Goodfellas (1990)

What’s your favorite shot from Goodfellas? I know, I know. It’s like asking which of your children you love the most. The sheer rewatchability of the seminal mafia film is largely due to the intimate composition of each shot, the flow of one into the next, the exhilarating pace of it all. Goodfellas arguably has more flashy camerawork than any other Martin Scorsese film, but it never feels out of place or discordant with the story. It helped that the Director of Photography was the legendary Michael Ballhaus, a cinematographer who worked frequently with Scorsese. In fact, it helped that pretty much everyone on the production was at the top of their game.

So the time has come: the pick of the litter, the crème de la crème, the nonpareil of Goodfellas shots. There’s the slow-mo Tommy Gun shot, the red-lit trunk shot, the explosion as Young Henry dashes into the foreground. There’s The One Where Samuel L. Jackson’s Stacks Gets Shot Out of Nowhere. Guns are pointed directly at the camera twice, and either time could qualify for short odds in this cinematography round robin.

Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas (1990)

There’s the Vertigo shot, one of the more drawn-out examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous camera trick:

There are too many to possibly name them all — we’d be posting the entire movie. Scenes like the one below are composed flawlessly of shots that aren’t only impressive on their own, but work together for a fluid experience:

I love how the ostensible focus of the scene is the neighborly feud while the real focus is Henry’s gun; the story’s all there from the beginning, told in quick close-ups of the weapon scattered throughout the more widely-framed shots. Again, fluid is probably the best word here — the cinematography and shot-by-shot editing of Goodfellas is all about the fluidity, whether we’re being whisked around a mafia bar or paraded through a wedding in progress. Many of the methodical zoom ins and zoom outs of the Layla Scene are contenders for the prestigious Best Shot Award as well, especially the freezer truck shot:

Then, of course, we have the most famous sequence of the film: the Copacabana Shot. Undoubtedly one of the best tracking shots in history, Henry and Karen’s entrance into the Copacabana Club is Goodfellas at its finest. You’ve seen the shot itself a zillion times, so here it is prefaced by commentary from Scorsese, Ballhaus, Nicholas Pileggi and more:

So, yeah: asserting that any single shot is the single best shot in the entirety of Goodfellas is essentially a good way to make yourself look like an idiot. Seeing as how that ship has long since sailed in my case, I’m going with Jimmy Conway’s barroom death stare. Compared to many of the individual shots we’ve touched on here, this might seem like nothing special. It’s a slow zoom, and the subject isn’t the revelation of a dead body or Henry Hill’s gun or a disorienting Vertigo effect — it’s just Jimmy Conway, one of the ultimate Robert De Niro characters, one of the ultimate film characters period, and he’s just standing and smoking a cigarette:

Of course, Jimmy’s doing a hell of a lot more than smoking a cigarette. This is the moment when Jimmy realizes the insufferable wig salesman Morrie has to be offed. Jimmy’s plotting, he’s pushing aside any mixed feelings he has about the guy, he’s going through the steps without leaving the bar. He’s killing Morrie in his head. Due respect to all actors and actresses, but De Niro is one of the few who can say and embody so damn much by simply remaining motionless. Here is an entire article about that.

So De Niro is standing still. How can that possibly make for the most memorable shot in a film composed of memorable shots? For the same reason Goodfellas as a whole operates with shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene fluidity (which Scorsese described as “starting as a gunshot and getting faster from there”), Jimmy Conway not moving works because everything else is so in motion. Pesci’s the obvious foil, one of the most manic live-wire actors ever put in front of a camera. But even in this scene there’s so much happening around Jimmy — he’s the center of gravity, pulling all of the chaos into orbit and keeping it there. Even so, it’s the chaos inside him that’s so impressive. Jimmy’s in a world of his own — there’s a guy on the left side of the screen talking to him, but all we hear is “Sunshine of Your Love” because the guy’s really talking to no one — and this shot pulls us into that world with more effectiveness than any other single shot in the film.

Scorsese and Ballhaus are as much responsible as De Niro, of course, because they knew the actor was exactly the kind of guy that could handle a slow zoom while magically turning stillness into motion. Scorsese knew his actors, plain and simple, which is why there are no close-ups in the “funny how?” scene (so you can see the reactions of the other mobsters packed into the frame); it’s why he allowed so much improvisation from all of the actors, and why he’d often leave out certain details when explaining the scenes to extras to ensure their reactions would be genuine; and it’s why Jimmy Conway’s death stare is so perfect, as the people in front of and behind the camera are so fully on the same page about what’s happening. Even when what’s happening appears to be nothing.

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