Everyone knows what a mobster looks like. We know how they talk, how they dress, how they relate to each other. We know about their secret rituals, and about the iron rules they live by.
We know about these because of the media. The Godfather, The Sopranos, Guys and Dolls. Arguably, the media created the Mafia aesthetic as much as it portrayed it. I read once, though I can sadly no longer find a source, that the FBI’s job got much easier after The Godfather was released, because all of the gangsters started dressing like the characters.
Goodfellas is a cinematic classic, and it’s definitely one of the most important films for cementing the cultural idea of how the mob looks and acts. I’ve only just got around to watching it. The film is based on the life of Henry Hill, a gangster-turned-informant. It charts his career in the criminal underworld, his rise and fall from assistant at a taxi company to wealthy drug dealer to protected witness. It’s narrated partly by Henry himself, and partly by his wife.
The acting is very strong, which is to be expected, given that almost all of the characters ended up contributing heavily to archetypes, popping up everywhere. Joe Pesci is a chatty mobster with an incredibly short fuse. Robert DeNiro is a smiling gentleman with no remorse. You know these characters – you’ve seen them a thousand times in a thousand different films.
The aesthetic is the real star here – clothes, cars, and music all contributing to the ideal of a mobster’s life, creating the legend. Goodfellas makes being a gangster look fantastic; you can completely see why Henry gets seduced into it, and it’s so easy to ignore the building hints that the life style is not sustainable or positive. As the film progresses, the hints become more obvious and the happy moments become more infrequent. The pace ranks up, and eventually even Henry realises that his life is not sustainable.
One technique that particularly deserves mention, because it supports the narrative themes and is used consistently throughout the film, is the rapid switching between radically different atmospheres. The mobsters live in a violent world, and the mood can shift in a second from light-heartedness to cold-blooded murder. After the first few times, you know it can happen at any moment, and it gives a sense of menace to even the most relaxed scenes.
Goodfellas also makes strong use of understatement. It expects you to figure things out, to reach the obvious conclusions. I find that that’s something increasingly rare, in books and on the screen. It’s good to watch a film that doesn’t assume I need everything spelt out for me, that allows me to work things out myself.
I’m aware that almost everyone in the world saw this film before I did, so a recommendation is a little redundant. But it’s a very good film, and it deserves its reputation as a classic.