GOODFELLAS - A different kind of gangster film
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, 1990); Screened on 19 April 2022
Almost two decades after Francis Ford Coppola redefined the gangster film (and American cinema, for that matter) with the epic academy award winning films THE GODFATHER I and II, Martin Scorsese brought the true story of minor mobster, Henry Hill, to the big screen with the 1990 release of GOODFELLAS, starring a then not-very-well-known Ray Liotta and big stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesce. Lorraine Bracco (who would famously go on to star in the HBO series, THE SOPRANOS, as Tony Soprano’s shrink) also wonderfully contributes to the cast playing strong female character, which is a bit of a novelty in a Scorsese film.
What makes GOODFELLAS so compelling and unique is how utterly different it is from Coppola’s master works, which were and always will be the gangster films with which to compare all gangster films. While THE GODFATHER films were constructed from the perspective of mob royalty – the dons and their top advisors– GOODFELLAS centers the perspective of the proletariat, worker bees Henry Hill and his wife Karen, who narrate the film.
Crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, whose nonfiction best seller, Wiseguy, served as the basis for GOODFELLAS, said he was drawn to make the seemingly unremarkable Henry the subject of a book “because he was an outsider - since he was half-Irish - so he was an observer. Henry was a thug, but he was a visiting thug. It's like talking to an aide-de-camp in Napoleon's headquarters. He knows how Napoleon likes his coffee. I wanted to know how these people lived.'' (Linfield, NYT)
There’s really nothing aspirational about Henry Hill. Unlike the violent but brilliant Corleones (save Fredo), Henry is just a normal guy in what is to him an everyday life of violence, anxiety, and distrust. A central theme of the film is the persistent disconnect between Henry’s vision of the mob, in all its power and grandeur, and the actuality of his more mundane existence. Sure, he gets good seats at shows and can beat people up with no fear of retaliation, but even with all the “perks,” hijacking trucks, selling cocaine, and burying bodies in the woods aren’t always as exciting as one might expect. And at the end of the day, for Henry, there’s no family loyalty or “honor among thieves” to help shape his existence and provide more meaning and texture to his life.
Heightening this contrast of Henry’s romantic vision of something with his actual banal experience of it is the film itself, and Scorsese’s direction. However “ordinary” Henry’s life may be, there’s nothing ordinary about the filmmaker’s cinematic virtuoso (the famous Copacabana long take as prime example) and the captivating performances of his main cast (“You think I’m funny? Funny how?”).
The violence is another signature element in GOODFELLAS. Commenting on the graphic nature of the violence in the film, author Pileggi says, 'When you see violence, it should be shocking. What has happened, I think, is the banality of violence. Some books and movies have made violence an acceptable form of behavior. It is not - in my book or in this movie.''
[Coppola’s noted decision in GODFATHER II to show young Vito Corleone (played by De Niro) execute a rival by shooting him in the mouth in order to make Vito less likeable and not turn him into an ersatz role model seems wholly tame, and much less effective, by comparison.]
“Sopranos” creator, David Chase, was no doubt taking notes from his gangster storytelling predecessors. In interviews about his groundbreaking series which spanned from 1999 – 2007, Chase has said he never wanted to romanticize the mafia or glorify the cruel violence that structured their lives. Hence, main characters don’t often survive, and usually just when the audience starts to like a violent character and see a possible path of redemption for them, that character will do something truly terrible.
So, do Coppola, Chase, and Scorsese succeed in telling great stories about violent people without making us like them or want to be like them? It’s a question as old as cinema itself, probably older.
Freedman, Carl. Film International (16516826). Mar2011, Vol. 9 Issue 1, p42-62.
Linfield, Susan. "FILM; 'Goodfellas' Looks at the Banality of Mob Life." New York Times 16 Sept. 1990. Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 18 Apr. 2022.