Take the Shot: Sequence Shots in Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS
12 May 2013
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” is the line that opens Martin Scoresese’s film Goodfellas (1990), a biographical film about Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and the real-life Lucchese crime family. The film, adapted from the 1986 book Wiseguys, traces Henry’s rise and fall in New York’s mob scene. Henry evolves into mobster quickly and, at first, Henry is on top of the world; he marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), begins a family, and becomes quite successful in his chosen line of work. However, and as is often the case with organized crime, tensions rise and, amid other things, Henry gets further and further involved in the drug trade. Henry’s temperament changes; he becomes edgy, frantic, and unpredictable. During one climactic raid on their home, Karen flushes a large package of cocaine, which leaves Henry broke and vulnerable. Overwhelmed and realizing his erratic behavior has made him a target with some of his associates, Henry enters the Witness Protection Program, freeing himself of the crime family he always wanted to be a part of.
Martin Scorsese has a few trademarks as a film director. For example, his uses of freeze framing, slow-motion, and non-linear narrative structure are just a few of the cinematic stamps Scorsese often marks his films with. While countless directors use these effects, there is something unquestionable unique about the way Scorsese systematically communicates his films through these recursive devices, and, when looking at his entire filmography, the threads these devices weave binds his body of work together in a collective signature style. This is Martin Scorsese as auteur.
Furthermore, long takes (or oners) and more sophisticated sequence shots are other elements in Scorsese’s signature auteur style. Long takes (oners) can be defined as a continuous take, usually several minutes (longer than a film’s average take) which creates a heightened sense of realism for the audience. Sequence shots are long takes, in a way, however a sequence shot will, typically, explore more detail through complicated and refined camerawork with a balance of sound, lighting, etc. In Goodfellas, Scorsese explores both type of takes, but it is his use of sequence shots, primarily within the first 45 minutes of the film, which highlight Henry’s power and control during his early years in organized crime and, simultaneously foreshadow this power and control will not last.
The first of two significant sequence shots in Goodfellas made headlines upon the film’s release for being, at that time, one of the longest single takes in American film history. This is the scene when Henry takes Karen to the Copacabana nightclub, entering the establishment from the backdoor and walking through the kitchen. With the camera primarily placed behind the couple, the sequence begins with Henry tipping a valet outside the club, then follows the couple as they walk across the street, in the back door, down the stairs, through narrow, red hallways, through the kitchen, and finally completing the labyrinth when they arrive inside the nightclub where a table is set just for them.
This sequence shot is not randomly placed in the film for Scorsese to flaunt; the shot holds more value than simply being one of the longest takes in American cinema at the time. The sequence shot in Goodfellas communicates Henry Hill’s control and stability as a young adult in New York’s organized crime world. By filming Henry and Karen’s entrance without a cut Scorsese reveals the power Henry has in that moment. Henry is tipping staff, joking with people he and Karen encounter on their way into the nightclub, and literally guiding Karen throughout the kitchen; Henry is moving in a clear, focused direction and he is in control; seemingly, the camera is doing its best just to keep up with Henry because it is Henry who is calling the shot. During this moment in his life, Henry is at his peak; he is consistent, and by maintaining an uninterrupted shot Scorsese is able to subtly communicate Henry’s prominence to the audience.
The second sequence shot in Goodfellas is when Henry attacks Karen’s male neighbor, who she claims hit her. This sequence shot is not quite as long as the previous one—perhaps noting some of Henry’s control and stability is already slipping away—, but it is a brilliantly filmed scene that, once again, communicates Henry’s power. After snatching his gun from under the seat of his car, Henry casually but intently walks across the suburban street to where this neighbor and two of his friends are swigging pop and working on a red convertible in the driveway. A dog barks in the distance, music jumps from the convertible’s speakers, and the far-off sounds of sprinklers signal a community of middle-class residents taking pride in landscaping their homes during the summer’s hot months. The scene is picturesque, that is until Henry gets close enough to the neighbor to land a punch. Henry takes this male neighbor down to the ground and repeatedly smashes the handle of his gun into the man’s now bloodied face. No cuts and frozen in a long shot, the camera idles as Henry pummels this man. The sound of each punch seems to grow louder as the savage violence of the incident plays out. When he is done, Henry turns around and walks away, leaving the disfigured man on the ground and his friends shaking in fear.
This sequence shot is penetrating; without a cut or any camera movement at all there is nothing to distract the audience’s eye from witnessing this nightmare. There is no break in continuity and no escape from the reality this type of shot establishes. In the second sequence shot, Henry is still very much in charge. He is uninterrupted, and, like the shot, his power cannot be broken.
However, both of these sequence shots pay special attention to sound effects, which adds to the sophistication and complexity in this takes, as well as foreshadows Henry’s ultimate demise. In the first shot, a prominent piece of non-diegetic sound, the song “Then He Kissed Me,” plays over the scene. The song is upbeat, as well as sweet and innocent. Moreover, the typical diegetic sounds of a kitchen, doors opening, and footsteps emphasize how ordinary this setting is. He may be in charge, but Henry is not upbeat, sweet, innocent, or ordinary; Henry runs this shot, yet, on some level, he does not actually fit in. In the second sequence shot, the barking dogs, sprinklers, and stereo’s tune also signal how commonplace and domestic the shot is, yet Henry is the antithesis of commonplace and domestic. Once again, he may be powerful, but he is a fish out of water in both sequence shots, and the sound effects are the biggest tip-off to his glaring misplacement.
From a certain perspective, the sarcasm of “The He Kissed Me” and suburban sprinklers highlights how incompatible Henry actually is in the ordinary life he, a mobster, attempts to lead. These complex sequence shots effectively display Henry’s power, strength, and stability in his early years with the mafia, and also, very subtly, convey that even powerful people (or, perhaps, especially powerful people) may not fit in with their surroundings, and are, therefore, in danger of being bumped out. As foreshadowed by these shots, Henry eventually feels out-of-place in his world and runs the very serious risk of being bumped out by his associates. Thus, importantly, these sequence shots stop in Goodfellas as Henry loses control and begins his epic, erratic fall from mobster-grace.
Unquestionably, Scorsese’s initial emphasis on sequence shots and then omission of these sophisticated longer takes communicates Henry’s rise and fall intelligently because the communication is nearly entirely cinematic; the camerawork tells the story, not the dialogue. It is thrilling to watch an auteur so well versed in the language of cinema communicate a film in his style to an audience.