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Goodfellas is still the greatest gangster movie ever made

On the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘Goodfellas’, Ed Power revisits the shocking and uproarious Scorsese classic that revitalised the gangster genre and transformed it forever

Martin Scorsese had a lump in his throat and a cold ache in his belly as he arrived at the Venice Film Festival. It was 1988, two years before his gangster opus Goodfellas. But as his private jet touched down at Marco Polo airport, motormouthed mobsters from Brooklyn were the last thing on his mind.

He was in Venice to unveil his transgressive retelling of the New Testament, The Last Temptation of Christ. Amid fears of an ugly stand-off with hardline Christians, there were plans for 100 mounted police to create a cordon around the Palazzo del Cinema di Venezia on the evening of the screening.

This seemed entirely prudent. Several hours ahead of the premiere, an excommunicated archbishop had staged a protest march through St Mark’s Square. He was followed by a wooden cross emblazoned with the words “Scorsese’s film is blasphemous”.

The director’s nerves were on edge, then, as he strode through the lobby of his hotel, across from the Palazzo. Those jitters grew even sharper when a young man sprang from the shadows and proffered a hand. A scrum of security guards descended on the guy, whom Scorsese recognised as an up-and-coming actor in consideration for his next picture.

“I’d seen Ray Liotta in Something Wild, Jonathan Demme’s film; I really liked him,” Scorsese would tell GQ magazine in 2010. “I had a lot of bodyguards around me. Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behaviour at that moment.”

Scorsese’s next picture was, of course, Goodfellas. And Liotta’s chutzpah paid off, with the director overruling his reluctant producers and casting the unheard-of 34-year-old in the lead. As Goodfellas marks its 30th anniversary on 19 September, the actor – who had been in Venice with his indie movie Dominick and Eugene – will surely look back on that encounter with Scorsese and thank his stars he had been so forward.

Goodfellas, it hardly needs pointing out, is a masterpiece. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are never better as the grizzled mob mentors to Liotta’s gangster newcomer, Henry Hill (De Niro had fretted he was too old for his part, which was offered originally to…

Ed Power

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