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Critical analysis of American crime film 'Goodfellas'. Focusing on the attitudes towards criminality and law suggested in this film.
American cinema seems to have always had a preoccupation with crime and criminals, which is a testament not just to the proliferation of the crime genre, but to the quality of its luminaries. Of course it helps that James Cagney and the gangster flicks of the thirties and forties were drawing in crowds at the same time as one of America’s greatest crime writers, Raymond Chandler, was creating private eye masterpieces such as The Big Sleep, and adapting other works such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) for the screen. One of the largest audience drawing genre types of the forties behind melodrama and musical, it’s not hard to see how Bogart & Bacall, Chandler, Wilder, Cagney, Spillane and Aldrich could go on to influence both mainstream an alternative cinema for over half a century.
Of course this is not to diminish the overseas influence on the crime genre (and of course its many sub-genres), and in particular of Godard and Truffaut and Melville’s French new wave, the nouvelle vague, and its flagship text A Bout De Souffle (Godard, 1960), whose acknowledgement of cinematic technique tied up in the very act of telling a cinematic tall tale can be seen as a direct precursor to Tarantino’s post-modern technique of actively referencing other films in his own work (see the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction  which references the uranium filled briefcase in Kiss Me, Deadly [Aldrich, 1955]).
So we can see that cinema has had an active preoccupation with criminality for the best part of seventy years. Whilst film noir and the gangster films of the thirties tend to focus on the structure of good versus bad and the devolution of the good, Tarantino’s earlier works fuse together conventional cinematic notions of crime and criminality with the comic-realistic spanner-in-the-works of occupational mishaps (e.g. killing of a victim and the ensuing difficulty in covering up the mess, or a consideration of how long it actually takes an abdominal gun-shot wound to kill a man). In this essay I shall be considering how Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) presents ideas of crime and its relation to violence.
One of the few Scorsese films post-Raging Bull (1980) to receive much critical acclaim (along with most recent outing The Aviator, 2004), Goodfellas maintains the ambivalent attitude toward violence that we can also see in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver (1976), although it is a far less visually brutal film. Instead the brutality comes through the constant underlying pressure of impending violence, which exists throughout like a drum track pounding out the rhythm in every scene. Similar also to these two other films, and to Mean Streets, there is a tension that exists is his work between the repellent nature of his characters’ violent outbursts, and our sympathy with, for instance, Travis’ loneliness and isolation, Jake’s feelings of betrayal and the cultural limitations laid upon his masculinity, or Henry’s drive for success and his relative restraint compared to his associates. Steve Neale and Murray Smith state that:
“This ambivalent attitude to its protagonist is what makes Taxi Driver a great film. It is a film fuelled by the tension of sympathising with Travis’ loneliness while being repelled by his violent, anti-social behaviour. This is echoed in the tension between the reality of the street scenes and the lavish and seductive cinematography (by Michael Chapman) and music (by Bernard Herrmann).”
There is a similar relationship between the visual and aural aesthetics in Goodfellas and the constant simmering presence of violence. Far more than these previous dealings with violence, crime and masculinity, Goodfellas is a visually pleasing film, all bright colours and smooth camera work, and even the scenes of violence are not nearly as vividly potent as Travis’ shoot-out in the finale to Taxi Driver. Whereas in Mean Streets the aural gleefulness of the soul soundtrack was tempered and contrasted by the verite starkness and of its imagery (the proliferation of hand-held camera work, the red-light tainted nightclub scene, the natural light in Harvey Keitel’s apartment), in Goodfellas the up-tempo soundtrack is accompanied by a camera which prowls smoothly on cranes and dollies, and lighting which brings out the colours of his characters’ expensive and brash clothing and houses. More than his earlier works, the aesthetic of Goodfellas is typically cinematic – there is none of the gritty, subversive, nouveau vague inspired imagery.
The relevance of this is in Scorsese’s sympathetic response to Henry’s preoccupation with the trappings of power and prestige that his violent ways have afforded him. Even at the climax of the film, when Henry is released into the safe anonymity of the witness protection programme, and surrounded by suburban comfort, he can’t help but miss the privileges and excitement of ‘the life’. When Henry asks Karen to hide his gun for him, having witnessed him viciously beat a young man who came on too strong, she was not repelled by his violent masculinity, but admits that “it turned me on”. In a film of such explosive violence and derogatory machismo, perhaps the most shocking violent outburst comes in the first act when the young Henry is struck by his father for skipping school. What is most shocking is the casual manner in which Henry as narrator recalls this domestic abuse – he recalls he had to “take a few beatings”, but in the long run he stills feels it was well worth it. Henry, like Karen, is intoxicated by the power, money and lavish material gains that ‘the life’ can afford him and his family. The constant presence of violence made erratic by ego, and the need to carry out vile deeds such as burying a foul smelling corpse, or to go through violent domestic abuse, are merely the downsides of the job – like back pain to a construction worker, or knee damage to a sportsman, and it is this tension, this acceptance of violence as an everyday occurrence, which Scorsese explores. Like Henry, who is more sensitive than Tommy and Jimmy, the audience experience the pleasurable excesses and comforts alongside the brutal and repellent nature of the work, and neither is solely celebrated or derided in isolation. Neale and Smith state:
“Scorsese [does not want] to completely distance himself from Travis in order to make an explicitly polemical film against vigilantism and everything else unpleasant about the character. This is the type of film perhaps Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick would have made. But Scorsese rarely wants this kind of distance from his characters, and his films contain a dynamism few others achieve because of this.”
The film is famous for the manner in which its violence explodes out of seemingly innocuous situations, and we can see this reflected in the way Tommy lashes out at the poor young waiter who can’t keep a tight enough hold on his mouth, shooting him in the foot and then later killing him. In this instance, it is the unavoidable flaws in the characteristics of these men that escalate into bloody violence, and this is a theme which is continued throughout – more often that not, it is the characters inability to avoid their own greed or their own machismo which leads to their downfall. The young waiter thinks Tommy is too big for his boots, and can’t help but keep adding a little smart line under his breath, even though he knows he is pushing it with a dangerous man. In the same way as Tommy, he refuses to let someone steal whatever level of dominance and respect he may have, however little, even if it increases the threat of injury, or even death. Likewise Tommy’s downfall comes in his inability to get comfortable in his station, to tone down his tough-little-guy, bull-in-a-china-shop persona, until he finally realises his mistake with a quiet “Oh no” as he heads off not to become a made-man, but to be shot in the head. It is this terminal ambition, this tendency to always want more – more power, more money, more cocaine, more respect – which instigates the violence.
So then we can see not just in Goodfellas but throughout Scorsese’s work, there exists tempered a consideration of the repellent nature of violent crime tangled up in a close study of character, and the forces that drive these criminals to their acts of criminality. For all its set pieces and murders, the most memorable aspect of Goodfellas is the way in which the flaws in these characters personalities and the overtly masculine posturing nature of their world always instigate and escalate the violence, and ultimately bring about their own downfall – Tommy’s slaying of a made man is brought on by the man’s big mouth and his desire to have the last word, as well as Tommy’s indignation at someone trying to confirm his seniority over him. Like many of the scenes in the film, it starts off banal and escalates through both characters’ inability to calm the situation until one of them is dead. At the heart of this is Tommy’s dissatisfaction with his status – he has some respect, but he wants more. Likewise Jimmy has some power and a big share of their Lufthansa cash, but he wants more. Henry and Karen want more cocaine, more time, a more casual lifestyle. Scorsese seems to be suggesting that crime does pay, just not enough.
- John Belton, American Cinema/American Culture, McGraw/Hill, 1994
- John Belton, Movies and Mass Culture, Athlone Press, 1996
- Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, Screening The Male, Routledge, 1993
- Steve Neale and Murray Smith, Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Routledge, 1998
- Robert Warshow, 'The gangster as tragic hero' in The Immediate Experience, Harvard Press, 1962
- Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Columbia, 1986
- Justin Wyatt, High Concept, University of Texas, 1994