Belonging and Normality in Goodfellas

Based off a true story detailed in the pages of the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese explores the dark and violent world of the New York mob scene in his 1990 film Goodfellas. Narrated by voiceovers from Henry and Karen Hill, (Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco) the film juxtaposes the crime-ridden lives that the gangsters lead with a family atmosphere they try to foster around them. The theme is emphasized by a narration that is often subjective in nature. Scorsese mixes elements of mise-en-scene, camerawork, and editing to illustrate the divide between the mafia lifestyle and the average civilian life. “No outsiders ever. It got to be normal.” Karen Hill makes this declaration while discussing the tight-knit group of people that work for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), demonstrating the idea that she and everyone else get caught up in the sense of community and lose sight of the abnormality of their professional gangster lifestyles.

The contradiction of living a wholesome family lifestyle while working as professional criminals is most evident during the scene where the trio of Henry, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), sit down to have dinner with Tommy’s mother (Catherine Scorsese) shortly after attacking Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) for taunting Tommy. Tommy is covered in blood and Batts is even still alive in the trunk of the car while Tommy’s mother serves them a full meal. This moment is emphasized by the fact the film opens with the crew driving upstate to bury Billy. Overall, Goodfellas employs linear storytelling, but the opening scene is an example of temporal frequency and order being tampered with because the opening scene takes place in 1970 before returning to 1955 to show Henry’s early days with the mob. The subjectivity of the narration reveals itself early on as a young Henry talks about his goal to become a gangster while looking at the gang from his window across the street from them. At the end of the movie it is revealed that all of these stories are coming out because Henry makes the decision to give everyone up so that he can join the witness protection program. In the middle of the trial while Henry is on the stand he breaks the fourth wall that separates the viewer from the characters. He gets up walks towards the camera and declares, “Everything was for the taking and now it’s all over.” Throughout the film, Karen and Henry’s narration work together to give the viewer an unrestricted and subjective access to see into what living their lives is like.

Karen is overwhelmed by all of the people that dwell around Paul Cicero and his operation. She comments on her wedding day, “By the time I had finished meeting everybody I thought I was drunk.” The scene that best encompasses her feelings in a visual representation is a long take that occurs when Henry takes Karen to the Copacabana and they enter through the side door. Bypassing the long line, Henry walks Karen through a series of winding hallways, greeting nearly everyone he sees as he goes. The long take allows the feeling of being flooded with new friendly faces all at once to take root with the viewer just as Karen experiences it. Scorsese could have chopped the scene up with cuts, fragmenting the sequence up into individual interactions between Henry and his friends but the totality of seeing all of Henry’s connections in one take is more powerful. Karen’s sense of shock culminates in her dumbfounded facial expression as the couple takes their front row seat provided for them. The Copacabana long take shot is not framed within the context of perceptual subjectivity, but a previous long take is. In the earlier long take, Henry names a list of people that he is connected with as many of them look directly into the camera as it moves around the restaurant and some even address the viewer as if he is a character. Henry’s list is exhaustive as he identifies some people that never come up again in the rest of the film. They act as filler characters that are there simply to build up the realism of the scenario. The camerawork in these particular long takes functions to put the viewer directly in the position of the Hills and enforce the concept that each person was practically family. The camaraderie blinds all of them from the real consequences of their criminal actions and they erroneously feel invincible. While the camerawork sets up the family ideals, mise-en-scene – specifically the appearance of the color red – often acts to break down the familial vibe as it evokes violence.

Red is absolutely everywhere in Goodfelllas. The hue is the color of choice in the Copacabana and Sonny Bunz’s (Tony Darrow) restaurant The Bamboo Lounge as well, but the significance of the color is most notable during the sequence that shows Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy burying Billy Bats. Only moments after they are displayed sharing dinner with Tommy’s mother, the group is draped in a shade of red lighting that is motivated by the car’s brake lights as they dig a grave for a made man. An ominous layer of fog that catches the color and reflects it intensifies the red lighting. Billy’s blood is literally and figuratively all over them. The brutality of their lifestyle is shown when they have to kill Batts before burying him. Defenseless and already on the edge of death, Batts is stabbed several times by Tommy before being shot four times by Jimmy. Tommy could have simply cut Billy’s throat or Jimmy could have put a bullet in his head and made the murder quick, but they feel the need to over do it. All of this violence happens just because Billy insults Tommy and Tommy gets irrationally angry. The irrational reactions of characters play a large role in the film as well through Tommy and Jimmy.

The previously mentioned restaurant scene that opens with the subjective long take shows Tommy at his worst. Tommy tells a humorous story to a small circle of listeners. At the end of the story the group erupts in laughter and after getting control of his manic laughter Henry tells Tommy that he is a funny guy. Tommy demands to know what it is exactly that makes him funny. The mood turns hostile for a moment and everyone falls silent before Henry calls Tommy out on his odd joke. The line that separates jokes and serious conversation gets smudged over and it becomes clear just how deranged these people are. Sonny runs the restaurant and approaches Tommy to try and get him to pay a significant debt of $7,000 that he owed at the restaurant. Tommy takes offense as he did in the Batts sequence and smashes a glass over Sonny’s head. Again the gangsters bellow with laughter, Henry’s laugh the loudest out of all of them. Anyone in the right state of mind would be disturbed by the senseless violence against one of their own friends, but these men are all damaged and they no longer understand social norms as the rest of the world defines it. The laughter is only spurred on more when Henry calls Tommy a funny guy another time and Tommy pulls a gun on him. Looking down the barrel of a gun, Henry and everyone else around him laugh even harder than before. Living a life that is so tied up in enormous amounts of stress and violence the thread that holds sanity together will eventually fray.

After pulling off the largest heist in U.S. history Jimmy begins to come apart. Henry narrates, “I could see for the first time that Jimmy was a nervous wreck. His mind was going in eight different directions at once.” Jimmy submits to his paranoia and kills nearly every person involved with the heist. It is only a short amount of time before Henry starts to fall apart in much of the same way, but drugs fuel his paranoia. An intense sequence of fast paced cuts and action opens with text on screen that reads “Sunday May 11th, 1980 6:55 am.” Then Henry lists off all the things he has to do that day just after snorting cocaine. He has his mind on his sauce, his brother, his guns, his drugs, and an ominous helicopter that follows him the entire day. The to-do list exhibits that Henry’s attention is now split off in a number of different directions just like Jimmy’s. The scenes rattle off in episodical fashion always labeled by a timestamp to show that Henry is rushing around. Liotta’s makeup shows the stress on his face all the while. His eyes are red and his hair is disheveled all while he sweats through the ordeal. Rock music constantly plays in the background, which is a stark contrast to the easy jazz that is featured early on in the film. The music shift can be attributed to the fact that it is now 1980 in the film and to match Henry’s cocaine binge. While Henry is cooking the sauce, Scorsese plays with temporal frequency in a jarring manner. Henry looks up towards the camera and his panicked glance is repeated twice quickly twice in a row to display how stretched thin he is. The helicopter ends up being the DEA on his tail as he eventually gets arrested.

Once Henry gets arrested for dealing drugs Scorsese breaks down all of the sense of community he spent time building up through long takes in one shot. Henry gets home from jail and rushes to his room to find his stash of drugs that he needs to sell in order to make a quick buck. However, the viewer knows that Karen has dumped the drugs and flushed them down the toilet. Henry blows up on her for having a completely normal human reaction and getting rid of evidence before the cops searched the house. Again, what would be a normal thing to do becomes the exact opposite according to Henry’s twisted sense of right and wrong. Realizing the desperate nature of their scenario, the Hills break down in tears embracing each other in the corner of their room. The room is noticeably devoid of any red. The walls are green, the furniture is black, and they wear white. The mob lifestyle is over for them. They no longer belong to a crew and are alone in the world. If Paulie’s gang had a team color scheme it would certainly be a shade of red. The fact that red is removed from the scene is Scorsese showing that they have been cut from the team. While Karen and Henry cry in the corner the camera frames them in the far bottom left corner of the screen. No longer is the viewer given the vantage point from Karen or Henry. Perceptual subjectivity is gone because the gangster lifestyle is gone. The viewer is given a sense of distance from the Hills that is parallel to the distance that Karen and Henry now have between them and their old friends.

Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a long and intense reflection on how living a gangster’s lifestyle demands that you concede literally to the mob mentality. If you are not with the gang you are against them, therefore everyone involved must play along with the insanity that goes on. The term mob mentality today is used like a sociology term, labeling the phenomenon of people adopting a preference for things like fashion based on how the majority of the public chooses. However, in this more literal application of the mob mentality, the circle of people that decides which way the herd moves is very small. In the case of Goodfellas, Tommy and Jimmy often led the way for Henry, an example being the Billy Bats attack. Henry only watches their violence but he condones their behavior because he has to follow the herd. Eventually, Henry follows them and ends up sharing in their brutality and paranoia. Belonging is brought to the attention of the viewer through the long takes. Paranoia is emphasized by the edits of Henry’s cocaine binge and brutality is stressed through the color red. The combination of all of these culminates in a realistic representation of a real story of the descent of a mobster in New York.

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