving the challenge. Costume, music and art design are tools he relishes. When we returned from the fire alarm, after a chilly pause of ten minutes, the scene which had been playing before we left was repeated. It was the introduction to Henry Hill’s lover’s apartment. Watching the scene twice in the space of ten minutes allowed the viewer to truly process the depth of information and detail which each frame possesses. The throwaway remarks which get lost in the rapid-fire dialogue. This apartment perhaps features in just three scenes in the film, but the work that has gone in to making the apartment perfect is all there. This detail accumulates. There are no short cuts. We are immersed in a world we completely believe in and this helps to raise Scorsese’s films to another level. We’re not watching a gangster flick; for two hours plus we’re sharing Henry and his wife’s lives with them.
Another thing the director says in the notes is that he wanted the film to be like a documentary. It isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. There’s too much flair, too much authorial incidence. But you know where he’s coming from. When young Henry looks out at the gangsters who populate the shop across his New York street, you know that this could be the young Scorsese. I think it was Barthes who declared that all writing is autobiography. With Scorsese, all filmmaking is autobiography. The more he honours this adage, the better his films. Goodfellas has a panache and a lust for life which still dazzles and feels modern, nearly thirty years after it was made.