“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Those immortal words were spoken by Henry Hill in the mob classic, GOODFELLAS (Warner Bros., 1990). The film follows Hill, played by Ray Liotta, as he builds a life in the world of the Italian mafia. He starts out as an errand-boy for a Mafia caporegime who lives on the same block of an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Hill slowly works his way up to bigger jobs, such as running his own cocaine smuggling operation. He achieves the dream life that he’s always wanted since he was a kid. And this is why the film is able to achieve such a level of greatness.
There have been some truly great gangster movies throughout history, from THE GODFATHER trilogy (Paramount Pictures 1972 – 1990) to SCARFACE (Universal Pictures 1983) to THE UNTOUCHABLES (Paramount Pictures 1987). Each film was an instant classic that has had a remarkable impact on the world of film. In fact, the second movie in THE GODFATHER trilogy is one of only two sequels to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture. What makes GOODFELLAS different from all of these other films is that it’s much more personal.
There are some gangster movies, such as THE GODFATHER, that seem to focus more on the honor and respect that comes from being a part of “the family.” It goes through the process of how someone gets “made,” and how everything they do must be for whichever crime family they’re a part of. Then, there’s other movies, like SCARFACE, that glorify the extreme violence of the mob. Cuban gangster Tony Montana takes on Miami with a cocaine operation, and murders his way to success. He even uses a Tommy Gun, which he calls his “little friend,” to blow away his competition in a last-ditch effort to stay on top.
GOODFELLAS adds its own twist to the gangster genre. It still has all of the violence and sense of honor that other gangster films have, but its main focus is a dream. Henry Hill is shown falling in love with the mob life at a very young age. He grows up idolizing the gangsters who live on his block. He even goes as far as skipping school to run errands for Paulie Cicero, a high ranking mobster in the Lucchese crime family. The film seems to focus less on the honor and violence of the mob life, and examines more of the childhood dream that made Hill become a wise guy.
It’s understandable that Henry Hill would be so enamoured with mob life. It’s a glamorous life full of wealth and success. As Hill puts it, “If we wanted something, we just took it.” It’s perfectly understandable that Hill would want to be a “wise guy.” Several mob figures, such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, are seen as God-like figures of wealth and success. It seems like every kid in the world has the same dream. Everyone has a fascination with the mob, and dreams of living the same kind of high-life. Heck, I have a book about the Cuban Mafia sitting next to me as I write this. This dream is what sets Goodfellas apart from other gangster films. It has a much more personal touch that makes everyone sympathize with Hill.
This personalization of the story is expressed perfectly with the Copacabana scene. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of cinematography. The scene follows Hill as he leads his future wife, Karen, into the Copacabana nightclub. Instead of waiting in line to go through the front door, Hill leads his date to a side door, through a hallway, past the kitchen, and into the club where employees set up a new table just for them right in front of the stage. The best part? The entire thing is one, unbroken shot. It sucks the audience right into the life of a gangster. It flows through the club behind our protagonist, showing every connection and bribe that has made it possible for them to walk through the back corridors. Hill is able to just pull a few $20 bills out of his pocket, and there’s a private table set up just for him.
The colorful cast of characters also plays a huge role in shaking the traditions of the gangster genre. Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play fellow gangsters Tommy DeVito and Jimmy Conway, respectively. These two characters are the embodiment of the old genre conventions. DeVito is a murderous psycho who fills in for the excessive violence of SCARFACE-type gangster movies. This performance is peak Joe Pesci. He perfectly plays into the violent nature of the character, quickly going from calm and collected to insane and trigger happy. He easily comes across as the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to piss off, which is especially evident in the infamous “funny how?” scene. Eventually, DeVito is told he’s going to be a “made” guy. He drives to a meeting with the top mobsters of the family, walks into the house he’s told to go to, and is promptly shot in the back. It’s a perfect moment where the excessive violence of past movies is literally killed off.
De Niro’s Jimmy Conway, on the other hand, embodies THE GODFATHER’s focuson honor and deep traditions. Conway has been working for the mob the longest of the three friends, and is usually the one who sets up most of the jobs. He has a deep loyalty to their boss, Paulie Cicero, and is the first person to tell Hill not to rat-out anyone in The Family. De Niro plays him as the wise mentor. He’s kind and caring with those he’s close to, but knows when to fight back against disrespect. He perfectly plays the part of a nice guy with an edge. He’s the kind of actor who can easily switch between a lovable, sympathetic character and a hard-as-nails tough guy. De Niro has a range as an actor that allows him to have a really deep understanding of the character. The same thing happens to him that happens with Pesci, albeit with much less bloodshed. When Conway is thrown in prison at the end of the movie, it symbolically throws away past genre tropes and paves the way for a new breed of gangster film.
As I near the end of this analysis, I’d be remiss to not mention legendary director Martin Scorcese. Scorcese directed the film, and also co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Pileggi, the man who wrote the book on which the film is based. Creating the screenplay alongside the man who wrote the original story allowed Scorcese to really understand the film. He gracefully adds immense feeling into the movie that comes from the real life events the story is based on. He executes the film in a way that shoves the audience into the story, and makes them see everything through the eyes of a wise guy. He also knows when to allow the actors to give creative input, such as when Pesci used an experience from his own life to ad-lib the “funny how?” scene. The director’s vision for the film resulted in six Oscar nominations and one win, five Golden Globe nods, three wins at the Venice Film Festival, and a ranking as one of the greatest films of all time by Roger Ebert and the American Film Institute. Scorcese demonstrates a deep understanding of the story, and does a perfect job of putting the audience in the shoes of the main character.
GOODFELLAS still reigns as one of the best gangster movies in history. It provides a personal touch that really puts the audience in the shoes of its protagonist. It’s completely understandable that Hill would make the choices that he does, and viewers sympathize with him. While other films glorify the honor and violence of the mob, this film follows a dream. It shows a man who fought for a dream he had since childhood, and then watched it all come crumbling down. It delivers on all of the things we have come to expect from the genre, while taking it in a new direction.