Iconic sequence: Goodfellas

by Ellen pentony


Few shots have been as revolutionary in modern cinema as Martin Scorsese’s one shot wonder in Goodfellas. The “Copa shot”, as it has become known, revitalised a complex and intricate technique that few had tried before, revolutionising filmmaking in the process. While the Steadicam technique was first used in the 1976 Hal Ashby film Bound For Glory, Scorsese’s masterful and intricate choreography has garnered the shot acclaim and recognition.

In this particular scene protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) escorts his romantic interest Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana Club. Skipping the queue, Henry leads her through the kitchen entrance, overtly bribing the staff as he swaggers through. The camera follows from a short distance as they walk through a dimly lit hallway lined with deep red walls.

As they move through the kitchen, Scorsese’s excellent direction is foregrounded as each cast member moves perfectly in time with the camera while Steadicam operator Larry McConkey maintains the rhythm of the shot. In a musical-esque motion, a waiter swoops in from the side of the frame with a table draped in a white flowing table cloth. We follow this waiter to the front of the stage where they make space for Henry and Karen right beside the stage. Despite moving through several busy environments, Henry and Karen stay in the centre of the frame, signifying Hill’s power and status. The world moves around him and he has the power to walk through it at any given time.

In terms of lighting, blocking and movement, the Copa shot is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. McConkey has said that in premise, what Scorsese wanted was a logistical nightmare and it was impossible to maintain coherent framing throughout the shot due to Liotta and Bracco’s constant movement. This is why we see the actors stop so frequently, to allow McConkey to keep up and adjust to their positions. Henry’s bribes and charismatic interactions with passers-by were therefore a technical necessity that happen to also illustrate his power hungry persona. Anecdotes such as this highlight how the most genius cinematic moments can be born of improvisation and necessity.

The fluidity and complexity of the shot effectively symbolises Henry’s determination to maintain his carefully crafted suave persona in order to impress Karen and therefore is an excellent visual and narrative device in the film. The Copa shot quite literally takes us on a tour of Henry’s new found privilege. While it may not be the first example of the Steadicam in action, it is nonetheless one of its most revolutionary applications which has inspired countless filmmakers in the process.