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In September of 1990, Martin Scorsese captivated audiences worldwide with his genre-bending feature film, Goodfellas. The movie follows the life of Henry Hill and his unorthodox upbringing in the Italian Mafia. Idolizing mob bosses and made men, Henry was living in a fantasy world filled with dirty money and luxury items galore. Scorsese portrays the world in which these ‘Goodfellas’ reside as something of a fantasy, a newfound family which would accept and protect you: so long as you stay loyal to those above you, and keep your mouth shut. Along with crime comes punishment, and through a plethora and connections and payoffs, punishment rarely catches up to the perpetrator. The viewer becomes suddenly connected to these men, and begins to sympathize with them through quotes such as, “That’s what the FBI could never understand; That what Pauly and the organization does, is offer protection for people that can’t go to the cops […] they’re like a police department for wise guys”.
Crime and corruption are constant themes that are admirably represented by Scorsese. At first glance, the environment in which he immerses the mobsters appears to be glamorous and posh. However, when we look deeper into the lavish lives of these dubious men, we can see that Scorsese does not wish to exalt these men, and as the film progresses, the viewer begins to realize that Scorsese isn’t glorifying, but instead is critiquing American society by bastardizing the idea of ‘The American Dream’ and the willingness to do anything to achieve it. The American Dream has been presented to the American public, promising success, so long as you are willing to fight for it. Dismissing this idea is one of Scorsese’s goals, who tells us that such idiosyncrasy is capable of corrupting men, making them overly ambitious and subsequently bringing out the lowest in a person. As seen in the slow downfall of Henry Hill, those who follow this dream will find themselves dehumanized as money and success turns them into monsters capable of anything so long as it benefits them.
Scorsese does not rely solely upon dialogue in the film to support his argument against falling victim to the American dream and the absence of morality in favor of personal gains. Scorsese instead strengthens this point through the use of expert camera work, in conjunction with purposeful auditory elements, are used to stitch together scenes that have no blatant connection to one another; yet when presented as such, the scenes deliver an impactful message. I have chosen two scenes which, when looked at individually, are meaningless fluff; however, when examined closely, these scenes demonstrate many of the themes which manifest themselves in the film. The first scene is that of the famous longshot where Henry Hill and Karen enter the nightclub that he usually frequents.
The song, Then he kissed me by The Crystals begins to play and a feeling of playfulness and good energy arises. Henry flaunts his influence, skipping the line and nonchalantly enters the kitchen of the restaurant through a side entrance. Upon reaching the inside of the club, the waiters set a table for the couple at the front of the crowded restaurant. $20 tips are given to many and courteous greetings are exchanged with everyone from the owner of the restaurant to the line cooks in the kitchen. Finally seated at their table, the music cuts and a comedian begins to tell one-liners which the audience thoroughly enjoys. In the scene that follows, we see Henry Hill and Tommy stroll into an airplane hangar belonging to Air France, thanks to a contact who works within the airline, to steal a suitcase full of money. In the transition to this sequence, the sound of the nightclub continues and remains, so that while Henry and Tommy carry out an uncomplicated robbery, we can hear comedic one-liners in the background. After the casual robbery, the comedian’s routine ends and the music resumes which, as is customary in Scorsese’s cinema, happens to be a playful sixties song. One of Scorsese’s main approaches in the film was treating the gangster context in which his characters move ironically, with the intention of denoting the moral contradictions in those lifestyles.
However, it is inevitable that in the face of such a task the question arises: How to express the irony in the moral codes of such people in a cinematic way? This question can be answered through the transition between the two scenes; which is powerful due to the ironic effect produced by the combination of the sound from the first scene, and the image of the second. One scene is fun and exciting but the other is not, yet, it is inevitable that the tone of the first scene permeates that of the second, making the effect of the moral transgressions by Henry Hill and his henchman ironic in nature. The film captures the day-to-day life of a gangster, but not only irresponsibly money, but how their ‘work’ absorbs the most of their time. For these men there was no rest, in order to maintain a life of luxury and excess, they would have to constantly be working, whether it was business, extortion or theft. Killing someone or assaulting a cargo truck had no ethical connotation, but simply meant getting money. In other words, these men treated organized crime as a job like any other, therefore naturalizing their illegal activity; they become numb to a lifestyle dictated by criminal activity, and extreme violence and a blatant lack of integrity become meaningless to them. Undoubtedly, the film manages to fascinate the viewer, through careful camera movements, the overwhelmingly rapid presentation of scenes which are synchronized with well thought out musical themes, and of course, the voiceover that refrains from explaining what is happening on the screen, instead highlighting the emotions of the main characters, as well as their relationship to the context surrounding them.
The impeccable cinematography, coupled with the image of powerful gangsters, which can do whatever they want without suffering the consequences, introduces the public into a world that at first glance is extremely attractive. In an attempt to capture realism in the film, Scorsese creates a Pablo Picasso-esque portrait, which while based on the classic American gangster archetype, is coupled with elements that project human attributes onto these untouchable criminals. The life of a gangster is a constant search for identity, of social and economic success. These traits force these men to work hard and slowly move up in the world, only for their success to be snatched from them bluntly. The gangster lives in a world that is unbothered by the social groups that surround it, yet they still share the same wishes as the rest of society. The stereotype of a man with unlimited privileges and a carefree existence is not just the dream of Henry Hill but also resembles the dream of any individual who seeks recognition in their own life. In this sense, Goodfellas is effective in constructing the most proper take on the American gangster.
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