Martin Scorsese’s award-winning gangster flick Goodfellas references one of the earliest silent movies produced by Thomas Edison.
When you think of gangster movies, the three that invariably spring to mind straight off the bat are The Godfather, Scarface and Goodfellas. Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Goodfellas tells the story of real-life mob informer Henry Hill and his, often brutal, ascension in the world of organised crime.
Joe Pesci, who took out the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the film was nominated for six Academy Awards), plays violent enforcer Tommy DeVito. [Spoiler Alert] Although DeVito meets his demise in the film before its conclusion, he features just before the credits roll, looking directly at the screen and firing six shots of his pistol towards the audience.
According to Scorsese, the reference came from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in which a group of outlaws rob a train before being caught by the police and killed in a dramatic final shootout. The 12-minute silent film introduced a number of groundbreaking techniques to the nascent film industry including location shoots, cross-cutting editing and camera movement.
The Great Train Robbery has also been credited with popularising the medium and highlighting its commercial viability; this led to an expansion in the construction of film theaters known then as ‘nickleodeons’. A clip – unrelated in narrative to the film – of the outlaw leader (George Barnes) raising a pistol towards the camera that, at the projectionists’ discretion, could be shown either at the beginning or the end of the movie, terrified audiences.
Scorsese drew a parallel with the stories – in Goodfellas, the mobsters (outlaws) pull a robbery and they all end up dead or captured by the police – and decided to include a homage.