‘Goodfellas’: Why the Editor Knowingly Left a Major Continuity Error in the Movie

There are film fans out there who consider Goodfellas (1990) the perfect movie. Between the incredible (mostly true) story, the performances up and down the cast, and Martin Scorsese’s bravura direction, you can certainly see the argument.

As for the film being technically perfect, you can shut down that conversation fairly easily. In fact, three-time Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker, who edited Goodfellas, would be the first to admit to lapses in continuity.

When a fellow film editor wondered why she’d left a certain continuity flub in the film, Schoonmaker didn’t know what he was talking about. “Which continuity error?” she recalled him asking in a 2014 Film Comment interview. “We have tons of them.”

For Schoonmaker and Scorsese, mistakes of that variety were acceptable if it meant the difference between good and great performances by actors in the scene. And they’d leave them in on purpose, as they did in Goodfellas.

‘Goodfellas’ has a glaring continuity error in a scene featuring Paul Sorvino and Tony Darrow

Martin Scorsese with 'Goodfellas cast members
Paul Sorvino poses with ‘Goodfellas’ co-star Ray Liotta (L) and director Martin Scorsese (center). | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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As Paul Cicero, the boss of the outer-borough crew in Goodfellas, Paul Sorvino delivered a commanding (and often overlooked) performance. And in his scene with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and restaurant owner Sonny Bunz (Tony Darrow), Sorvino shines.

The three of them are talking because Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) has brutalized Sonny, who worries Tommy will kill him. Darrow himself does fine work in the scene, pleading his case about being treated “like half a f*g” and potentially “becoming an M.I.A.”

The conversation goes on for more than two minutes. When Paulie asks what Sonny wants from him, Sonny asks him to take a piece of the restaurant. They’ll be partners, he says. (That would guarantee his protection.) At first, Paulie laughs off the idea but eventually agrees to it.

Toward the end of this chat (when Paulie says, “It’s not even fair”), the audience sees him from the back of his head. And you can see Paulie has a cigar in his mouth. But when he finishes the sentence and the point of view switches back to Paulie’s face, he doesn’t have the cigar in his mouth.

Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker kept the error in to preserve the great performances

Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese
Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell and Martin Scorsese arrive for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. | FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

While Schoonmaker has won three Oscars for her editing, she’s received eight nominations. And Goodfellas was one she didn’t win after being nominated. In Film Comment, Schoonmaker recounted her exchange with Neil Travis, who won the Oscar for editing Dances with Wolves.

Travis couldn’t get over why Schoonmaker left the flub in Goodfellas. But she didn’t regret it for a second. “It was much more important for us to get this beautiful performance by this untrained actor [Darrow] than to worry about where the cigar is in Paul Sorvino’s [mouth],” she said.

“One doesn’t want to do that,” Schoonmaker continued. “One would hope not to do that. But if the choice comes between a beautiful, clean line and a laugh, we would always go for the laugh.” No fan of Goodfellas can argue with that logic.