Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
As far back as I can remember (sorry) the definitive gangster film was The Godfather. Even on the schoolyard it was known that was the film to show what it would be like to be a member of the mafia… even if we didn’t really know anything about it beyond the fact that there was, at some point, a Godfather involved. Then in 1992 came Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, and it rapidly joined the ranks of iconic gangster films. It would be some time before I saw either film. In fact, The Godfather was the first film that I ever watched because Fogs was tired of pitching references and watching them sail casually over my head, ten years ago on a site that has long since ceased to be. Catching up with Scorcese’s film, the contrasts are easy to make.
The key difference is one of position. The Godfather is, of course, about the ruling head of the mafia family. It deals with the pressure of the position, the need for absolute control, the corruption the position imposes on its possessor. The problems that Vito and Michael Corleone face, they face precisely because Vito is at the top of the food chain. Goodfellas isn’t about those guys. Even the highest ranking guy in the film, Paulie (Paul Sorvino) is just a local operator, a link in the middle of the food chain. It’s a film about the guys making up the outermost links: the thugs and legbreakers, the heist planners and scam runners and drug dealers. The wiseguys. The “goodfellas”. If The Godfather is a look at the white collar workers in the mafia, Goodfellas is about the blue collar workers.
Ray Liotta plays the narrator and main character, Henry Hill. He’s wanted to be a gangster since he was a boy, and he becomes one while still a teenager. He’s ambitious and greedy, but is actually fairly sharp and so when he plans daring schemes, they work out. Robert De Niro plays Jimmy, one of the operators who is already known when Henry begins his career. Both characters are slick personalities, giving the impression that they might just be too smart for their own good. Jimmy is more centered, less daring, however; one gets the feeling that he’s what Henry would be like fifteen years down the line. Bringing up the rear, but by no means least of the three, is Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. Tommy provides much of the excitement in the film with his increasingly psychotic outbursts at the least provocation.
What’s interesting about the film is that it doesn’t try to show just the exciting or dramatic parts of the wiseguy lifestyle. Scenes of heists and armed diplomacy are interspersed with scenes of the spouses arranging birthday parties for their kids — parties that only kids of other gangsters attend, probably because while everybody steps aside for a goodfella, fewer people truly want to associate with them. These domestic scenes provide a twist on the film’s dramatic weight. While on the one hand, it serves as a means to show the viewer how Henry Hill’s life gradually spirals out of control through his intemperance, it also serves as a means to ground the film. While it does to some extent glamorize the life — and how could it not given the main character’s inborn fascination with the profession? — yet it also renders the lives somewhat mundane. Rather than being boring, however, these scenes help to highlight the dramatic moments by establishing these characters as being a little more real. It helps to sell the argument that most of the goodfellas are just ordinary folks who have bought into a particular lifestyle.
If The Godfather constructed an image of the classic gangster, Goodfellas examined that image and found within it a different story to tell, one not of the elite, but of the grunts.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.