At some point, you’re going to want to re-watch Goodfellas.
As influential as Goodfellas has been in the several decades, the true-story gangster flick, co-scripted by Nicholas Pileggi based on his nonfiction book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family,” is also heavily influenced by other works. And director Martin Scorsese, in typical fashion, has no problem revealing most of them. Where possible, I quote him on the link between the older movie and his own.
Not all 25 titles below are certain influences, but each has some significance to the making of Goodfellas. Presented in chronological order, they span 87 years of film history, including Scorsese’s own contributions, leading to the September 21, 1990, bow of one of the landmark works of American cinema.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The next to last shot of Goodfellas features Joe Pesci shooting a gun towards the camera that is a clear homage to this early Western by Edwin S. Porter. “That’s a reference right to the end of The Great Train Robbery,” Scorsese confirmed in an interview with Mark Cousins (among other places), “that’s the way that ends, that film, and basically the plot of this picture is very similar to The Great Train Robbery. It hasn’t changed, 90 years later. It’s the same story. The gunshots will always be there. He’s always going to look behind his back, he’s gotta have eyes behind his back, because they’re gonna get him someday.”
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
This 17-minute short by D.W. Griffith is credited as being the first gangster film, meaning it’s an ancestor to Scorsese’s own organized-crime films (though he does put the genre’s beginning back even further to the outlaws of The Great Train Robbery). He’s admitted this film’s inspiration, and in 2005 he selected it to be screened as part of a tribute in his honor at the Beaubourg Centre d’Art et de Culture in Paris, France. “It’s a great Lower East Side New York street film,” he said in a lecture highlighting its early editing magic. You can find the rest of that appreciation transcribed here.
The Public Enemy (1931)
This is the first gangster movie he ever saw, on a double bill with Little Caesar, which he likes less. He found William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy more truthful. The final scene with its “striking use of popular music” (“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”) is also considered clearly a source of inspiration for what Scorsese does with music in Goodfellas, ironically putting popular tunes against violent scenes. “This picture led the way for all of us,” he wrote in a list of his favorite gangster movies for The Daily Beast.
There’s more direct reference to this Howard Hawks gangster film in The Departed (notably the x’s), but it first led to Goodfellas. “In Scarface, you have an interesting situation where these characters who are really despicable are presented in a way that you like them,” he said during a talk on his earlier effort. “That was the key.”
The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
Scorsese again linked gangsters and outlaws, crime films and Westerns, by alluding to this Lloyd Bacon feature within the narrative. Pesci’s Tommy DeVito asks what that one Western is starring Humphrey Bogart then pretends to be the eponymous antihero (played by gangster film icon James Cagney) as he shoots at the feet (and shoots one foot) of “Spider” (Michael Imperioli. The genre trope of characters shooting at the feet of another actually goes back at least as far as The Great Train Robbery.
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
“In 1939, Raoul Walsh and Mark Hellinger’s classic was seen as a sendoff to the gangster genre, which seemed to have run its course,” Scorsese wrote in The Daily Beast list. “But it’s more than that. Much more. It plays like a journal of the life of a typical gangster of the period, and it covers so much ground, from the battlefields of France to the beer halls to the nightclubs, the boats that brought in the liquor, the aftermath of Prohibition, the whole rise and fall of ’20s gangsterdom, that it achieves a very special epic scale ‐ really, it was the template for GoodFellas and Casino.”
Force of Evil (1948)
In an introduction to this Abraham Polonsky film noir, Scorsese credits it as one of the major influences on Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. “Force of Evil was the first film I remember seeing that applied directly to the world I knew and saw,” he continued. See him further discuss it fondly here.
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell are well-known for their general influence on Scorsese, and Powell even went on to marry Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (she worked on Goodfellas and Scorsese had him read the Goodfellas script to get his approval). But there’s also a direct homage in Goodfellas to this adaptation of theirs of the Offenbach opera in the scene where Robert De Niro is smoking at the bar as “Sunshine of Your Love” plays. Scorsese and Schoonmaker very recently restored this film.
I Vitelloni (1953)
Overall, it’s Mean Streets that owes most to this Federico Fellini film, but as far as specific moments, the way we meet the crew via the narration by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas is lifted right from one of its early scenes. “They introduce the characters the same way,” Scorsese acknowledged while discussing the film’s influence in an interview with Charlie Rose.
Jules and Jim (1962)
No other film gets brought up more in terms of influences on Goodfellas. Well, Scorsese actually showed the Francois Truffaut-helmed French Wave classic to Pileggi to illustrate what he wanted their movie to look like in terms of its narration and structure, especially for the opening. “What I loved about those Truffaut and [Jean-Luc] Godard techniques from the early ’60s was that narrative was not that important,” he said in an interview featured in the book “Scorsese on Scorsese.” “You could stop the picture and say, ‘Listen, this is what we’re going to do right now ‐ oh, and by the way, that guy got killed ‐ and we’ll see you later.’”
It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964)
Scorsese’s very first gangster film is this short student production from his time at NYU, which like his effort from a year earlier, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, features the same sort of first-person biographical narration as Goodfellas. For more, check out what I wrote about the 15-minute film back when The Wolf of Wall Street opened.
The Rise of Louis XIV (1966)
This historical work by Roberto Rossellini is one of a few of these recommended titles on Scorsese’s own list of 85 movies everyone should see. He also has said it’s “as close as Rossellini ever got to the gangster genre [and] was definitely on my mind when I was making Goodfellas.”
Point Blank (1967)
John Boorman’s crime film starring Lee Marvin is the bridge that connects Jules and Jim and Goodfellas. Scorsese said of it, “This was one of the first movies that really took the storytelling innovations of the French New Wave ‐ the shock cuts, the flash-forwards, the abstraction ‐ and applied them to the crime genre … Boorman’s picture re-set the gangster picture on a then-modern wavelength. It gave us a sense of how the genre could pulse with the energy of a new era.”
Having worked briefly as a lighting assistant for Albert Maysles, Scorsese wound up being a lifelong fan of the documentarian and his brother, David Maysles, and he tried to emulate their observational style in his fiction work. In a quote from “Scorsese on Scorsese” on Goodfellas Scorsese says, “I wanted it to be as if I had been doing an Al and David Maysles cinema verite documentary on these guys for 25 years with the ability to walk in and out of the room with cameras.” The Maysles brothers never made a film about gangsters, so this one of bible salesmen is the closest thing. Or maybe the Hell’s Angels in Gimme Shelter fit better. Just watch all of their work.
Mean Streets (1973)
These days, too many people include The Departed as the third in a Scorsese gangster trio, wrongly leaving out this early feature crime film of his about a bunch of wise guy pals. It took similar influence from many of the films on this list so far and so was an early forbear of Goodfellas and Casino (it may also form an “Italian-American trio” with Raging Bull and Goodfellas). Smaller, more personal, less flashy and apparently not nearly as seen as the others, Mean Streets marks the beginning of Scorsese’s professional relationships with De Niro, who is in Goodfellas, and Harvey Keitel, who would have some influence on the casting of Goodfellas (see five films down).
After starting to work with documentary techniques in fiction with Mean Streets, Scorsese next made an actual documentary. It stars his mother, Catherine Scorsese, who appears in one of the most memorable scenes in Goodfellas, and his father, Charles Scorsese, who also has a small part in the later gangster movie. In his book “The Gangster Film: Fatal Success in American Cinema,” Ron Wilson links it to all of Martin Scorsese’s crime films. “Although it is not a gangster film, it is central to the understanding of the type of approach the director will take in his ‘wise guy trilogy’ … [the roots of which] lie in this awareness of one’s family and culture and its relationship to place.”
Graveyard of Honor (1975)
Kinji Fukasaku did for the Japanese Yakuza here what Scorsese did for American gangsters 15 years later, and it’s also based on a true story of the rise and fall of a real member of an organized crime organization. Also worth seeing, though it doesn’t qualify for this list, is Takashi Miike’s 2002 remake.
The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980)
The origin of Sid Vicious’s cover of “My Way,” which plays over the end credits of Goodfellas, is the soundtrack to this Sex Pistols faux documentary by Julian Temple. The whole movie is wild, but it’s the “My Way” part that fills the connection, including the way Vicious pulls a gun out and shoots into the crowd and sometimes seems to be shooting at us through the screen. It’s another nod back to The Great Train Robbery and that’s surely why the director chose this song for that moment.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s excellent gangster saga seems to be well-appreciated but is criminally not talked about enough. Scorsese is a big fan, and not just because it paired up his Raging Bull and later Goodfellas and Casino stars De Niro and Pesci. He considers Leone’s final film “one of his greatest” and also likes to imply how his being mostly a Western filmmaker again here links that genre with the gangster genre. Scorsese also recently helped restore this film and its “grand vision,” and you can hear more of what he had to say about it then here.
Camorra (a.k.a. A Complex Plot About Women, Alleys and Crimes) (1985)
Lorraine Bracco credits Lina Wertmuller for encouraging her to pursue an acting career. Bracco had been working as a model in France and did a bit of acting when she met the Oscar-nominated filmmaker, who cast her in a minor uncredited role in this Italian gangster film. Camorra stars Harvey Keitel, with whom Bracco began an affair that turned into a serious, decade-long relationship. Keitel introduced Bracco to Scorsese and convinced her to take the role of Karen Hill in Goodfellas. And their daughter together, Stella Keitel (conceived during production it seems), plays one of the Hills’ daughters. The off-screen connections are the primary interest here, but it’s also the kind of not-good but plenty fascinating film, especially in contrast to Scorsese’s kind of gangster pic, that is worth getting to know.
Something Wild (1986)
It’s never been clear if Scorsese truly got the idea himself to cast Liotta as the lead in Goodfellas based on his performance as a psycho ex-con in this Jonathan Demme movie or if it was in fact De Niro who suggested it (both stories appear in different books). Either way, Scorsese’s gangster film was supposed to be made much earlier and so after discussing the role with the director Liotta had to wait a few more years for the breakout to actually happen. Fortunately, he was patient, and fortunately, Scorsese didn’t have to go with Tom Cruise instead, as the studio wished.
The Untouchables (1987)
After making the gangster comedy (Wise Guys) that caused Scorsese to have to change the title of his movie to Goodfellas, Brian De Palma delivered this 1930s-set crime film co-starring De Niro as notorious real-life mobster Al Capone. I don’t know that Scorsese has ever confirmed it, but according to Goodfellas actress Illeana Douglas, the Steadicam tracking shot through the Copacabana was inspired by a long take through a police station in The Untouchables.
Armani Commercial II (1988)
Yes, a commercial. Many Scorsese scholars accept his commercials as short films, and this one definitely fits the qualification with or without the shot of the Armani perfume at the end. This is the second of two ads he made for the designer in the 1980s, the other for Emporio Armani (he also made a short documentary on Armani in 1990), and he’s said he “found the style” of Goodfellas while making them, discovering “how short a shot can be on the screen for an audience to register the image and understand its meaning … The commercials my concept of moving the action much quicker” (quoted in Alain Silver and James Ursini’s “The Gangster Film Reader”). I chose the latter of the two because it’s the one that was shot by Michael Ballhaus, who was also the DP on Goodfellas, and its narrative involving a woman discovering her man is cheating on her is more relevant.
Dick Tracy (1990)
Arriving in theaters a few months ahead of Goodfellas, this is one of a handful of prominent gangster films released alongside Scorsese’s that year. This is, of course, the Disneyfied, Sunday Comics version of a crime film, and it’s brilliant in different ways. It also stars Al Pacino in the first of his two 1990 mafia parts (the other being his reprisal of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III). Ironically, Pacino supposedly declined the role of Jimmy Conway because he didn’t want to be typecast, but then he did this. He also supposedly regretted the decision later, though at least he received an Oscar nomination for his part as mob boss Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy. Also in the movie are Madonna, who’d been wanted by the studio for the part of Karen Hill in Goodfellas, and Paul Sorvino, who managed to be in both movies.
My Blue Heaven (1990)
Or should we call it Goodfellas Part II, even though it also arrived shortly before Scorsese’s movie? Yes, this comedy about a gangster (Steve Martin) in the Witness Protection Program, also put out by Warner Bros., is unofficially a sequel to Goodfellas on account of it being written by Nora Ephron, wife of Pileggi, and based on the same true story. She took a lot of the research material they were working on for the Scorsese movie, obviously the stuff after Henry Hill went into protection, for her own script, and Hill acknowledged in his book “Gangsters and Goodfellas: The Mob, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run” that he and Ephron did have a lot of conversations about things that wound up on screen here instead of there. He also wrote that at first, it made him a little annoyed. “Had it been anyone else’s wife…,” he joked.
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