Three mobsters charge down the highway in a Buick La Sabre. When they hear a thumping in the trunk, the worn-out mafiosos pull over. There’s talk about a flat, but they know it’s not. Billy Batts is still alive inside. Lit hellish red by the car’s taillights, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) nods for Henry (Ray Liotta) to open the trunk as Tommy (Joe Pesci) pulls a kitchen knife from his jacket. Once they’re sure Batts isn’t breathing, Liotta delivers one of the most iconic opening voice-overs in cinema.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Adapted by Martin Scorsese and reporter Nicholas Pileggi from the latter’s book, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, Scorsese’s gangster epic GoodFellas (1990) tells the true story of mobster-turned-informant, Henry Hill. It’s an intimate and unvarnished look at the American mob, and “arguably the single most influential gangster film ever made after The Godfather” according to Rolling Stone. From the opening scene, it’s Liotta’s voice-over that guides the audience through Hill's rise and fall, detailing the extravagant and everyday aspects of being a wiseguy, including lavish nights at the Copacabana and the consequences of crime.
Though it’s kind of Scorsese’s signature, a lot of people don’t like voice-over in film. Even Pileggi has commented that voice-over is often used to “patch a little crack in the script”, but it’s the pork in GoodFellas’ prison tomato sauce. In his original review, Roger Ebert begins by quoting the “always wanted to be a gangster” line and goes on to suggest that the voice-over is "crucial to the movie’s success" because it’s “not an outsider’s view”. Henry’s story is authentic, it’s not fiction but it’s perfect for cinema. This is something Scorsese’s hero, British filmmaker Michael Powell recognised when he read the script – a “masterpiece” he compared to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity – and asked, somewhat astonished, “how have you managed to sustain the action and narration side by side?”
For Scorsese, the voice-over is “the web that [Hill’s] spinning as a personality, he’s getting you to like him and that’s the danger of the character”. Judging by how iconic that line has become, and how often it's been celebrated and spat out, a lot of people didn’t get the ironic warning at the beginning of the film. In this YouTube supercut, it’s used as the frame to glorify Mob violence in film, TV and videogames, while it’s parodied in an iconic episode of Community called “Contemporary American Poultry” and is used as an example of GoodFellas’ quotability in this countdown on the 50 most quotable films of all time. Hell, we even put it on kids’ clothing and used it to exemplify Scorsese’s entire oeuvre in a commercial for our SCORSESE exhibition.
But the line also tears down the myth of the Italian American gangster in cinema. By framing Henry’s story with this assertion, and beginning it at the moment these characters’ lives unravel, Scorsese resists the glamorisation that his own movie seems to be suggesting, much like he would later do in The Wolf of Wall St. GoodFellas is a warning shot at the head and the allure of criminality is dead by the time Henry, so slick and sharply dressed throughout the film, is reduced to a paranoid wreck sniffing away his soul and searching the sky for helicopters. The helicopters aren’t in his head though, the illusion is, and it all evaporates when he’s caught, turns on his friends and ends up living “like a schnook”, the one thing that he hoped to avoid by being a gangster.
And while that line is iconic, GoodFellas as a whole is even more so. It’s considered a major influence on everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson, and is also lauded for helping kick off prestige TV via its impact on The Sopranos, not just because so many cast members appeared in David Chase’s groundbreaking show, but because it “punctured the whole family-and-honor myth... put forth by movies like The Godfather” that The Sopranos further deconstructed.
As the opening shows, these mobsters are sociopaths. Henry wanting to be gangsters like them is his downfall.
– Matt Millikan