There is no purer expression of humanity’s lust for power, respect, and dignity than the thousand masks of blood fathered by man as a reminder of his vicious nature; the face of a person drowned in blood, begging for the rest of it not to be taken by a void fist is a common image in a world dominated by the obsession of control. In politics it’s called the big stick policy –whoever holds the bigger one, holds peace–, and on certain streets where certain outsiders struggle to survive, it’s called life.
Throughout Martin Scorsese’s career, violence as an endemic characteristic of society and even as a means of communication has been presented in a raw and explicable yet hard to assimilate manner. On Goodfellas there is no such thing as pointless violence, but a tradition that outsiders living in the safer, more Western, more American parts of New York City just can’t understand, while a group of gangsters live on speaking through the barrels of their guns.
The story of what could be Scorsese’s most personal film follows a group of Italian gangsters from the early fifties to the eighties, becoming a radiography of a small orb of immigrant Mafiosi as they commence to relate to the world that surrounds them and their own Honorable Society, as they call the Cosa Nostra in Sicily.
Even though many would classify the characters in Goodfellas –and their real life counterparts– as nihilists, these remnants of ancient kingdoms ruled by the laws of the blooded steel are savage memories that dwell the sidewalks playing cards for a reason: they give balance to the American fantasy, and though such isn’t an acceptable raison d’être, the behavior of the streets is deaf to social conventions.
The protagonist, Henry Hill –played masterfully by Ray Liotta–, along with his brutal friends and bosses, is a cynical portrayal of a time and space away from the modern ideals of morality. To these men it’s of gargantuan importance not to mix with the culture around them, so they build their microcosm based on violence, loyalty, respect, and a certain fear of acculturation, of which, the refusal to the latter characteristic could, according to the more traditional Paulie –a slow and cool Paul Sorvino–, bring the end of their organization.
Certainly does the Western greed become a problem for the characters, since the breaking of their family-like dynamics introduced by the need for more money and the power and independence it brings along is what causes the crackdown on their society. More specifically, Paulie’s fears are made come true as his “crew” starts getting involved with drugs, a business that more traditional Mafiosi never liked since before the days of the Castellammarese War, fought in the early thirties between rival Italian gangs in America. To many bosses like Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather –based on Mafia headmen like Carlo Gambino and, mainly, Frank Costello–, drugs weren’t only nasty, but also cop magnets, so, to them, they only meant trouble.
It’s a strange morality the one of the gangsters in the film, since the old bosses dislike drugs, but stealing and killing aren’t seen as dangerous activities and they’re actually carefully planned and permitted matters, as the case of Billy “Batts” and its eventual consequences illustrate, for they explain what happens to those who break the ancient rules and decide to be outsiders, an ironic adjective since all the men in the American Mafia are natural born pariahs, just like Scorsese himself felt like when he couldn’t go out to play with other children due to his asthmatic condition.
Scorsese relates to this film even more than many others in his entire body of work because of several reasons: growing up in an Italian household showed him what a tight family bond means, and his camera captures the equally fuelled relationship among the gangsters who share a fraternal link, except when they don’t play by the rules or greed or paranoia step in the way.
On the other hand there’s the portrayal of the sociopathic Tommy –the majestic and frighteningly insensitive Joe Pesci– and his relationship to his mother, which at times seems like a staging of Scorsese and his own mother, who actually plays the role of the abnegated Italian housewife, making the film, along with the appearance of Scorsese’s father as Vinnie, an even more personal experience.
Henry’s drug problems seem to reflect Scorsese’s struggle with cocaine in the late seventies, when, after the disaster that New York, New York represented, the director was dragged by tears into depression and addiction. These experiences seem reflected in the sequence in which Henry has paranoid fantasies –which turn out to be true– while he drives from one place to another before he gets arrested, which is a mixture of Thelma Schoonmaker’s violent editing of both the fast, mind-boggling visuals, and the Rock n’Roll soundtrack, which completely forgets about the opera arias and Italian crooners in favor of a hard rocking sound that expresses the baffled, chronic-hangover-like state of Henry’s mind.
Overall, Goodfellas is a masterpiece in both style and story; its documentary-like plot, which keeps giving away details of what it means to be a Mafioso is superb as it unfolds and grabs the viewer until the very last image, in which Scorsese pays homage to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery by putting Joe Pesci’s character to make a last act of defiance by shooting into the audience after Henry’s regrets are heard in the background.
In terms of the technical aspects, the film is amazing; the camera movements are very expressive and there are many wonderful shots that, along with the story, attract the audience to this unknown world and eventually repel and throw them back to their normal lives, creating a visual structure that mimics the behavior of a gangster by starting out as the child of Raoul Coutard’s imagery in Jules et Jim and eventually becoming erratic and out of control, just like the protagonist’s life. An example of the former feel would be the 3 minute-long tracking shot achieved by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, which follows Henry and Karen through the back entry of the Copacabana and leads the audience into the world of luxury and exclusiveness that surrounds a Mafioso’s life.
The acting is wonderful, since every character is very well crafted by the actors, whose performances vary from the crazed, violent Joe Pesci, to the cool, cynical, and paranoid Robert De Niro, to the amazing Lorraine Bracco, who plays an essential role in the film by representing the ideal of the obedient Italian wife run amok due both to her not being Italian at all and the strength within her that makes her fight for Henry’s love even if it means pointing a gun to his head.
Goodfellas is, in the end, a trip inside the world of the Mafia; a reunion among friends who could pull out a gun in any minute and end the gathering with the roaring of a cannon or with a toast to loyalty without the victim ever feeling the breath of darkness on his shoulder; it’s a history lesson that spits blood as it tells of the rise and decay of a secret empire that has surrendered to circumspection and adopted its surrogate home, thus paying the price of migration.