Goodfellas has, in time become the quintessential Martin Scorsese film. It seems that it’s everybody’s favorite, judging by the box quotes and the critics’ reviews and the popular culture. Some called it the greatest mob movie of all time; others called it Scorsese’s best. I’m not so sure I can subscribe to either of those movements. I should make it abundantly clear here at the top: I have absolutely no problem with Goodfellas. It is, by my estimation, a great picture. But it’s not my favorite mob picture—if we’re limiting the discussion to Scorsese, I might say Casino, which I like more than this film and which we’ll be covering next week, or even Mean Streets, which I think does a better job of reflecting mob life for men low on the ladder and other wannabes—and I simply cannot abide by the claim that it’s Scorsese’s best work. To call it that would be to patently snub Taxi Driver. Still, I repeat again: this is a great film.
I do wonder, however, if Goodfellas’ fame and success hasn’t begun to do more harm than good now twenty-three years on. How many times have you seen it? I’ve maybe seen it five or six times, and that’s probably low-balling it. But it’s been emulated so many times, and it’s inspired so many other works (not only films but television, video games, and comics) that it feels like I’ve seen it close to a hundred. Scorsese himself would, in a certain sense, go on to emulate Goodfellas. His trademark period piece style, which as we’ve said before involves characters that are well on the road to becoming caricatures and a soundtrack packed full of licensed classic hits, is at its absolute peak here. He’d done this before with films like Mean Streets and Raging Bull, but here it’s in overdrive: every scene has a new song; each new mobster we meet is more ridiculous than the last. So while Scorsese didn’t invent the style with Goodfellas, he refined it to an end here, and would cut-and-paste it to all manner of other works, including things like the Boardwalk Empire pilot which he produced and directed.
Scorsese did have some relatively new tricks, though. While he’d implemented the documentary-style approach before in Mean Streets (here he does it with narration), he adds a few twists, like the occasional freeze frame that occurs while Henry (Ray Liotta) is discussing something major. In a film that is fairly fast-paced and coated in violence, the freezes tie us down to the fastest and most violent moments of all—Frank Hill beating his son; Jimmy (Robert De Niro) watching a hit, and many, many more. Slowing down violence accentuates it, of course, but Scorsese brings the whole movie to a standstill.
The violence and the crime is, of course, what the entire film hinges on—not specifically the acts themselves, but rather how they are captured and communicated by the director. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman said that Goodfellas “takes the guilt out of organized crime.” It’s something that near all crime narratives do. Goodfellas wasn’t the first, and it wasn’t the last—not even in the Italian gangster genre—but it does perhaps do it the best. Scorsese had to make sure of it, because his film is absolutely brutal. The very first scene involves Joe Pesci shoving a chef’s knife deep into the abdomen of a half-dead, bloodied and battered tied-up man. From the outset, the film makes a statement: the violence will be shocking and brutal, but it won’t be painful. How Scorsese does it is relatively simple—he disarms the violence with humor in some cases (the hobbled kid bartender Spider gets it when he mouths off to Joe Pesci, much to the amusement of the group), with irony (the gangsters sitting down to eat a meal while Billy Bats is in the trunk), or simply by blazing through it quickly. The more interesting question is why he does this.
It is, perhaps, an attempt to put us squarely in the shoes of the gangsters. Faced with a never-ending parade of appalling sights, we become as they do: utterly desensitized. A wig-salesman is choked to death with piano wire in a car? No big deal. The gruesome offing at the beginning of the film may shock us; one hour in it’s a cakewalk. We follow the lead of the gangsters. When Joe Pesci is killed, no one makes a scene of it—it’s just what it is. So neither do we, mollified by Liotta’s voice-over explaining that it was revenge over the Billy Bats thing. Maybe we even expected it. The scene is over and we move on glibly, on to the next tragic story.
That desensitization comes from a certain distance that Scorsese places between us and the characters. Some cite this as one of the film’s strengths; I consider it something of a weakness, especially in comparison to Casino, where the characters seem much more human, and we are able to relate to and empathize with them. We never really get close to any of the characters in Goodfellas. We understand that they are broken, and we understand that they are sociopaths, but we don’t understand much else about them. Why do they do what they do? Because, as in the case of the protagonist, ‘I always wanted to be a gangster’? Fine—but that doesn’t really lead us anywhere. As a result, we never bond with anyone here, and I’m not sure we ever (or at least I never) care about any of them. Even Karen, Henry Hill’s wife (who we should at the very least pity) is totally unlikeable. A certain amount of this, or perhaps even all of it, is deliberate on Scorsese’s part—these people are gangsters, sociopaths, bad men, so we shouldn’t necessarily see them as human. But that raises an insurmountable wall between us and the characters that I think ultimately does the film more harm than good. Perhaps it’s ironic that the film’s most compelling character is Joe Pesci, the most despicable and sociopathic of them all. And yet, my favorite moments are those ridiculous stories he tells when he’s surrounded by his chums. They’re supposed to be side-splittingly funny, but Scorsese inserts us into them when Pesci is half-way through his yarn, and so we can never get the joke. That’s cruelty, nothing less.
I feel a little sheepish delivering this kind of criticism of Goodfellas. It’s so highly acclaimed and so widely acclaimed that to raise any qualms about it simply feels as if one is doing something wrong. And this is where it gets more controversial: as I noted above, I do think Casino is the better picture. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, and we’ll be covering it next week. I wonder if my opinion will have changed at all. We’ll be able to compare and contrast in another seven days—join me then, won’t you?
It’s Casino next week, and we’re skipping over Cape Fear, but only because it seems more logical to string Goodfellas and Casino together. In two weeks, we’ll jump back and cover Cape Fear, along with the Scorsese/Nic Cage collaboration Bringing Out the Dead.