Scorsese: Goodfellas (1990)

With Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese crafted the film he had been yearning for from the very beginning of his career, while also providing the definitive counterpoint to Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films. Where Coppola opted for stately third-person detachment, Goodfellas is emphatically a first-person account, driven by extended voiceovers, just as the source material, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, is driven by extended testimony. Both the voiceovers and testimony come from Henry Hill, an Irish-American man who worked his way into the New York Mafia during the 1960s and 1970s, played here by Ray Liotta. Like Wiseguy, Goodfellas charts Henry’s relationship with three major players – Jimmy Conway, another Irish-American gangster, played by Robert De Niro, Tommy DeVito, an Italian-American gangster, played by Joe Pesci, and Karen Hill, a Jewish-American woman played by Lorraine Bracco, who becomes Henry’s lover, wife and finally his partner in crime.

For the most part, Goodfellas isn’t exactly driven by narrative or character but by a propulsive flow, a collective ambience that these four figures harness to greater or lesser extents, strongly recalling Robert Altman’s ambient gangster exercises of the 1970s. We start in the midst of a breathless monologue that lasts for about twenty minutes, and that sets this flow in motion, in which Henry rhapsodises on the romanticism of the Mafia for a young Irish-American man growing up in Brooklyn. “As long as I remember,” Hill dreamily intones, “I always wanted to be a gangster,” and these early scenes are drenched with nostalgia for what he once thought the gangster life would entail, relayed (we eventually find out) from the depths of middle American suburbia, where he and Karen flee into witness protection when the 80s finally overtake them. For Henry, looking back on his gangster life is like looking back on his own childhood – a time when being a gangster was simply about joining the in crowd.

To some extent, this elegiac tone recalls the first two Godfather films, which both start with a tribute to the gangster past. There are, however, a few critical differences. The first is the sheer pace of these opening scenes, which brim with a hyperactive intensity that prevents the film from settling into a nostalgic complacency. Then, of course, Henry isn’t actually Italian-American, meaning that Scorsese can’t sink into nostalgia for the old country as comprehensively as the two Godfather films, which open with a traditional wedding, and a sequence set in Italy, respectively. Finally, Henry’s most important Italian-American contact, Tommy, is the antithesis of the Mafia as Coppola elegises it – the anarchic id of the Five Families, driven by nothing other than his paranoid and psychotic need for immediate gratification. Short, volatile, petulant and insecure, we first meet Tommy begging Henry to accompany him, as a back-up guy, to a date with a woman he’s been trying to bed for years.

These departures from the Godfather films immediately indicate that we’re in for a more revisionist account of the Mafia, which in turn makes Scorsese’s residual nostalgia more complex and resonant as well. This revision and resonance takes place through a remarkably episodic narrative structure, full of small details, quotidian textures and beautifully placed inflections that immediately invoke a fully realised, completely lived-in world. Scorsese’s most ambitious films up to this point had all been somewhat episodic in structure, but Goodfellas is the apex and apotheosis of this tendency in this career – miraculous in the way it manages to weave such a detailed tapestry of fleeting encounters while never losing sight of its overarching trajectories. Key to that balance is the amazing production design, which provides a vivid, evocative and haunting snapshot of fashion and décor as it morphs down the decades.

That all makes for a much more limber and supple structure than the Godfather films – where Coppola opted for gravity, Goodfellas is all about mobility. From the very beginning, Henry sees the Mafia as a source of social mobility, a strategy for generating flow in his own life, and a portal to the pleasures of cruising. He gets his first job parking Cadillacs at the cab rank across the road from his house before he’s even old enough to see over the steering wheel, while the film opens with a night drive that grows more manic and volatile as it proceeds. This fixation with mobility is also prefigured by the opening credits, which roll rapidly across the screen like so much mass transit, and which seem modelled on the credits for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, released a couple of years before. Again, we see this same fixation with mobility in Scorsese’s most ambitious films – the nocturnal reveries of Taxi Driver, the handheld cameras of Raging Bull, the ceaseless ramblings of After Hours – but especially in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the most mobile film before Goodfellas in Scorsese’s work.

In that sense, the opening monologue sets up the basic syntax of the film – either cutting rapidly from episode to episode, or immersing us in languorous sequence shots, most memorably in a four-minute fantasia that follows Henry as he escorts Karen from the back door of a restaurant kitchen up to the best seat in the house. By embedding this mobility into the syntax of Goodfellas, Scorsese indicates that it’s bigger than any one character, just as the Mafia is bigger than actual Mafioso, and bigger than “made” men – encompassing enough, at this point, to gather upwardly mobile Irish and Jewish criminals into its wake too.

Henry, Jimmy and Karen are thus getting in on the action in the same way as non-Italian directors who drew on the archetypes established by Scorsese and Coppola, as the boom period for gangsters that the film depicts fuses with the boom period for gangster films that it enacts. In both cases, the Mafia becomes a kind of adoptive family for characters, actors and directors seeking a new mobility, which resonates especially poignantly with Liotta, who was taken in by Italian-American parents when he was abandoned on the steps of an orphanage. As a result, this is easily the most vital, vibrant performance in his whole career.

That mobility opens up a dazzling mise-en-scene, as the textural detail gets thicker and thicker, and Scorsese unfolds one space after another, many of which we only glimpse for a few seconds in passing. Most scenes are crammed by people intoxicated by their sense of being part of a group – and this lingers into the few scenes that only involve a handful of characters, which are also shot as if there are vast swathes of people filling up the space. Most scenes don’t break a few mintues, with the result that long passages of the film play as a sustained montage sequence, accompanied by voiceovers that last for ten or twenty minutes at a time. Individual scenes are quickly absorbed back into the flow of it all, while individual spaces don’t quite exist, since every space and shot is porous, a step for more world-building.

These tendencies only intensify as the film proceeds, as whole character arcs are evoked in seconds, and Scorsese’s tableaux become more elaborate even as he becomes more off-the-cuff in the way he presents them. That culminates with a montage sequence that takes us through a series of characters that Jimmy has whacked, each deposited in increasingly evocative mise-en-scenes – a bright pink car beneath an overpass, a garbage truck, and finally the most elaborate crane shot of the film, which takes us through a crowd of meat packers, into a truck, and then to the back of the truck, where a corpse is hanging, frozen, on hooks.

In other words, this is Scorsese’s densest film, but also his most limber, meaning it takes a long time for Jimmy and Tommy to really emerge from its textures. There’s the same amount of content here as in the entire Godfather trilogy, but amazingly it never loses pace – it would be turgid if it was one iota less hyperactive, and too manic if it was even slightly less dense, but as it stands the balance is perfect, since Scorsese’s camera still has room to be restless, curious, insatiable. Even with so much detail, he’s always looking for more objects, people and inflections to pull into his memory palace without sacrificing the momentum of the whole, resulting in periodic pivot shots, typically away from the action and back again, as he pulls focus in order to pull more and more thick description into the evolving texture of it all.

This fixation with flow also works its way into the dialogue, which presents speech as a way of treading water – a strategy for surviving each situation until a new one comes alone, or until characters can segue one situation into the next. Most of the speech involves circling and gesticulating around scenarios until another scenario eventuates – hustling from scene to scene to keep the mobility alive. Tommy, and Pesci’s performance of Tommy, anchors that mobility and flow – when we first meet him, he’s telling a joke that gets more and more manic with each inflection, and then takes on a second life when he plays with Henry’s reaction by challenging why he laughed on cue. Tommy’s most brutal moment involves shooting, and then killing, a young man whose stutter and limp he considers to be an insult, in and of itself, to the vocal mobility that he wears as a badge of pride. No surprise, then, that after he kills this kid, Tommy basically talks his way through and out of it – not by excusing it, or even explaining it, but by summoning enough vocal mobility to keep everyone moving through it.

At the heart of Scorsese’s revisionism, then, is a disturbing prospect – that the Mafia will accept any action so long as it has enough propulsive energy to avert further complications. Being the best gangster comes down to who can muster the most volatile mobility, and who can flow through space with the vitality of Scorsese’s own camera. The result is a kind of mobility brinksmanship, a stand-off for who has the most movement and flow – not net movement, but gross movement, since the art of being a gangster here lies in redundant dialogue and redundant action, albeit a productive redundancy. None of these gangsters are good at saying or doing anything new, or even especially assertive – their skills lie in changing the current of the conversation or situation to suit whatever they need at any point in time.

That focus on flow as the most gangsterly trait may explain why this film cemented the Italian-American gangster as an emblem of gangsta rap. Both gangsters and gangstas value flow above all else – hustle, momentum, mobility – and you have to wonder how many gangsta rappers took their visions of prison from the second act of Goodfellas, which follows Henry as he spends a couple of years locked up. So refined is his flow, by this point, that prison never feels like prison – just like the back of another Brooklyn store, as he and and his Mafia mates channel their shared mobility into a series of cooking projects that make the time fly right by.

Unlike The Godfather, then, there’s virtually no interest in the Mafia as a code of conduct in Goodfellas. To some extent, that’s because, as Irish-Americans, Jimmy and Henry can’t be made, meaning they have to rely upon Tommy for their protection. Yet Tommy is the most volatile Italian in the film, and the least likely to be made himself – when the time comes, the Dons only offer to make him as a pretext to assassinate him. While the three men operate within the Mafia, being a legitimate part of the Mafia remains a fantasy for all of them. Yet even if they were made, you sense that the idea of a code or brotherhood would be inimical to what they stand for – improvising situations out of the Mafia’s ambient mobility, rather than pretending to have any investment in the so-called values for which it supposedly stands.

Scorsese embeds this revisionist rupture into the fabric of the film, opening with a brutally decontextualized scene that makes it hard to attach too many gravitas to what follows – Henry, Jimmy and Tommy driving a man, in their boot, into the New Jersey woods, where Jimmy stabs him to death in the first and most viscerally violent scene in the film. Scorsese then returns to this scene at the end of the first act, when we learn that the man in the boot was Billy Batts, a made man who had just returned from the jail on the night that Tommy murdered him in a fit of rage. This violates the primary code of the Mafia – never lay hands on a made man – but Scorsese presents this as an even deeper cultural violation, by placing the most domestic scene in the film between the murder and the disposal of the corpse. In this surreal interlude, Tommy returns home, coos to his mother that she’s the only woman in his life, and enjoys a wholesome dinner at her table with Jimmy and Henry, but only to borrow one of her sharpest knives – the knife Jimmy ends up using – all while Batts is still in the trunk.

The brutality of this opening murder scene is thus contextualised in two ways – as a total repudiation of the Mafia family, and as a total repudiation of the traditional Italian-American family. Those contradictions were also present in the Godfather films, but Scorsese amplifies them here, to the point where Goodfellas is ultimately about keeping the contradictions of the Italian-American community open as contradictions – as questions that the film enacts rather than resolves. Rather than affirming or eschewing the Mafia, Scorsese presents the Mafia as a form of mediation, a necessary lens for evoking a whole generation of Italian-Americans self-realising, coming of age, identifying as a generation, whether they’re a part of the Mafia or not. This is the Mafia as an inescapable cultural touchstone more than a coherent institution, a point of both harmony and disharmony within the Italian-American community. That may explain why so much of the film is scored to girl group classics, and why so many key scenes take place as these classics are on the very cusp of reaching their peak harmonies.

This mediatory Mafioso is even more emphatic in that Henry, Jimmy and Karen are not Italian, meaning that they have to reach for ever more ingenious ways to continue mediating their own upward mobility through its generational flow. They have to move laterally to move vertically, like Scorsese’s camera, which is always panning along great crowds of people on our way up to the next Mafia echelon. Yet these enormous masses of people tend to absorb even the most emphatic plot points, as if Scorsese were trying to traverse the Great Arrival, the wave of Italian immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that produced Italian-Americans in the first place. Above and beyond the specific story here – or through this story – Scorsese ultimately yearns to capture every conceivable trajectory, every path his ancestors travelled, and every path his descendants might still trace out, poising the film so precariously in the present that it feels like the pivotal moment in his career as well.

Of course, there have been Scorsese films before and since that have been of their time, while his New Hollywood decade has all the vitality of an auteur discovering his voice. Yet no Scorsese film is quite so volatile in its awareness of and anxieties about the present as Goodfellas, which marks the cusp between his classic and late period. Before this point, Scorsese’s films yearned for the future, while after this point they all set their sights on the past, whether by reverting to period drama, as in The Age of Innocence, or repeating and revising his own formulas, as with Casino and Bringing Out the Dead. That volatile sense of the present is embedded in the film’s own décor and set design, which perpetually presents this Italian-American generation coming of age a decade or two behind the rest of America, trapped in a bubble of 50s music, cinema, slang and fashion that persists deep into the 70s.

Yet this just makes the shift to the 80s even more traumatic, mirroring Scorsese’s wandering experimentation during these years, but reframing it historically, in terms of the rise of the cocaine trade. Cocaine represents an abrupt return to the present tense after the film’s hermetically sealed 50s time capsule, partly because it accelerates and exhausts the art of mobility that the first two acts of the film celebrate. While cocaine provides a brief burst of artificial mobility to both users and dealers, it quashes mobility in the long run – not just because it wracks body and mind, but because it breeds complacency by preventing gangsters learning the old ways of mobility, momentum and propulsion. Cocaine exhausts hustle and flow in self-destructive bursts of undirected energy, condensing and then impoverishing the Italian-American lexicon, body language and capacity for flowing gesticulation that propels the Mafia throughout the 60s and 70s. Put bluntly, cocaine exhausts the Mafia’s own mobility.

This ushers in the third act proper, as the film starts to ride this cocaine wave along with the characters, relishing the maximum velocity that comes just before they all crash to earth. Before this happens, though, the camera, and the characters, almost leave the ground, as Scorsese turns his eyes to the skies, yearning to transform this last burst of mobility into full-blown flight. One of Henry’s first jobs was at Idlewild Airport, and he repeats it now, except that the airport has been renamed JFK, and the heist is much bigger – a five million dollar hit on the Lufthansa cargo building. By this stage, the film is moving too fast to depict this heist even through montage – instead, Scorsese translates it straight back into buoyancy, as if the characters and camera have taken off from the Lufthansa building and are now fully airborne.

These may be the most limber, languorous moments in Scorsese’s entire career, poising the characters in the sky for a precipitous moment before they start to plummet back to earth. That downward trajectory starts with pressure from the sky itself, which flattens and lowers to accelerate the first stages of this crash and burn. First, Scorsese pulls back to his longest and highest establishing-shot in the film to depict Tommy getting into a car with the two Mafioso who are supposedly taking him to get made. There’s nothing unusual about this shot except the sheer size of it, which drowns out dialogue, and immediately evokes an unseen threat waiting to push Tommy down from what he assumes will be the apex of his flow, the moment he breaks into flight. We see the same high perspectives in the recurring shots of the T-intersection that anchors the depiction of Jimmy Hoffa’s assassination in The Irishman.

This expansion of vertical space also plays out in one of the eeriest scenes in the film – the moment when Karen realises she can no longer trust Jimmy. After consulting with her about the best way to move forward, he encourages her to make contact with some associates down the block from where they’ve been talking. However, he doesn’t come with her, remaining in place, and gesturing down the pavement, as the space between them grows more elliptical and ambiguous, and the camera moves higher and higher to take it all in. As with Tommy’s final moments, the unease here primarily comes from this expansion of space – Jimmy waving Karen away from him, the camera getting further and higher – which becomes harder to read as Karen progresses. Finally, she abruptly pivots to her car, and the camera completes its movement back from the scene, panning up to situate us in the most dramatic vertical space in Brooklyn – at the intersection of Smith and 9th Streets, beneath the subway stop that bears its name, the highest station in the entire New York subway system.

In both cases, we sense a limit to vertical expansion, a ceiling to how far the characters’ flow can propel them into the air. These two ceilings converge on Henry shortly after, when he drives into the city for two important tasks – organising a critical cocaine delivery with his drug mule, Lois Bird, played by Welker Wright, and organising a family dinner by picking up his disabled brother, Michael, played by Kevin Corrigan. Between these two tasks, the final rhythm of the film is put in place – the centrifugal rhythm of bringing everything together for the dinner party, and the centripetal rhythm of spinning the cocaine out to buyers and users. Henry’s precarious flow, his ability to remain airborne, depends on balancing these two imperatives into a lack of net movement, so he’s especially disturbed when he notices a helicopter in the sky above him, and starts to panic when it appears to be following his car.

In order to maximise his flow without succumbing to the pressures welling up from below or descending from above, Henry has to effectively split his gaze, keeping one eye on the road and one eye on the air – and Scorsese’s camera follows suit. First, it pivots dramatically from the middle distance to one pocket of sky after another; then it starts pivoting more generally, collapsing any sense of cohesive space into a hand-held frenzy that embodies the film’s propulsive flow falling in upon itself. These scenes are truly nauseating to watch, poised at the vertiginous precipice at which flying turns into falling, evoking Henry’s horror at finding the mobility he once commanded break away from his grasp and transform into a free-floating volatility. For the first time, he feels grounded, crushed to earth, as he encounters the only traffic in the film’s many driving scenes, and almost crashes at the sheer shock of it.

In one last desperate effort to maintain this momentum, Henry and Karen both make gestures of centrifugal consolidation – attempts to wrap this rapidly devolving propulsion back around their own agendas. The first involves Michael, who’s been in a wheelchair for years, and is even more adept than Henry at pivoting from place to place, as Scorsese emphasises with a tracking-shot that follows him as he expertly wheels his way out of the hospital. In an effort to harness this surrogate mobility, Henry puts Michael in charge of stirring the soup – the centrepiece of the family dinner, and the epicentre of Scorsese’s most manic pivot shot in the film. Yet at the very moment that Henry falls back upon Italian-American cooking to centrifuge the mobility that has all but escaped him, the FBI claims this centrifugal energy as their own, surrounding Henry’s house as Karen flushes the last cocaine on the property down the toilet.   

These two gestures – stirring the soup and flushing the cocaine – almost cancel each other out. As Michael draws Italian-American wisdom into the spiral of the soup, Karen spirals cocaine back out to the world, and so for the briefest of moments the film hangs poised, zero net movement, between the threats converging from the outside and Henry and Karen’s efforts to push them away from inside. After harnessing the Mafia’s flow, and almost being consumed by it, they finally reach its apex, as everything in the film bristles with stasis and movement in the same instant, like the peak of a standing wave. This is the last moment when flight seems possible, but it’s also the most volatile moment of flight, as Henry is finally intercepted at the very nexus between land and sky, inside and outside – between his house and his car, en route to pick up his mule’s “lucky hat” so that she feels secure enough to fly.

We see this same precipitous space between inside and outside, land and sky, centrifuge and centripete, in Henry’s last encounter with Jimmy as well. Although this scene occurs earlier in the third act, it follows the same spatial logic, and prefigures this final moment of capture. When Henry meets Jimmy alone for the last time, they sit in a diner booth against a window that provides a complete panopticon of the street outside. Both men are aiming for omniscience at this point, for total control of flow – Jimmy arrives fifteen minutes early, but Henry arrives fifteen minutes earlier than that, and correctly predicts that Jimmy will take this seat for maximum vision. By this stage, Henry, like Karen, realises that Jimmy can’t be trusted, and as the flow they once shared hangs in the balance between them, Scorsese enacts this precipitous space with the film’s one and only dolly zoom. As in the moments just before Henry is captured, the outside world draws close and recedes at once, brings us both nearer and farther away, poising us in Henry and Jimmy’s shared flow for what must be the last time.   

As a result, when this poised space is reiterated and ruptured in the film’s climax, there’s no way that Henry can rely on Jimmy. He sees him once more, in the holding cell, and then opts for witness protection, which means leaving behind everyone he once knew and relocating to the suburbs. More drastically, it means giving up mobility, settling down, and yet Henry, and the film, militates so viscerally against this prospect that it ends up breaking the fourth wall, finally and momentarily equating Henry with Scorsese’s camera – or allowing Henry to tap into the hustle and flow that Scorsese’s camera has embodied in its trajectories through and across an entire generation coming of age. In the final court scene, Henry segues from voiceover to monologue, now talking direct to camera, while in the last tableau of the film, he glances out at us from his new suburban home with an unusual look that’s hard to parse.

This glance gives way to an even more elliptical final note – Tommy shooting a couple of rounds directly at the audience before we cut to the credits. This is a direct quote from The Great Train Robbery and alludes more generally to the thrill, endemic to silent cinema, of experiencing images reach out and make contact with the audience. In this final moment, the propulsive flow of Goodfellas electrifies us with the shock of cinema itself as a medium, as Scorsese taps into a deep and vital connection between the emergence of cinema and the arrival of Italian immigrants in the United States. In his hands, cinema is like an immigrant creature, a foreign body, that has mediated America in similar ways, and over a similar timeframe, to his ancestors. To pay homage to cinema is to pay homage to Italian-Americans, as Scorsese suggested so dramatically all the way back in Who’s That Knocking At My Door.

Finally, as the credits role, the film reaches a kind of present tense, while remaining embedded in the past as well – Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way,” originally sung by Frank Sinatra. In the gap between those artists lies a film that defies completion, a film that takes a lifetime of viewings to immerse yourself in all its details. It feels like there’s an entire television series of stories to explore here, and the logistical task of putting it all together must have been comparable to that of a television series. The briefest of scenes, and the most incidental of asides, could sustain a whole episode, or even a whole narrative arc – such as a subplot in Tampa, to take just one example, when Henry realises that local gangsters have a predilection for threatening insubordinates with the prospect of the lion pen at Tampa Zoo.

It’s not hard to see, then, why Scorsese went on to work on Boardwalk Empire, or why Gangs of New York was often understood as a television pilot in spirit. Yet the real inheritor of Goodfellas’ vision is The Sopranos, released at the end of the decade that Scorsese’s film ushered in. Rewatching the film, I was astonished by how many actors would go on to feature in The Sopranos here – virtually everyone apart from the three male leads, to the point where The Sopranos now feels like a part of the extended Goodfellas universe to me, a way of paying tribute to the hundreds of arcs and subplots buried within the film’s fleeting moments. Even specific characters from The Sopranos seem to have had their genesis here, along with specific subplots, meaning that Goodfellas isn’t just the high watermark of the late gangster film, but a progenitor of quality television in its fixation with serial, interweaving, longform narrative – and for all those reasons the fulcrum in Scorsese’s career, and one of his very finest creations.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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