The Copacabana sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is an iconic moment within the canon of popular cinema. For a scene so short and simple in its execution, its continued appeal is a testament to Scorsese’s genius, perhaps his greatest collaboration with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Indeed, twenty-six years later, new innovations have saturated the film industry with technically impressive camera work, yet the Cobacabana sequence remains revered; only around three minutes in length, it is often cited as a masterwork of cinematography and storytelling.
Single-take sequences are fast becoming a staple of mainstream cinema. In 2015, the commercially successful films Spectre, Creed, and The Revenant all featured extended scenes shot in what appeared to be solitary, unbroken takes (although often stitched together in post-production). Two years ago, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar winning comedy, Birdman, seemed to be entirely comprised of one continuous shot. Considering the prevalence of the Steadicam in modern multiplexes, what is it that makes Goodfellas worth coming back to after all this time?
In essence, Scorsese uses his camera to tell a story. Technical showmanship should never be employed for its own sake; the camera exists in support of the narrative, and nowhere is this clearer than in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. As the camera weaves behind our two protagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), we follow their journey into another world. For Henry, it is a familiar one; he moves confidently and with ease, echoed by the smooth tracking of the camera behind him – our gaze never breaks away as one life transitions into another. Karen’s experience is altogether less assured – it is her first introduction to Henry and the unconventional life he leads. Much like the hubbub of the Copa’s kitchen, the shot is an assault on the senses, taking in exteriors, corridors, a kitchen, a dining room, and finally a table right next to the stage. In a film that enjoys feeding us a near-constant voice-over, this single shot tells us all we need to know without saying a word.
Of course, it would be a crime not to consider the technical achievement of the shot. The whole sequence, in all its complexity, was blocked, lit, and shot in half a day. Steadicam operator Larry McConkey has explained the difficulty he faced in blending close and wide shots within such a tight frame – it was this issue that necessitated the brief moments of interaction between Ray Liotta and the others in the hallway. Later, when Henry and Karen take a turn through the kitchen, they actually walk in an extended circle and exit through the same way they came in, which is hidden through well-timed changes in extras and scenery dressing. Michael Ballhaus discussed the struggle he faced in ensuring that every actor and movement was timed perfectly for the duration of the shot. Yet after only eight takes, cinema history had been made.
Scorsese returns to screens this year with the long awaited Silence, but it remains my opinion that Goodfellas represents his best work. The Copacabana shot demonstrates that a story may be told just as effectively through action as with words or dialogue. It has always been my belief that Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing has had much to do with the iconography of Martin Scorsese’s films, but Goodfellas shows just how effective he can be without a single cut.