Goodfellas is a true story based on the exploits of Henry Hill and his thirty year connection with the Italian mob.
The American Film Institute recognizes The Godfather as the 3rd greatest film of all time on its list of the top hundred films ever made. Goodfellas ranks much lower at 94th. In retrospect, there is no comparison between these two masterpieces. They are two completely different films with different aspirations. The Godfather is operatic in its focus on epic filmmaking. It desires greatness and achieves it through a stunning ability to capture the life of Italian mobsters in a low-key and drawn out mode of storytelling. It is not about the action on screen but rather about the characters that exist in this period and how their actions guarantee their fates.
Goodfellas is a film that is a low-down, gritty experience but yet it is beautifully realized by Scorsese and his crew. It does not desire epic status but yet achieves it through its brilliant focus on the idea of family and how this family unit begins to crumble as a result of deceit, greed and violence. The film is shot with such a highly energized style that it feels like it may be the quickest two and a half hour film ever conceived.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” is one of many memorable lines that surfaces throughout the course of this film but it is of utter importance to the overall structure of it. Immediately, the audience is given justification as to why Henry Hill desires to become a gangster. The second scene of the film focuses on a young Henry Hill’s eyes as he voyeuristically watches the mobsters, who run his neighborhood, as they go about doing what they want, when they want. He has an impressionable innocence (and his mind is open for all things) and thus decides that he too would love to live a life so uninhibited and free. It is this choice that will forever alter his experience as a human being. In a way, this film is all about the choices one makes and how these decisions forever alter the person they eventually become (this is one aspect that is highly comparable to The Godfather).
Scorsese has always been in awe of the gangster lifestyle. He has focused on it in Mean Streets (1973) and Casino (1995) and is clearly enamored by the codes and ethics these individuals live and die by. Scorsese was a sick child growing up. Afflicted by asthma and an overall unhealthiness, Scorsese would watch from afar as people went about their day to day lives while he remained isolated in his bedroom. Growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Scorsese also found himself intrigued by the mobsters who populated the area. Watching from his window, this idealistic youth would be enthralled by the freedom and control these individuals represented. Their lives and stories overwhelmed Scorsese and would play a crucial role in his life as an adult. Scorsese’s choice to become a filmmaker and focus on this mode of life was a decision that led Scorsese to greatness.
Goodfellas follows a very well known story structure in mob films. A young man with a dream desires greatness. He becomes a member of a powerful and important group. Success follows and all is well. Then things begin to go wrong. He falls from grace and experiences pain and loss like never before. Sometimes there is redemption, other times there is not. Excess has controlled him and now has destroyed him.
Nearing the ending of the film, there is a powerful scene where Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) has found out that his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) has flushed $60,000 of cocaine down the toilet in an effort to hide it from the police. After Henry discovers this, he notes to Karen that that was the only money they had. In a fit of despair, Henry sinks to the floor cowering as Karen crawls over to him, holds him and then cries hysterically. Scorsese films this from afar. Feelings of isolation and despair filter throughout this scene as our protagonists have finally hit rock bottom. The audience can only watch. It is the choices they have made that have led them to this present reality.
The film is uncanny in its ability to evoke such strong emotional feelings for a group that is violent and corrupt. These are not lovable characters. There is nothing to admire about them but yet we are taken with them. Maybe it is the lifestyle that enamors us as it did Henry Hill? Or perhaps it is Scorsese’s ability to intertwine themes of family and togetherness with the violence and immorality pulsing through the films veins?
For all of its indecencies, Goodfellas is a film built around a strong family structure. Whereas The Godfather focuses on an actual family of mobsters, Goodfellas is the story about a group of individuals so interwoven with one another that they become a family in their own right. As Henry becomes more involved with this clan, he begins to slowly drift away from his own biological siblings. In fact, after Henry is arrested for the first time, it is not his actual blood relatives waiting to greet him outside of the courthouse but rather his surrogate breed. Henry has now become a full fledged member of this “family”. The only other time that we visually witness Henry’s parents again in the film is at his wedding. They are in the background as his new “family” overwhelms the foreground. Thy have been pushed out of his life both figuratively and literally. As a result, this transition becomes crucial in the structure and formation of Henry Hill’s identity from hereon out. He becomes who he is through his choices in life and the influences of the “family”.
There is no denying the fact that Scorsese is a cinematic genius. He understands the concepts and histories of film and incorporates them into the visual palettes that are his films. Throughout the course Goodfellas, Scorsese uses many different styles of filming techniques. For instance, freeze frames, tracking shots, point of view perspectives, jump-cuts, hand-held cameras, narration and talking directly into the camera are just some of the ideas that visually wind this film. At times, it feels as if we are watching a fiction film. At other times, it is as if we are viewing a documentary. One would assume that this would rattle the perspective of the viewer as it calls attention to the idea that this is a film built on construction. On the contrary, it adds a sense of realism to the proceedings. The realistic aspect helps to better convey that this is a true story which aids in the audiences emotional attachment to these characters.
The film’s vibrant flow is aided incredibly by the incorporation of great music. Accurately depicting time periods and, more importantly, character situations, the use of music is of no surprise to Scorsese fans. His uncanny ability to pick and choose appropriate songs for particular moments is yet another one of his strengths as a filmmaker. There is no other director who can match his ability.
One crucial element that has yet to be mentioned is the films focus on character development. Every leading character is natural and relatable. The characters in this film are perfectly realized because they are defined and depicted as individuals rather then caricatures. Paul Sorvino’s respected “Godfather” and Joe Pesci’s highly unbalanced psychopath are just a few of the personalities that populate this world of crime and violence. Scorsese truly understands how to imagine characters and bring them to the screen as fully dimensional pieces of his artwork. Goodfellas is a perfect film in my estimation. It has been my favorite film of all time for years now and has continued to maintain relevance and stability as a classic. As a result, the film has become extremely influential over the years. In fact, a clear comparison can be made with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) in its focus on a young individual adopted into a family of pornographers headed by “godfather” Burt Reynolds.
Scorsese lives to tell stories that are close to his heart. He grew up with the threats of mob violence everyday which truly allows him to understand these individuals inside and out. As a result, Scorsese productions are more then just films. They are experiences to be embraced.