Goodfellas : Wise men or just men?

In Goodfellas (1990), based on the true story about the mobster Henry Hill, the brilliant director Martin Scorsese succeeds in making us love gangsters.

The story begins in 1955 and focuses on how an ordinary boy becomes a gangster. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a young man fascinated by the team of gangsters hanging around his neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Quickly, he starts to work for them as a henchman: he parks cars and sells cigarettes. His loyalty and his devotion are put to the test several times, and finally, he gets accepted in the group and becomes a full member. Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is the boss who is conscious of the power and weakness of his status, and his faithful associates are Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as the self-controlled man who always has the solution and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a totally unpredictable and insane gangster.

The screenplay, written by Nicholas Pileggi (writer of Wiseguy, the book which inspired Scorsese), reports the reality of the story by giving credibility to all the roles. It is emphasized by the voice-over of Henry who presents the story from his own eyes. Every problem is handled meticulously with a dynamic narrative tone. Several times, Scorsese uses flashbacks to illustrate transactions. The camera follows Henry in his life, focusing on the relation he has with his wife and his mafia fellas. Karin Hill (Lorraine Bracco), by falling in love with Henry, confirms that the power he got from being a mobster is attractive. During the entire movie, she realizes that her husband is a real mafioso and it is underlined by her voice heard off-screen. Sadly, her role in Henry’s life is not strong enough to move him away from the easy money he gets from his illegal arrangements.

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Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) on a date

Goodfellas fits into a movie genre that Francis Ford Coppola had exploited years before with The Godfather in 1972. In the same way of the latter, the success of Martin Scorsese’s film can be found in the exposition of masculinity in a humane way. All characters adhere to a code of conduct, and several dialogues focus on the values and “honesty” required in the mafia. But at the same time, these values represent social mores in life. Moreover, despite their reprehensible actions, they are respectful, funny and gracious. Even if the topic of gangster is a classic theme in cinema and may be exaggerated with clichés about drugs or the excessive way of life of mobsters, Goodfellas manages to depict the usual and vulgar reality of living in this community. It is not only a gangster movie. It also develops a romance, a friendship story and a criticism of organized crime. Indeed, money is central in the movie and the director zooms on the bills as much as possible. This focus emphasizes the fact that money is a true preoccupation representing power and status in society.

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The goodfellas reunited after a big deal
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The « funny guy » scene at the Bamboo Lounge. On the left, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) talking to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)

Martin Scorsese, by using all the ingredients of a gangster movie succeeds in filming an absorbing and fascinating story. The atmosphere is intimate in the way that spectators feel close to the characters and have compassion for their actions, which can be considered rather as disproportionate actions made by human beings. Dialogues are full of witticisms, which transform tragic scenes into an amusing drama. The key in this movie is to destroy the audience’s expectations towards the gangster film genre.

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Concerning the music, the repertoire accompanies perfectly every scene and brings frivolity in a dangerous and illegal context. Moreover, the cast is excellent and actors are in the right balance between comedy and drama. Goodfellas is a smash hit. 


Directed by              Martin Scorsese

Produced by             Irwin Winkler

Screenplay by          Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese

Based on                    Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi

Starring                      Robert de Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino

Cinematography     Michael Ballhaus

Distributed by          Warner Bros. Pictures

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