GoodFellas: More Than Just Wise Guys

The art of storytelling in film by an auteur – a single creator – came to fruition soon after the end of World War II.  Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman dominated the construction and formation of their films, leaving their signature style and personal approach behind as filmic fingerprints.  Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) is paced beautifully, skillfully weaving together two character’s narration with innovative and signature editing techniques.  The vibrant characters portrayed by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro illuminate Scorsese’s vision and create unforgettable sequences of cinematic ingenuity.  Robert Warshow’s essay “The Gangster As Tragic Hero,” film critic Roger Ebert’s review, and Robert Kolker’s Film, Form, & Culture lend support to a critical analysis of GoodFellas and insight as to why the gangster genre has become a staple of American cinema.

Gangster films, as a genre, often have a similar narrative arc.  Warshow notes, “The typical gangster film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall.”1 This system is utilized in GoodFellas as well, but this film begins with the signature brutality and viciousness found in many of Scorsese’s films. The establishing shot places the main characters in a car as adults and they hear a noise emanating from the supposedly dead body in the trunk.  They pull over to investigate and find that their victim is not as dead as they thought.  Tommy repeatedly stabs the victim, later identified as Billy Batts, and Jimmy finishes him off with a revolver. As Henry closes the trunk, Scorsese freezes the frame on his face and a voiceover comes in. Scorsese uses this technique throughout the film to enhance and further the narrative, and it allows a form of omniscient narration that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.  Told through Henry’s voice, the voiceovers permit Scorsese to pepper the narrative with both foreshadowing and observations made in hindsight. These sonic additions render his vision more clearly, even while the image remains static on the screen.  After the opening credits, Scorsese flashes back to Henry’s adolescence where Henry and Tommy meet for the first time.  Roger Ebert describes the arc entwined in GoodFellas:

We follow them through 30 years; at first, through years of unchallenged power, then through years of decline (but they have their own kitchen in prison, and boxes of thick steaks and crates of wine), and then into betrayal and decay.2

The flashback allows Scorsese to express the desires of Henry as a boy and the narrative moves forward as his dreams of becoming a gangster come true. 

GoodFellas’ narrative arc begins in the city, which, according to Warshow, is a vital setting to the characters: “The gangster is the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge….”3 The mobsters embody the urban characteristics of the city; they are tough, gritty, and never remorseful.  Even as their mob family starts to disappear, the characters cannot imagine their lives any other way.  Scorsese diverges from typical gangster films by introducing Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as a second narrator – not only shifting the point of view of the storyline but also the audience’s emotional positioning.   Karen’s perspective allows a deeper understanding of the characters, creating an emotional attachment to the struggles of not only her criminal-minded husband, but also the very real trials and tribulations of any precarious relationship.  Her narrative permits the characters to briefly enter suburbia, only to bring the hostility of the city with them.  Henry savagely pistol-whips Karen’s neighbor whom she has “known her whole life” as repercussions for an altercation between the suburbanites.  Henry hands her the gun to hide and Scorsese slows down time and manipulates the temporal space as a means of explaining her contemplation over what has just happened. Her voiceover explains how she is attracted to danger like a moth to a flame; to emphasize this, Scorsese immediately cuts to the wedding sequence of the film.  She becomes one with the other mob wives, and through insulation and repetition, Karen is naturalized into the Mafioso existence. Ultimately, Karen gets caught up in the criminal lifestyle and rides the same arc as the gangsters destined for calamity.

One of the most memorable moments in GoodFellas is undoubtedly the “Funny, How?” scene.  It takes place in Sonny Bunz’ Bamboo Lounge, which eventually gets extorted and burned to the ground by Tommy and Henry.  Scorsese masterfully constructs the mise en scéne to position the viewer right at the table with the mobsters.  It allows for not only the viewer to experience what it would be like sit and drink with gangsters, but more importantly it allows the viewer to feel what it is like. The table lights have reddish orange lampshades, painting the entire restaurant with an amber glow and charging the scene with emotion.  The low key lighting creates strong shadows in the background and draws the viewer closer to the characters sitting at the table.  The scene begins with a long take that contrasts with the fast paced editing in the rest of the film; this draws attention to itself and the viewer is drawn in even more – they are placed at an inner circle of the mob.  During the first long take, the placement of the camera arranges the viewer as if he is sitting at the table in between Frankie Carbone and Nicky Eyes.   There are multiple bottles of alcohol on the table but no dinnerware, which signifies that the characters have already eaten yet aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.  Tommy recalls a comical story of an encounter with police, and the gazes of those at the table are all fixated on him; he is their entertainer.  Scorsese cuts to a reverse shot which keeps the viewer at the table, this time on the opposite end, focusing the gaze on Anthony Stabile, Nicky, and Henry’s maniacal laughter.  The jubilant atmosphere suddenly dissipates when Tommy confronts Henry about being called funny, which he considers an insult.  Scorsese depicts this moment as if the entire restaurant is silenced and all gazes are upon Henry and Tommy.  Frankie and Nicky break their focus on Tommy to exchange a cautionary gaze with each other, foreshadowing Tommy’s volatile nature. The tension built is palpable, and Anthony interjects in an attempt to diffuse the uncomfortable situation.  Tommy rejects this and lets the joke go further, until finally revealing he is just kidding.  Scorsese positions the viewer on a rollercoaster of tension and apprehension as the scene continues on.

A curious addition to the mise en scéne is a man in a suit standing between Tommy and Henry, his head cut off by the frame.  As Tommy tells his story, the man (soon revealed as Sonny) just stands there, his dark suit providing contrast to Henry’s cream-colored jacket and adding a voyeuristic nuance to the mise en scéne.  Scorsese purposely neglects to show Sonny’s head because in Tommy’s world, Sonny doesn’t exist.  He doesn’t care that Sonny is hovering there; Sonny’s gaze is excluded, building tension and curiosity as to why he is standing there.  His face is finally shown, after almost two and a half minutes, to explain that the waiter was afraid to bring the check over.  Tommy is offended by Sonny’s interruption and reacts violently, breaking a glass over his head and throwing a table of dishes at the waiter.  Scorsese cuts to Henry’s fanatic laughter, which lightens the mood but also showcases the gangsters’ psychopathic temperament.  Henry instigates Tommy further and Tommy pulls a gun on Henry nonchalantly, as if it were a regular occurrence.  By this time, the entire restaurant’s gaze is focused on these maniacs, laughing along with the gangsters and succumbing to the idea that these psychopaths are their entertainment for the evening. Scorsese is playing to the idea that gangsters’ behavior repulses outsiders but also attracts them to wait and see what is going to happen next.   Henry instigates one last time, compelling Tommy to jump out of his seat. Scorsese cuts to the crazed look in Henry’s eyes and the sound of his demented laughter as the scene comes to a close.

Scorsese’s vision as an auteur manifests through a unique stylistic approach and carries along intertextual narratives from previous films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980).  In Film, Form, & Culture, Kolker notes,

“While, on the level of story, Scorsese’s films often concern small-time hoods or individuals on the edge or over the edge of psychosis, they are, on a more complex level, about style and reputation, about how it looks and feels to be in the world, looking at people and being looked at, seen, recognized, and hurt by the glance of others.”4

Scorsese’s ability to convey and evoke feelings in viewers separates his genius from other filmmakers. GoodFellas could be seen as a film that glamorizes mob life and violence, but there is much more entrenched in the film.  Scorsese accomplishes his goal in creating a world where the language, aesthetic, and feel all converge to produce a filmic experience that is uniquely Scorsesian and yet still maintains the characteristics of the gangster genre.  Like all great creators, he builds upon and stylizes the products of the past until a new masterpiece is created in his own vision.   This attribute can be found in all great auteurs, and Scorsese is most definitely one of the best; GoodFellas is a film that will be remembered not for its violence, but for its aesthetic and vision.

Works Cited

1 Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Homepage of Dr. David Lavery. Web. 22 Apr. 2010. <http://davidlavery.net/Courses/Gangster/warshow.htm#tragichero&gt;.

2 “GoodFellas :: Rogerebert.com :: Reviews.” Rogerebert.com :: Movie Reviews, Essays and the Movie Answer Man from Film Critic Roger Ebert. Web. 19 Apr. 2010. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19900902/REVIEWS/9020301/1023&gt;.

3 Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Homepage of Dr. David Lavery. Web. 22 Apr. 2010. <http://davidlavery.net/Courses/Gangster/warshow.htm#tragichero&gt;.

4 Kolker, Robert.  Film, Form, & Culture. Third ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.  Pgs 140-149.

    • Steve Nash
    • October 5th, 2010

    there was something seriously wrong with tommy

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