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Goodfellas (1990) Review: The Authentic Mafia Tale!

Minimalist red poster featuring Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero, and Robert De Niro as James Conway.

Goodfellas is a 1990 American crime film directed by Martin Scorsese that portrays the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a former mobster turned FBI informant, and his involvement with the Lucchese crime family in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s.

Comparison of Goodfellas and The Godfather

Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the mafia is different from Coppola’s The Godfather. The exoticism seen in The Godfather is absent in Goodfellas. Goodfellas does not mythologize organized crime, but rather criticizes it with a radical stance and strives to reflect the truth. In this sense, we can consider Goodfellas as the most authentic mafia film. However, comparing Goodfellas to The Godfather is a futile effort. Goodfellas is a biographical film based on a real story, while The Godfather is a product of imagination. One of the factors that make Goodfellas a special film is perhaps its direct influence on subsequent organized crime productions. David Chase was undoubtedly influenced by Goodfellas when he created The Sopranos, one of the best TV series in the United States. Seeing many Italian-American actors who played minor roles in Goodfellas in The Sopranos and, most importantly, Chase’s complete adherence to the philosophy of Goodfellas are evidence of this.

Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, and Robert De Niro as James Conway engage in mafia business.

Goodfellas, adapted from the book Wiseguy (1985) by Italian-American crime journalist Nicholas Pileggi, based on the testimony given by Henry Hill, whose father was Irish and mother was Italian, in the Witness Protection Program, tells the story of the life of gangsters who make up the organization’s gears. It reveals the hierarchical structure within the organization and how families become involved in the crimes committed.

According to Henry Hill, living like everyone else, getting a salaried job, paying taxes, and waiting for retirement is nothing but foolishness. Because there were much easier ways to make money. Committing petty thefts, extortion, robbery, truck hijackings, and similar crimes to earn money was easier and more profitable.

“Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

Ray Liotta delivers a standout performance as Henry Hill, whose confession upon entering the Witness Protection Program at the end of the film, reveals the extent of the societal and moral corruption that Scorsese truly wants to highlight. The mafia members weren’t just in it for the money – people were afraid of them, and that fear translated directly into respect and admiration. Thus, those who wanted to become gangsters weren’t just looking to make a quick buck; they also craved acceptance from society. They wanted to drive nice cars, eat at fancy restaurants, befriend beautiful women, and gain the respect of everyone around them. The shortcut to achieving this was through the mafia. It’s no surprise that young people from poor families like Hill would want to join at a young age. However, as Goodfellas shows, the simplicity of the gangsters who failed to establish themselves in society or were too afraid to try meant that the organized crime syndicate never truly professionalized. Joe Pesci’s complex and psychopathic Tommy DeVito character, which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, is one example of this. The careless mistakes made by the gangsters in Robert De Niro’s James Conway’s big heist, as well as Henry Hill’s eventual addiction to the drugs he trafficked, are other examples. Another theme Scorsese explores is the gangsters’ weak wills when it comes to money. Throughout the film, their greed causes them to act recklessly and make amateur mistakes. As a result, it’s not difficult for the feds to take down the mafia.

Ray Liotta as Henry Hill engages in conversation with Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, holding a cigarette and a spoon in his mouth. In the background, Joseph Bono as Mikey Franzese observes them.

Scorsese’s Exceptional Storytelling

Scorsese brings to life the stories of gangsters who started from the bottom and rose to power. With outstanding performances from Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta, he created a classic cinema film. Despite covering a 25-year period at a high tempo, Scorsese narrates the story in a soft, entertaining, yet serious and realistic manner without overwhelming the audience. This is one of the factors that make Scorsese and Goodfellas exceptional.

In my opinion, another factor that makes Martin Scorsese a successful filmmaker is his ability to seamlessly combine comedy and suspense. The amusing conversation between Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill at the restaurant suddenly becomes tense, which is an excellent example of this. This unforgettable scene is a testament to extraordinary directing and acting performance. Another famous scene in the film is undoubtedly the one where Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, and Henry Hill enter the nightclub through the back door instead of waiting in line. The camera follows them from behind for about two and a half minutes, which is a fascinating cinematic shot. Henry and Karen were privileged, not because of their character or achievements, but solely because of Henry’s generosity. The source of this power was money.

READ MORE: 10 Signature Elements of Martin Scorsese’s Filmmaking Style

Scorsese’s Departure From Classic Mafia Films

Scorsese departs from the heavy atmosphere of classic mafia films and instead exposes all the corruption and social structure within the organization. As he tells the story of the mafia, Scorsese’s primary task is to take us to the streets of New York, where he was born and raised, and thus knows very well. Indeed, only Scorsese could tell the story of the subculture created by Italian and Irish-American immigrants in New York’s “Little Italy” district, as everyone carries cultural pieces from where they grew up. Scorsese’s personal observations of Little Italy as a director are likely to have been influenced by his childhood memories. With Goodfellas, Scorsese has brought together the puzzle pieces representing his childhood memories into a cohesive whole. Goodfellas is not only a fantastic film, but it can also be considered a kind of sociological thesis by Scorsese.

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Last modified: September 24, 2023