Thinking like a Gangster: Reflections on Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas

goodfellas 1990

On October 16th, 2014, I, Dori, watched Goodfellas (1990) for the first time. I am certainly glad that I did. Of course, since everyone else in the world has already seen the film, it feels pretty pointless to review it. Instead, I’m just gonna offer a few of my (somewhat scattered and rambling) thoughts, feelings, and observations concerning the remarkable film.

Mob Life is the Only Life
One thing that strikes me about this film is just how normal it makes all of the violence and the mob behavior seem. On top of that, even as the film normalizes abhorrent actions and attitudes, it tells viewers that it is doing so (and it still works!).

Watching Goodfellas, it’s pretty easy to forget that the lifestyle it portrays is not the only life there is. Viewers never see things from the perspective of Henry’s parents, they are never encouraged to think like the detectives who eventually catch Henry, they are never directed to sympathize with the ordinary people that the mob walks all over. Instead, everything is seen from the inside “the life.” Even the early scenes are narrated by someone who believes wholeheartedly in the correctness in the gangster way of life and is determined to do all he has to make himself part of that world. In a way, Goodfellas is a bit claustrophobic, or perhaps you could say that it has tunnel vision. This is certainly no accident, and it’s vitally important the film as a whole.

This claustrophobia/tunnel vision is even (in voice over) described by Karen as she adjusts to life as a mob wife: “We always did everything together and we always were in the same crowd. Anniversaries, christenings. We only went to each other’s houses. The women played cards, and when the kids were born, Mickey and Jimmy were always the first at the hospital. And when we went to the Islands or Vegas to vacation, we always went together. No outsiders, ever. It got to be normal. It got to where I was even proud that I had the kind of husband who was willing to go out and risk his neck just to get us the little extras.

The life she lives isn’t normal, but it feels normal, because it’s all she knows. With these lines, Scorsese tips his hand; he tells viewers, “This isn’t normal. What these people do is not normal. I’m just tricking you to believe that it is.” Goodfellas is a film told from a deliberately limited perspective. Though it spans 30 years, its scope is surprisingly narrow. This narrowness makes it possible for viewers to think like Henry, to understand Karen. This narrowness makes it possible for viewers to feel like they too are on the inside.

In making the lives and actions of career criminals seem ordinary and understandable to the “nobodies” in the audience, Scorsese also uses Goodfellas to declare the world-transforming power of cinema. Over the course of the film, mob values are normalized and audience members who have never seen a gangster are taught to think like one. With his film, Scorsese teaches viewers to think like one living “the life,” even as he shows them how thoroughly fucked up the life is.

Like Henry, we probably feel pretty terrible when Tommy shoots the young bartender. But, like Henry, we aren’t about to say anything to Tommy, and we aren’t about to walk out of the film or “the life” either. Anyone who knows anything about Tommy knows that the kid should have kept his mouth shut anyway. (This is not how normal everyday people think, but the film makes it so easy).

Or consider the scene in which Karen drives away to escape getting whacked by Jimmy Conway. Viewers and Karen can never be 100% sure that she would have died if she had continued down the street, but we are anyway. Jimmy is friendly throughout the scene and viewers never see anyone plotting to whack Karen beforehand. And yet, as she walks down the street, we want nothing more than for Karen to get in her car and escape from whatever might be lying in wait for her. In this scene, Scorsese makes it clear to viewers that in watching Goodfellas, they have been made to internalize both the logic and the paranoia of the mob. When Karen does get in the car and drive away, she is doing exactly what viewers expect her to do, what they want her to do, what they would do if they were her. Like Karen, we have assimilated to the mob culture and to Henry’s way of life. We understand her, we understand Jimmy, and we can predict the actions of those who live the life.

After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime.” When Karen says those lines (in voice over, directly to audiences), she is speaking for herself, but she is also speaking for those watching Goodfellas. She’s right to do so do. It does all come to be normal, but only because Scorsese makes sure that that’s the case. The film is told in a narrow and matter of fact sort of way. Who cares if stealing is good or bad? It’s normal. Whacks are normal. Bribes are normal. It’s the way it is. At least, it’s the way it is as long as you are watching the film or are inside the life.

Inserting Viewers into the Film/ Mob Life is Movie Life
Another way in which Goodfellas makes it easy for viewers to internalize the gangster mentality is by inserting them into the film in a number of rather interesting ways. In fact, perhaps the most interesting thing about the film (to me at this moment anyway) are the ways in which viewers are inserted into it as well as the ways in which Henry Hill himself is like a film viewer. 

One function of the film’s tracking shots is to reduce the distance between viewers of the film and the film’s material. Such shots create the illusion that audience members are walking within the world of the film and blur the line separating Henry from viewers. For instance, the Copacabana shot is filmed so that viewers see what they would see if they were following Henry and Karen. The shot lets us pretend that we are mobsters too, because if we weren’t, we could never get into the Copa as Henry, Karen, and the camera do. Another important tracking shot occurs in one of the earlier bar scenes. In this tracking shot, Henry’s perspective and that of the film’s viewers are merged. As Henry walks through the bar and is greeted by just about every gangster in the place, the subjective camera work creates the illusion that it is the viewers themselves who have are doing the walking. Like a silent audience member, Henry (who is not actually visible in the shot) does not respond to those who talk to him. Instead he continues his voice over/ internal monologue. We hear his thoughts. We hear those talking to him. But we do not speak. According to this shot, to live Henry’s life, to be in a movie, and to watch Goodfellas are practically all one in the same.

Another set of shots that inserts viewers into the film and that creates the illusion that the film’s viewers are insiders who get to live as Henry does occurs when Tommy is introduced. As he tells his story to the group of gangsters gathered around him, the camera is positioned to make it seem as if viewers are a part of that group. Viewers watch Tommy tell his story from across the table, as if they are standing just behind (but are not blocked by) two other gangsters. By placing viewers in and among the crowd, this shot further breaks down the walls between mob and movie, between gangsters and viewers.

Not only does Goodfellas‘s camerawork insert viewers in the film, the character of Henry does as well; for in a number of ways, he is made to resemble a film viewer. At the beginning of the film, Henry watches the gangsters from his window. The window separates him from the world beyond, but he is fascinated and entertained by it all the same. Even when Henry does enter the world of the mob, he remains somewhat of an outsider for the entire film. He’s 1/2 Irish, so he can never fully belong to the mobster elite. His position inside but slightly outside of the world of his own life gives him something of a spectator’s perspective. His outside perspective, his inability to fully belong, and his similarity to viewers of the film can also be seen in those moments in which he reacts inappropriately: he overreacts to Tommy’s first story, he is clearly (but silently) disturbed by Tommy’s violence, and he can’t stomach the grave robbing. Henry lives the life, but he’s always got a toe or two on the outside. 

The lines between Henry’s life and the world of the film’s viewers are further blurred during the courtroom scene near the end of the film. Quite suddenly, Henry’s voice over narration is no longer in voice over. He looks straight to camera and he addresses viewers directly. He clearly knows that we are there. What is less clear is whether we are in the theater or the courtroom. Also, it’s certainly, it’s no coincidence that just as Henry is forced to leave the life, viewers are forced to leave the theater. For most of the film, Henry’s life is like a movie and then, at the end, he is forced to live the sort of life that most of the film renders wholly unimaginable (the sort of life that isn’t like a movie at all). The end of the film forces viewers to similarly confront the immense challenge of leaving “the life,” behind so that they can carry on as ordinary citizens. The end of the film is a defeat.
Get GoodfellasThe Departed, and The Aviator on Blu-ray or DVD.

From a young age, Henry is turned on by the lives of gangsters. There is nothing about them that does not attract him. He wants what they want and, eventually, he does what he can to get it. At the beginning of the film, he stares longingly out the window like some sort of peeping Tom desperate to make himself part of a world that seems just out of his reach, for he is convinced that if he were able to do so, all that he dislikes about his life would cease to be an issue. Young Henry Hill craves power, wealth, and the apparent freedom that comes with gangster life. As a child, his life is an ordinary one, and he hates it; and so, he leaves it behind, but he does not do so without consequences.

Later, the film makes it quite clear that Karen is also tempted by gangster life. She is dazzled by the money, the power, the attention, and the status that comes with belonging to the mob much like Henry was/is. As she says in voice over, “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on. Karen knows that she should have been repulsed by Henry’s violent lifestyle, but she isn’t. She’s like a sinner who sins knowingly and freely, because they can always ask for forgiveness later (whether or not “later” even comes is irrelevant). Karen gives in to temptation and she marries a man who has gladly made a deal with the devil. 

With this in mind, the (quite famous) long tracking shot that follows Henry and Karen into the Copacabana takes on a decidedly sinister quality. The long tracking shot isn’t just a technical marvel, it’s a descent into an underworld (complete with ominous red walls and with gate keepers that must be paid). An underworld where Henry and men like him are quite popular. In this shot, Henry both seduces and traps Karen. He takes her into this strange world (which he is only able to enter because he has forsaken ordinary life). She knows that it’s strange too, but it’s also all far too tempting and fascinating and sexy for her to leave.

The shot starts with Karen uneasy about Henry’s paying someone to watch the car, and she remains uneasy through the entire shot. She knows that something is not right, but she continues anyway. She ignores her better judgement. She likes the thrill of life with Henry. She is attracted to his status and to the attention he receives. She buys the lie that he works in construction, even though she knows that isn’t true. Buying the lie means she can be his guest in the underworld a little longer, and that’s exactly what she wants. 

It’s all tempting for viewers to. Even as we know how wrong Henry’s lifestyle is, we can’t help but feel bad as he is damned to an ordinary life at the end of the film. We feel bad for him when the law catches up to him; we may even be repulsed by him as he rats on fellow gangsters (the coke and the adultery and the violence, we are fine with). As viewers are forced back to reality and as Henry is forced to live like the nobodies in the audience, no one is overjoyed. (What that might say about us is a topic for someone else to take up).

Signing Off
Watch Goodfellas now.

Goodfellas is a film that will stick with me for a long time, and I’ll probably never be able to watch another crime film without thinking about it. 

Also, I don’t know where to go with this at the moment (this post is long enough anyway), but I was also struck by the intense level of juxtaposition in the film. Intense highs and lows, humor and fear, camaraderie and violence, cocaine and pasta sauce, grave digging and dinner with mom. It’s all part of the life. For Henry, these things coexist so easily. Perhaps that the strangest thing about his frenzied gangster existence. Not the murder, not the greed, but the coupling of such awful things with brotherhood, with loyalty, with love of sharing really good food with family. . .

Anyway, thanks so much for reading! What do you think about my thoughts about Goodfellas? Which Scorsese film should I watch next? (I’ve only seen Raging Bull, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street, because I am trash).

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