Goodfellas is an iconic crime drama film released in 1990. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, also written by him and Nicholas Pileggi. The film achieved unarguable financial and critical success, as it was deemed culturally impactful, and preserved among other classics in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress (Merry, 2015). Goodfellas is considered one of the best films of all time in the gangster genre and has inspired many subsequent productions using its style and filming techniques while becoming an inherent part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 20th century.
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The plot of Goodfellas centers on a young man Henry Hill who is curious about the criminal life in Italian American neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He begins working for a local mob boss Paulie and his gangsters, starting with petty crimes and eventually committing severe offenses. Henry becomes relatively wealthy, enjoying a glamorous lifestyle and even marrying. Eventually, Henry and his associates are arrested after being turned in on collecting a debt.
Henry enters the drug smuggling business while in prison, and when eventually paroled, he expands it along with his previous mobsters. After a successful multimillion-dollar heist from the JFK airport with Jimmy and others, the involved people are beginning to appear dead around the city, including Tommy killed as well. Henry becomes paranoid but is eventually arrested during a bad drug deal. After being bailed out and left without any money, Paulie gives Henry cash and lets him out of the mob business. At this point, Jimmy is acting suspiciously, and Henry believes that he wants to kill him and his wife.
Henry chooses to enter the witness protection program and gives damning testimony on Paulie and Jimmy to have them detained for decades. The film ends with the narration of the protagonist continuing to live in witness protection the life of an average man (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
The plot of the film is based on the stories of real-life New York mobsters. Most of the characters of Goodfellas were real people. The climax of the plot centered around the heist from the JFK airport occurred in reality, with subsequent events such as Henry working with the federal agents after a drug bust and Tommy getting killed based on that infamous crime (Schaal, 2015). Scorsese dramatizes certain aspects of the film, including some of the relationships and personal lives of the characters, but remains relatively faithful to the events.
The genre theory inherently focuses on classifying a film into popular categories where movies share similar characteristics, styles, techniques, and potentially narratives. There are several ways in which genres are classified, but it allows to group films so that they can be evaluated relative to each other. Genres in this theory are inherently defined as broad categories, with genre definitions dependent on purpose and interpretations. However, the genre is defined by culture, a process of change and negotiation between viewers, media, and critics. Furthermore, a genre develops based on social conditions and transformations, which either exhibit or reinforce certain aspects of the social status quo or a response to the socio-economic and political conditions (Chandler, 2012).
Goodfellas was written and created in the genre of mobster and crime drama films. As Scorsese admitted, he was drawn to the real-life story of Henry Hill, and he believed the biography on which the film is based accurately captured the life of the mafia better than any film depiction up to date. The most famous mobster film at the time was The Godfather, which demonstrated a particular cinematic language of honor and dignity in the mob.
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Goodfellas redefined the genre, perhaps with a reflection on the behavior of organized crime at the time, where there was no honor, but a series of crimes committed by psychopathic, murderous, drug-abusing thugs (Sims, 2015). It no longer romanticized the gangsters but showed the ugly ruthlessness of that life. However, this was alluring to filmmakers and audiences, which with Scorsese’s mastery, made antiheroes out of the protagonists and made a mobster’s life feel adventurous despite such horrifying realities (Brook, 2015). The genre was changed forever as it now demonstrated the truthful aspect of gangsters that resulted in depictions of mercilessness and violence ongoing in organized crime.
The first technique utilized in Goodfellas is camera optics and focus. Scorsese balances the use of shallow, deep, and perspective focus in different scenes to contribute to the narrative and present certain socio-emotional elements to the audiences. As an example, the deep focus is used at one point when all the major characters are in the nightclub. One can clearly see those at the forefront as well as the numerous extras in the background.
The protagonists cannot be separated from the crowd as they fit in with the scene. This depiction may demonstrate their lack of power and social position at this point. In another scene, the shallow focus is used when a gun is pointed at Henry. The firearm remains blurry, demonstrating the point-of-view perspective of the protagonist, with a potentially emotional response, as well as the symbolism or meaning of the weapon to the story.
Another technique used is sequence shots, otherwise known as a long take, where the entire scene is continuously shot without breaks, requiring sophisticated camera movement. When Henry takes Karen to the nightclub walking through the hallways and kitchen, at the time of release, it was the most extended single take in American cinematography. In Goodfellas, long takes contribute to the dramatic effect, which is often cited as the best effect in the film, gripping the audience’s attention during scenes using this technique. It allows the viewer to observe the world from a more involved perspective. Long takes are Scorsese’s signature auteur style, particularly highlighted in this film.
Lighting is a vital aspect in the movie, with Scorsese utilizing it to his advantage as both a technique and plot-driving element. The balance between light and shadow throughout the film, particularly as Henry enters the nightclub and joins the mob, demonstrates the interplay of good and evil in human life. The protagonist, who is so curious about the gangster life, does not yet realize the dangers those shadows hold. Lighting is used to demonstrate the mood and tone in various scenes, as well as serve as an overarching aspect of general themes.
Going back to the genre theory, the film accurately depicted events in organized crime and the inner workings of the mob in the 1980s based on the slew of informants, which brought down many of the crime families in New York. Socially and politically, the film highlighted the influence that the mob had in inner-city neighborhoods like Brooklyn and how the appeal of easy money and a glamorous lifestyle was a dangerous influence on young kids.
The popularity of Goodfellas allowed for greater awareness of the issues and further stemmed from the ongoing crackdown on organized crime. The almost unprecedented depiction of violence challenges the audience to a moral self-analysis as humans are inherently drawn to violence through primal bloodlust, but societal rules attempt to prevent such behavior (Brook, 2015). In the context of ongoing crime and street violence in the 1980-the 90s, the film served as a critical reflection and visualization of such themes.
Culturally, Goodfellas had overwhelming success and impact. It left a long-lasting legacy for visual media, redefining the genre and introducing new elements of filmmaking. The film introduced the “talkative gangster” – no longer the silent operator under an unspeakable code, but an everyday kid who likes to chat and even delves into philosophy. Scorsese demonstrated both realism and auteur expressionism in his style in the film, which led to inspiring many famous directors such as Tarantino. The cultural legacy of the film in its specific genre and historical significance is undoubted, placing it on the pedestal of most exceptional motion picture productions.
It is evident that Goodfellas is a classic, brilliantly made movie that has had an impact on both the film industry and culture. Arguably Scorsese’s genre-focused approach to creating the masterpiece makes it unique in portraying the grim, horrifying reality of organized crime. The masterful utilization of lighting, sequence/long shots, and camera focus contribute to building the tone and emotional response to the plot. The brilliant success of the film propelled into pop culture and stemmed influences in filmmaking and social awareness of organized crime.
Brook, T. (2015). Is Goodfellas the perfect gangster film? BBC. Web.
Chandler, D. (2012). An introduction to genre theory. Web.
Merry, S. (2015). ‘Goodfellas’ is 25. Here’s an incomplete list of all the movies that have ripped it off. The Washington Post. Web.
Schaal, E. (2019). Was Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ based on the lives of Real New York Mobsters? Web.
Sims, D. (2015). Was Goodfellas the last truly great mobster film? The Atlantic. Web.
Winkler, I. (Producer), & Scorsese, M. (Director). (1990). Goodfellas [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
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