Huge ‘walkouts’ during preview screenings of big-budget films are never what you want. Unless, of course, you’re David Cronenberg, who deems any amount of audience walkouts during his body horror films to be a success. For Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas, however, it presented itself as an issue.
The problem arose with one scene in Scorsese’s iconic gangster film Goodfellas. The 1990 film isn’t only considered one of the greatest of the genre, but one of the best films ever made. Starring the late Ray Liotta alongside gangster heroes Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, the film takes a no holds barred look at the mob’s glamour and guts. It was an eye-opening experience for everybody involved, but one scene would have to be drastically edited after a run of mass walkouts during the screening process.
An iconic adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s novel Wise Guy, Scorsese’s gangster epic is an interesting meditation on the obsolescence of morality in the underworld and the violence that permeates its culture. Filmed with avant-garde energy and a restless irreverence for cinematic conventions, it is evident why Goodfellas is considered by many to be one of Scorsese’s finest. It delivers conceptually and technically in almost every facet.
“I was interested in breaking up all the traditional ways of shooting the picture,” Scorsese explained. “A guy comes in, sits down, exposition is given. So the hell with the exposition — do it on the voiceover, if need be at all. And then just jump the scene together. Not by chance. The shots are designed so that I know where the cut’s going to be. The action is pulled out of the middle of the scene, but I know where I’m going to cut it so that it makes an interesting cut.”
Scorsese did leave the action, however, in one of the opening scenes where we see Pesci as Tommy, De Niro as Jimmy and Liotta as Henry, all partake in the brutal murder of Billy Batts. The trio are driving out into the wilderness to dispose of Batts’ body when they realise he hadn’t quite shuffled off that particular mortal coil. In the movie’s original cut, the next scene sees Tommy deliver seven heinous blows to Batts with a knife, stabbing him in full view of the screen. The violence sent test audiences packing and left Scorsese with a puzzle to unpick.
With such visceral violence an essential component of the story Scorsese was trying to tell, he made a deal to cut the on-screen stabbings down to just three and allow sound effects to add in the extra four blows, feeling that all seven were required to show the brutality of Pesci’s Tommy. The change hardly hinders the film, and what unfurls is perhaps the most incredible story Scorsese has ever had the privilege to tell.
Watch Goodfellas on Netflix now.