An analysis of Goodfellas’ cinema redefining single take tracking shot.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective on the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Some filmmakers are better than others at seeing the movie in their heads.
For example, here’s a passage from Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 non-fiction novel about the American mafia, Wiseguys:
“On crowded nights, when people were lined up outside and couldn’t get in, the doormen used to let Henry and our party in through the kitchen, which was filled with Chinese cooks, and we’d go upstairs and sit down immediately.”
When they adapted the book into the 1990 film, Goodfellas, this one sentence––just forty words––is all director Martin Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, needed to create this:
A two-and-half minute single shot follows mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wide-eyed new girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as they enter the Copacabana club. They don’t enter through the front door like the rest of the riff raff, but through the back door, down the stairwell, through the kitchen, and straight to the front of the stage, where a table is waiting just for them.
The sequence is a spaceship taking off from a launch pad, filled with sensuality, dizziness, and the pure fun that comes with being in the mafia in the mid-20th century. It also helps that the song Scorsese uses to soundtrack the entire sequence, The Crystal’s 1963 “Then He Kissed Me” evokes the same feelings all by itself. The scene single-handedly expresses the film’s theme of moral corruption while also making us want to sell our souls to the mafia underworld immediately just so we can have a tiny piece of this VIP dinner.
This shot–The Copa Shot as it’s now known–gets justified praise for its technical craft. Keep in mind a human being, Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, had to walk through all these twisting hallways and steep stairs carrying very expensive equipment without killing himself or others.
But it’s more than just a cool shot. It’s an entire short film within the larger film itself, with it’s own cast of colorful characters, hijinks, and inside jokes. If Scorsese only had the budget to make this one sequence, it would still be considered one of his crowning achievements, and still should have beaten Dances With Wolves for the 1990 Best Picture Oscar.
Filmmakers can make the mistake of thinking that using one elaborate long take is enough to coast on, but The Copa Shot perseveres because it has intent, and a beginning, middle, and end. It’s also endlessly fascinating to re-watch. When you really digest it moment by moment, its genius becomes that much more apparent.
It’s an entire short film within the larger film itself, with it’s own cast of colorful characters, hijinks, and inside jokes.
Let’s start with the first image: a close up of Henry Hill’s hand placing a $20 bill (the first of many) into the palm of a guy to watch his car. As that happens, the first twinkly guitar notes are heard from “Then He Kissed Me,” which jumps into our cerebral cortexes, forever mashing this song and scene together in our memories.
From the very start we know the deal. This Henry guy is powerful, has connections, and can do whatever he wants at all times. We don’t even need the previous hour of the movie to know this (though that hour is pretty good, too). When Karen asks why he’s leaving his nice car with a stranger, Henry responds with the happy-go-lucky confidence you would expect from a dude with huge amounts of cash and a few murders under his belt.
Like Karen, we are immediately put under his spell. The next moment, they walk right past the long line leading into the Copa and go down a back stairwell, leading Karen and the audience into a world filled with new possibilities and adventure. Henry says, “I like going this way. It’s better than waiting in line.” That breezily sums up the entire movie.
After handing out another $20 to a doorman, they pass a dude named Gino who is just randomly eating a sandwich in a hallway. Who is Gino? What does he do? What kind of sandwich is he eating and why is he choosing to eat it in this random hallway? We may never know, but that sandwich looks delicious.
They keep walking down the shadowy hallway and come across our next set of fun characters––a random couple making out. Henry teasingly says to them, “Every time I come here. Every time you two! Don’t you work?” The only reason these characters exist is because the camera operator needed Ray Liotta to stall so the Steadicam could catch up to him, but their random existence adds so much nuance and backstory in just a few seconds.
“Every time I come here” makes it obvious that Henry has come here enough times that entering through the back is normal, and he has done it enough times to run into these people making out a lot. The last line–– “Don’t you work?–– also brings up the question, what do these people do at this club, and why haven’t they been fired yet? I’m assuming Gino is their boss and does not mind what happens while he eats his hallway sandwich.
The next section of the scene is when things go up another level. Henry and Karen take a left into the Copa’s bustling, chaotic kitchen, where cooks, busboys, and waiters are running in all directions, barely avoiding the camera by inches. The sound design filled with overlapping dialogue and anxious commotion makes you practically sweat from the heat. We are only one minute into this shot and we’ve lived through five movies’ worth of character development and world building.
Henry and Karen circle around the kitchen before going back into the hallway. Somewhere between my 1,000th and 2,000th time watching this movie, I noticed the same nondescript fire hose on the far end of the hallway that gives away the fact that they literally just walked in a circle. Why take the time and energy to walk in a circle through a dirty kitchen? “Because the light is beautiful,” according to cinematographer, Ballhaus. You can’t really argue.
We then get to final section of the scene, Henry and Karen reach the end of their epic journey. They find themselves in a large cabaret theater filled with extras crammed into every inch of the frame. I like to imagine all of these people waiting patiently for the first 75% of this shot to unfold before getting their time to shine.
The maitre-d orders a busboy, Anthony, to bring out a table just for Henry and Karen, who is still in disbelief. The camera follows the table until it’s planted right in the front of the stage. Imagine you go through a rough week at work, you get dressed up for a nice night out for dinner and a show, you wait in line for hours, get a great table for the show, and then someone puts another table in front of yours. It doesn’t seem to matter though, because everyone who just got screwed out of prime viewing immediately shakes Henry’s hand like he’s the President and the Pope rolled into one nice suit.
After Henry passes out a few more $20s, he and Karen sit down with a nice bottle of wine from a neighboring table. “What do you do?” Karen asks. “I work in construction,” Henry replies––the universal job description for mafia employees. It may be easy to question Karen for not being immediately suspicious. Henry obviously didn’t get a prime table at the Copa for pushing dirt around, but after walking through this dream along with her, it’s almost impossible to wake up from it.The shot only took eight takes, and filming was done by lunch.
Obviously, this scene is just one incredible piece in the larger masterpiece puzzle that is Goodfellas. But The Copa Shot stands on its own, not only for its technical mastery and great song selection, but for how it depicts the sexy, dangerous world by skipping a line, because waiting in line is for suckers.