Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 30 August 2005
Source Warner Brothers Special Edition DVD
Features: Goodfellas: The Title Credits
Praised endlessly for its realistic presentation of the mafia, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas functions as a shrewd expression of the destructive aspects of devotion, as well as a demonstration of filmmaking’s inherent caveat: its fabrication. Within its persistent examination of the lower-level Mafia Men resides a contrast between fantasy and reality, one that displays the deceptive nature of both crime and cinema. Indeed, by allowing the camera to assume the perspective of a devout criminal navigating through an enthralling underworld, it becomes all the more startling to witness the film finally betray the insular perception of its protagonist.
Scorsese opens the film with a claim of authenticity before plunging the viewer in a gruesome scenario, one of many in the film: a trio of criminals is awakened by a raucous thumping in their trunk. They open it, revealing an already brutalized body that struggles for life, which they proceed to viciously execute. Standing as a spectator to these horrific actions as a blood-red mist washes over him, our driver slams the trunk door. We sweep past his weary, starry-eyed expression while he reaffirms his dedication to the violent lifestyle he has just witnessed by proclaiming “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Gangster.”
As with so many of Scorsese’s central characters, Goodfellas’ Henry Hill is so obsessed with something that it becomes akin to faith. That this obsession mirrors Scorsese’s own faith in cinema is not coincidence. Much as Scorsese has committed himself to cinema and praises the directors that inspire him, Hill has devoted himself to the Mafia with his fellow mobsters acting as clergy and its glamorous lifestyle serving as his concept of Heaven. During his childhood, Henry longingly gazes at neighborhood gangsters as if they were gods, confessing to the audience that due to their apparent impunity he believes “being a gangster [is] better than being President of the United States.” His dedication is even more remarkable considering his ancestry forever binds him to a position as priestly foot soldier, preventing his promotion to the ranks of bishop or cardinal reserved for made-men. Despite the reality of career stasis, as Hill only rises from alter-boy to priest, he unwisely presses onwards with this existence because he feels it better to remain a low-level “somebody” mafia-man than a regular “nobody” schnook. The film’s real concern is detailing Hill’s misguided attempts at swift ascension within American society rather than within the mafia. Thus Goodfellas is the antithesis to Coppola’s operatic Godfather, which critiques capitalism through its romantic gaze upon mafia royalty attempting to maintain their wealth and position. Instead, Scorsese presents his material as bluntly as possible by dwelling on “blue-collar guys” doomed by their own aspirations to remain comfortable within their own terms. Marty trusts that his methods allow us to comprehend the scenario’s fiction; although his film is rooted in reality, the techniques he employs in the film tend towards exaggeration.
The futility of Hill’s efforts is constantly illustrated throughout Goodfellas. The film begins with a basic Saul Bass title sequence composed of a stream of credits that persistently race across the screen. Unable to rise past their strict horizontal pathway, the credits are accompanied, if not taunted, by Tony Bennett’s voice crooning of climbing from “rags to riches.” The modest sequence conveys Hill’s inability to improve his reality despite his greedy ambitions at maintaining his fairy-tale life.
Scorsese continues to undercut Henry’s labors throughout Goodfellas, but does so in an unusual fashion by offering the audience a brash, yet attractive visual style that conceals a simple critique. Though often criticized as a glorification of the mafia, Scorsese’s triumph is not merely in the direct method by which he seduces both his characters and his audience, but actually in how he deceptively spoils it all. Goodfellas begins by flaunting the thrilling appeal of a most depraved existence. The mafia life Hill lives is justly shown as intriguing to any young male seeking rapid power and status within his community. Henry thinks he’s “the luckiest kid in the world” with all the accompanying fame. He’s able to act as an adult by parking Cadillacs, muscling through “good-government bullshit,” maneuvering past parental control, and earning more money than his neighbors. Engulfed in an inferno, frozen in silhouette with arms spread, Henry boasts of childhood minions carrying his mother’s groceries home “out of respect,” The film also admits the thug-life is downright alluring to a young woman like Karen, our only female narrator, who admits that Henry’s aggressive antics “turned [her] on.” She finds Henry to be exciting and his lifestyle leaves her intoxicated. Indeed, to shortsighted youth, the mafia remains sinister and sinful, but utterly tempting. Scorsese makes sure to bring his viewers along for the ride, forcing our perspective to be in harmony with the film’s callous couple. Their confessional voices guide us while their warped perceptions persuade us. By allowing us to realize their wonder, exhilaration, and anxiety we recognize the level of temptation involved, so we understand their decision to sin.
Though we may relate to his central characters’ decision to remain within this wicked world, Scorsese’s creative choices make certain that we know this is all a delusion even while we are being seduced. Henry’s “life is but a dream,” except it’s also a complete myth. Scorsese loads Goodfellas with so much visual bravado it becomes difficult not to realize it’s all movie-making magic—even Hill declares that he was “living in a fantasy.” Scorsese freely uses his fluid camera and kinetic style to lyrically glide through Henry’s gangland exploits. It graciously sweeps through scenes, generously pulls onto faces braced with anticipation, and allows the invigorating atmosphere to breath through long takes. Incredibly, Henry’s entire youth is efficiently swept past in fifteen riveting minutes, but it feels completely natural. In the film’s most technically demonstrative scene, accompanied by The Crystals whispers of the time “He Kissed Me,” Henry whisks Karen through the back corridors of the Copacabana to a front row seat in paradise through one splendidly gorgeous, unbroken shot. As Henry charms Karen, Scorsese decides to mesmerize the audience. Though the end results are impressive, one must notice that this shot symbolizes Hill’s rise in criminal prowess: his status has been allocated entirely through the back door. The film even halts its brisk tempo by freezing when life gets too chaotic for Henry to keep pace with, pausing to ponder its own images. Additionally, Scorsese and Ballhaus bathe certain key scenes in hellish reds to undermine this underworld and subtly remind us of the accepted sins of our colorful characters. The most distinct use of the crimson color-scheme is during the disposal of Billy Bates body, where it feels as if our main trio is digging a hole directly to Hell. Occasionally, the film breaks its fluid technique when bold violent actions stun our protagonist, most notably when Tommy shocks his cohorts by blasting a naive Spider who suddenly, and regrettably, becomes confident and defiant. The moment is jarring for viewers due to the abrupt use of jump cuts and the jolting noise of gunshots, but its unsettling arrival shocks the audience enough to shake off the comfortable slumber.
One aspect often overlooked in Goodfellas are the countless instances in which characters openly engage in deception. Having characters continually perform for one another highlights the deceitful nature of criminals, but also serves as yet another instance of Scorsese’s commentary on the duplicity of cinema in general. This ceaseless stream of acting starts with the film’s most famous and fearsome performance, in which the comic, but volatile, Tommy interrogates Henry about his concept of humor. In another instance, Tommy prepares coffee for Stacks Edwards before arranging Stack’s funeral. However, it’s Henry who most often jumps into various roles. In front of the father figure Paulie, Henry acts innocent regarding the whereabouts of a corpse he buried just days before. Later Henry swears to Paulie he’ll never deal in drugs, though they already provide the majority of his earnings. Held at gunpoint by Karen as he awakens, Henry plays the gentle husband trying to calm his wife’s worries, only to suddenly turn the tables. In the bedroom of his mistress, Hill becomes a predator, stalking prey as he advances upon a startled Sandy. Henry later acts tender towards Sandy when he requires her services to pick up product, only to exit amid mocking laughter at her expense. However, Hill may be duped by performance just as easily. To ease Henry’s burden, Jimmy assures him he has yielded on his plans to off Morrie. Sadly, as Henry heads home relieved, Morrie meets a most ghastly demise at Jimmy’s blessing. Later, Jimmy even attempts to execute both Henry and Karen, pretending to channel concern for their plight. As Henry states, within this world “your murders come with smiles.” These frauds are so frequent that the treachery of the crime world is immediately realized. Yet in another illustration of fantasy versus reality, the flood of these performances by characters somehow also turns the critique upon the notion of acting for the camera, as the audience is duped just as easily as Henry or his victims.
However, in the film’s most celebrated and influential sequence, Scorsese decides to demolish the adolescent daydream he has indulged thus far. In documenting the events of Sunday May 11th, 1980 Scorsese brutally turns every visual trick he previously employed into a lesson in cinematic integrity via severe stylization. Marty contrasts his style in order to condemn his characters’ choices. In a cocaine-fuelled dash through the daily minutia of his family responsibilities and illegal errands Henry’s dream-life unravels into a paranoid nightmare. The once lyrical long takes are now abrupt choppy, frantic wreckage. The freeze-frames that once heightened the moment and allowed for reflection are now a cruel ambush of footage that trap Henry within the frame. Even the charismatic voices of vocalist are now replaced by relentless rock, as sublime sounds of a “Playboy” give way to pleas to “Gimmie Shelter.” The frenzied style is so effective in conveying Hill’s coke-induced delusions that in the “aftermath” the viewer may doubt the reliability of his narration, especially as Henry justifies his compliance with authorities with claims that he would certainly meet his demise during his trip to Florida at Jimmy’s request.
That Scorsese allows his audience to experience the aura and prominence of this environment before revealing it to be a completely myopic fallacy is the beauty and success of Goodfellas. The fear that grips Henry’s life at the end would not be possible if the viewer did not witness the dream-like quality and adolescent thrill of his rise to power. The rapid-fire editing that was once exhilarating is now completely paranoid and the slow motion sweep that once made us swoon now results in horrifying reveals. Unfortunately, imitators continually fail to comprehend that the effectiveness of the sequence exposing Henry’s downfall relies heavily upon the comparison of styles that Scorsese and editor Schoonmaker establish. When filmmakers mimic the pace and editing of Goodfellas’ third act throughout their films they mistakenly assume that velocity and audacity may substitute for content. The strength of Goodfellas portrait of the mafia is that by amplifying his techniques and switching from romantic movements to hysterical stabs, the film reveals the mafia life to be built upon artifice.
Ultimately, Henry must renounce his twisted ideals. In the end when he “rat[s] on his friends” and fails to “always keep [his] mouth shut,” Henry is excommunicated from the mafia for his heresy and is left as a common disgraced schnook. The life he once worshiped so devoutly is taken away from him for his sacrilege. Indeed, Goodfellas reaches its pinnacle when demonstrating the futility of devotion. It is this aspect of the film in which Scorsese’s methods feel intensely personal: the worship and devotion to something, the constant test of one’s faith, and the eventual, almost inevitable disgrace that often punctuates the end when one cannot possibly live by the imposed morality any longer. Eventually those who once embraced you as one of their own turn their back on you for your sins against their faith.
In the film’s final verse, Scorsese briefly relaxes his methods to offer a coda. As Henry and Karen discuss the arrangements of their plea bargain, the filmmaking is as traditional and matter-of-fact as the material. Nevertheless, though he allows his audience some relief, Scorsese concludes the film by again drawing attention to his stylized cinema. Resolved to his fate as a suburban schmuck, Henry Hill decides to no longer hide behind narration, choosing instead to break the 4th wall and directly address his captive audience to reassure them “it’s all over.” Afterwards, Scorsese splices in his homage to The Great Train Robbery in between parading Hill’s bland suburban existence. The image of a bandit emptying his gun directly at the audience no longer carries the same weight as it did 90 years before, when audiences supposedly reacted in terror, yet it still serves Scorsese’s purposes. Though the viewer is no longer fearful of the gunshots, the homage illustrates the similarity and the differences in the century that has passed, as audiences still remain captivated not only by the threatening charisma of criminals, but more importantly by the harmless mythic cinematic image of the criminal which we envy. Scorsese finishes his study of the mafia with one last dig at our preconceived notions of mob glamour. As Henry exits the frame into suburban monotony, Scorsese further tarnishes the mythic allure of the gangster by having Sid Vicious punk Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way.” Sinatra’s image – so infamously linked to mafia culture (his mug-shot now overlooks Tony Soprano & Co.) – of endless class, confidence, and respect now turns into rotten, sneering, arrogance, in what amounts to an acid-tongued insult to the naïve mentality that finds these thugs endearing in any fashion. Thus, the film closes with a signal that any remaining adoration must also recognize the brutal reality of this lifestyle that ends in failure, not the cinematic myth that creates legends.
Filmed after the stock market crash of 1987 and making its debut as the 1990s commenced and the Reagan-Era concluded, it seems relatively easy and reasonable to interpret Goodfellas as a condemnation of the Yuppie-endorsed greed that America enthusiastically embraced years before, especially since its demise mirrors Hill’s own tale (amusingly, both crash due to their decision to sell “junk” — drugs or bonds). Fifteen years later, Scorsese’s efforts in Goodfellas somehow create fascinating contradictions. The film chronicles Henry’s life honestly, but does so through highly stylized, often gaudy, methods. It asks its viewers to relate to the central characters, but also requires them to recognize the immoral conduct of the characters through a critical approach. Marty probes the fraudulent cinematic image of mob glitz, but does so through immersing his work in the inherent fallacy of filmmaking. Most importantly Scorsese has fashioned a film that discourages devotion to the mafia by crafting a film that displays his own passionate devotion to cinema. By examining the devotion to sin through his own devotion to art, Goodfellas expresses the universally demanding nature of devotion. In this sense, it becomes difficult not to wonder if Scorsese’s film is some type of personal admission that his ongoing search for spirituality in film may actually prove unsuccessful, just as it did for Henry Hill, with a realization that his cause will only end in disappointment. However, though the decision to adapt Goodfellas’ material may convey that its auteur once questioned his faith in his own work, the film’s astonishing execution displays a confidence in its strokes that serves as a reaffirmation of Scorsese’s abilities. It conveys the productive allegiance to art far outweighs the destructive commitment to crime. Whether he was adrift before, Goodfellas’ success at revealing the ability of film to examine and exhilarate demonstrates that Scorsese may have renewed his faith in filmmaking and is capable and determined to justify his beliefs.