In Appreciation Of: Goodfellas

In the years following The Godfather’s 1972 release there came many imitators but one always seems to stand out above the rest:  Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Forever linked together because they both share the subject of gangsters in New York, Goodfellas has become a cultural touchstone in its own right. Where The Godfather introduced audiences to the idealized structured version of the American mafia, Goodfellas revolutionized this view presenting instead a more visceral cutthroat outlook proving itself to not just be an imitator but a game-changer.

As Far Back as I Can Remember…I Wanted To Be A Gangster

Based on the novel “Wiseguy“ by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas tells the tale of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) as he ascends his way up the organized crime ladder to riches, power, and prestige. Told through expositional voiceover we witness the glamor of the gangster lifestyle.  Here we get our first major deviation from the Godfather, where Michael Corleone is a reluctant participant in the mob lifestyle that eventually gets forced to embrace the darkness, Henry Hill is drawn to it, he sees the violence as a means to an end – that end being the fast cars, fancy houses, pretty women and universal respect.

In perhaps the most iconic scene in Goodfellas, Scorsese is able to showcase the allure of the gangster lifestyle in one fluid 3-minute long take (see below).

A long take is a tool that directors like to use that is like wearing a giant fur coat into a party in that it is noticeable even to those unfamiliar with the world of filmmaking or high fashion but like the fur coat just because it’s noticeable doesn’t mean everyone can pull it off. For many directors, the long take is used simply because it looks cool but the great directors fill their long takes with purpose.

Everything is easy here, Henry moves through the back entrance while everyone else waits in line, he is greeted by everyone he passes by and is treated with the utmost respect. It is exposition with very little to no dialogue executed to perfection.

The immersion of the audience into the lifestyle is mirrored by Karen ( which also establishes character motivation and why she can’t bring herself to leave him despite his infidelity and abuse), the appeal of this lifestyle is so strong that it becomes hard to pull away creating a degree of hubris; an illusion of invincibility that ultimately becomes a fatal flaw. Scorsese presents the world in a much grittier sense effectively breaking down the mythicized version of the mob portrayed in The Godfather. You can think of yourself as this unstoppable force but the reality is that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and loyalty only goes so far as how useful you are to me at any given moment.

Scorcese is able to exploit the explosive nature of his world to create tension (particularly with Joe Pesci’s Tommy). Take the restaurant scene (see above) where he is able to quickly shift the tone from a jovial one to one that turns suddenly very uncomfortable. Rather than a long take he uses shot-reverse shot so the viewer can absorb every action/reaction individually effectively building the tension with every cut.  There is a moment of silence where he lets the audience squirm just a little longer before releasing the tension once more.

That is not to say that Coppola’s more nuanced style cannot generate the same response (as we discussed yesterday in our top five scenes piece he certainly can) but the way they come about it is completely different. The Godfather is like watching a dance; deliberate and calculated in its movements where Goodfellas plays more like a hockey game; fast-paced, wild and loose. 

As a result, Goodfellas is taken to be the more realistic depiction of the mob. The Godfather is as Coppola himself put it is a much more Shakespearean story. Michael Corleone’s progression even taken just as a single standalone movie is one of tragedy, the encapsulation of the hero’s (or in this case the anti hero’s) journey – one that is driven by idealism and the concept of honour  whereas Scorsese adopts a far more Hobbesian philosophy wherein man is inherently self-interested; which in the world of gangsters means that death is one misspoken word away.

In its conclusion, though, Goodfellas also explores the notion of tragedy albeit unconventionally where we see Henry rise to unimaginable heights only to see himself end up where he feared the most –  as an ordinary person subject to the same mediocrity and mundane lifestyle as everyone else.

Both the Godfather and Goodfellas end on closing doors. One to mark the end of innocence as Michael Corleone embraces his role as Don and the other to mark the death of the idealized gangster dream, left to be just ordinary, a metaphor that is punctuated by the cut to gunshots and the sound of a cell door closing as it fades to black.

Maybe this is why audiences have been so attracted to stories of crime (as evidenced by the plethora of true crime novels, tv shows, flooding the market) not only because we like seeing the rise and fall of the human endeavor but also because we like to fantasize about wielding power. Much like the current obsession with Superheroes, we gravitate to these characters because they have the power we want to have. The difference between the two is that the power that the gangster wields is much more grounded and seemingly graspable whereas superpowers still operate within the realm of fantasy.

The Godfather and Goodfellas both redefined the mafia genre. Coppola and The Godfather humanized the gangster and gave us a Shakespearean-like masterpiece that would go on to set the blueprint for Scorcese to then take that blueprint and apply a layer of realism to it in a sense combining his style from his breakthrough hit Mean Streets with the tragic humanistic side of The Godfather. 

Scorcese would return to the genre in the years subsequent with hits like Casino, The Departed and  Gangs of New York that each has their own fans and detractors but Goodfellas is the one that is consistently ranked right there with The Godfather – as one of the greatest ever made.