Mangia! In Goodfellas, food and family are linked together tighter than a string of salamis. Whether the characters are making a meal together or chowing down on the final product, food symbolizes the deep bond between family members.
Even when Henry and his crew get locked up, dinner is the main event. These guys are brothers in marinara, even in the slammer. Similarly, when Michael comes to visit, Henry cooks a monstrous meal in his honor and entrusts Michael with stirring the sauce. Then, there's Tommy's darling mama. When Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy stop by her house to snag a shovel, she insists upon whipping up a middle-of-the-night meal, making them a culinary offer they can't refuse—even if they are in the middle of hiding a dead body. For these stone-cold killers, food is love.
If grubbing out is how relationships are sustained in Goodfellas, the times that food is AWOL are important, too. For example, when Henry takes Janice out, it's for drinks, not dinner. That chick isn't family. He may set her up in an apartment, but he's never going to bake her a lasagna. Food is also absent the last time Henry meets Jimmy at the diner. Over coffee, and only coffee, Henry realizes he's in danger of getting whacked.
Karen doesn't have a problem with the shady way that Henry brings home the bacon. She can look past it. What she can't look past, literally, is the big hair that symbolizes membership in the Mob Wives Club.
"They had bad skin and wore too much makeup," Karen says in horror as she looks around the room at Mickey's hostess party. "I mean, they didn't look very good. They look beat up, and the stuff they wore was thrown together and cheap: a lot of pantsuits and double knits." As the camera pans around the room, we see what Karen sees: tacky clothes, massive coifs, and horrible eye shadow on everybody.
The mob wives all look the same, and that wholly unflattering look symbolizes their status: as wives, as mothers, as vital supporting players in the family. While the sartorial symbolism initially makes Karen want to barf in her handbag, over the course of the movie, her clothes get gaudier, and her hair gets bigger. The more entrenched in the family she gets, the more she becomes part of their glitzy, blue goop facial-getting gang.
"My god, you look like a gangster," Henry's mother gasps when her boy comes home in his first suit. She's right: he does look like a gangster. That's the point, ma.
While the mob wives' fashion sense would send the style wonks at US Weekly spinning, their husbands dress to impress—and intimidate. Just like their old ladies, their flashy suits symbolize their membership in a very exclusive club, but more than that, they're a display of power. They don't just say, "I've got enough cash to buy this dope suit," but also, "I'm not afraid to get your blood on it, sucker. I'll just buy another one."
Of course, bespoke suits aren't the only way the men of the family flash their cash. They drive Cadillacs, fill their houses with pricey furniture, wear pinkie rings, bribe the cops, and never meet a pocket or sweaty palm they couldn't press a $20 into. But, the expensive suit is the gangster's uniform and his most consistent, tailored display of power.
Ever heard the old chestnut, "You can't really understand somebody until you walk a mile in their shoes"? Two of Goodfellas most memorable moving images put you right into Henry's expensive wingtips. We're talking about the movie's two big tracking shots: when Henry introduces the crew and when Henry sweeps Karen into the Copacabana for their first solo date.
"The tracking shots have been discussed to death," acknowledges film critic Sonny Bunch, "[…] but Scorsese isn't just showing off. These shots serve a purpose." They parachute the audience into Henry's point of view.
In the introductions shot, the camera tracks through the restaurant as Henry meets and greets characters with more nicknames than a college fraternity: Jimmy Two Times, Freddy No Nose, the whole gang is there. Not only are they present and accounted for, but they also make eye contact with the camera and sound off for the roll call, letting the audience experience exactly what Henry experiences whenever he catches up with his creatively named pals.
Similarly, when Henry and Karen wind their way into the Copacabana through the back door, as Henry doles out tips and nabs the best seat in the house, we're the third wheel on their date. We're not just seeing things from Henry's POV; we're seeing them from Karen's, too.
One of Scorsese's visual tricks is using freeze frame shots to stop the action at critical points in Henry's life. Examples:
The freeze frames let us know what Henry remembers as important times in his life, drawing our attention to them and grounding us even more firmly in his point of view.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Brooklyn is Henry's home turf. Like most teens who aren't international pop stars, he lives at home with his mom, dad, and siblings.
Henry is called to adventure when he gazes below at the cabstand through his window blinds. There, he sees wiseguys in flashy suits, puffing on cigars, maxin', relaxin', and generally having a swell time. Before you can say "taxi," he gets a part-time job there.
When Henry's dad finds out his son has been skipping school for months, working at the cabstand instead, he beats up Henry. Henry then goes to Tuddy and says he has to quit before his dad turns his face into ground beef.
Henry's first real encounter with Paulie, including his first taste of Paulie's power, comes when Paulie has his guys pop Henry's mailman's head into the pizza oven at La Bella Vista. Thanks to Paulie, Henry's household never gets a letter from his truant officer again.
When Henry refuses to rat out his pals after getting pinched selling stolen cigarettes, the whole crew is at the courthouse to celebrate. Jimmy even slips Henry some cash, calling it his "graduation present." After that, it's crystal clear that Henry is part of the gang.
Henry's rise through the mob's ranks is filled with obstacles and tests. There's the Air France robbery, hiding Billy Batts' body, re-hiding Billy Batts' body, keeping his wife and his girlfriend happy, a four-year stint in jail, and the infamous Lufthansa heist.
For Henry and his crew, these challenges are a family affair. Jimmy and Tommy are with Henry all along the way, and they're often joined by an assortment of other allies, most of them gangsters, like Frank. But, as Frank's murder proves, in mobland, an ally can become an enemy in an instant.
This is the step in the journey where the hero makes his final preparations before jumping headfirst into his greatest danger. For Henry, that's when he lies to Paulie about the drugs. Paulie tells Henry to knock it off with the trafficking, and Henry says he will. Then, he goes right back to pushing cocaine. Even worse, he enlists Tommy and Jimmy to help him behind Paulie's back.
Henry's supreme ordeal stretches on for an entire day: Sunday, May 11, 1980. He has errands to run, a brother to pick up, a helicopter to evade, sauce to stir—oh, and lots of drugs to get to his contacts in Pittsburgh. His challenge? Do all of that without burning the sauce and getting busted. Because, after lying to Paulie and roping in Tommy and Jimmy, if Henry gets busted, he's a dead man.
Henry may be the hero of this tale, but, objectively, he's not a very good guy. Therefore, his Hero's Journey is different—so different, in fact, that he doesn't get a reward. He doesn't win. He just gets arrested by narcs in his driveway.
Of course, you could argue that Henry's prize for getting arrested is that he gets a chance to start over and try being a fine, upstanding citizen, without having to worry about getting whacked. But, Henry probably would consider that more of a punishment than a reward, wouldn't he?
The Road Back is the reverse of Crossing the Threshold. For Henry, his is through the courtroom, where he rats out Jimmy and Paulie in order to avoid jail time. In the eyes of the law, this is about as close as the lifelong criminal can get to being forgiven.
After testifying against his former BFFs, Henry goes into the Witness Protection Program and is resurrected as a whole new person.
This stage in the Hero's Journey is usually when the hero returns home to his Ordinary World as a changed man. In Henry's case, he's definitely a changed man at the end of the movie—heck, he even has a shiny new identity, thanks to the Witness Protection Program—but he doesn't go home. He can never go home. His new Ordinary World is suburban Nowhere, USA. There, his problems are solved for the most part, and he and his family are forced to start over and gain a fresh perspective on life as a family of average schnooks.
Do you like your mafia tales epic? Then Goodfellas is just the yarn for you. It spans a whopping 25-plus years in New York City. The scenes of Henry's early life are set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, and the film moves on to Queens (including the JFK heists) with occasional stops to bury bodies in Connecticut, sun at the beach in Long Island, and party at the Copacabana club in Manhattan.
After a quick flash-forward to 1970, Goodfellas' story settles into 1955, when Henry is a teenager. From there, the story throttles forward again, making pit stops in 1963, 1970, and 1980, when Henry ultimately enters the Witness Protection Program. All of these cinematic hops through history are conveniently stamped with an on-screen date so the audience doesn't get lost, break the space-time continuum, and create a bunch of Back to the Future-style paradoxes.
So, what's up with those years? Why stop there? Because those years signal changes in Henry's life. They're key to understanding his rise through the mafia ranks. In 1955, Henry first gazes at the Ciceros' cabstand and sets his sights on joining the family. In 1963, the mob's airport robbery business really takes off (pun only slightly intended, Shmooper), and Henry meets Karen. In 1970, Tommy whacks Billy Batts. And, of course, in 1980, Henry gets busted for drugs, and the extravagant life he's built all comes crashing down.
Obviously, Goodfellas' narrative can't cover everything that happens in Henry's life. And, really, who wants to see him go to the dentist? What it can do is highlight the most important intervals, reflecting how our memories really work. We're willing to bet you don't remember every single thing that happened to you between your 9th and 10th birthdays, but you probably do remember breaking your arm, getting an iguana for Christmas, and giving that rad presentation on Benjamin Franklin.
Goodfellas may hurtle through time like a twisted season of Doctor Who, but when it comes to location, the movie keeps things simple. Everything goes down in New York City. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The … well, you get the point.
New York is the wiseguys' playground. They own the city and everybody in it. "We were treated like movie stars with muscle," Henry explains. "We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along." For the family, New York is home base for everything from hijacking planes to children's birthday parties. Within the friendly confines of NYC, it seems there isn't anybody Henry and his crew can't charm, bribe, or bully.
New York City is so ingrained in these guys and gals' DNA that it's practically a character in the film. Just like the mafia, the city is an island unto itself. Over the course of 146 minutes, we almost never see Henry leave it. When he does leave, to go to Tampa and shake down some poor schnook, his butt lands in jail.
For Henry and his crew, New York isn't just their hometown, it's their source of power. They're not high-ranking mafia dons, they're the soldiers on the ground. They run this town like Jay Z and Rihanna. They're perpetually in an "Empire State of Mind."
Sure, narrators are cool. But you know what's even cooler? Two narrators.
Goodfellas' narrative is driven by voice-overs from both Henry and Karen, giving the audience a comprehensive concept of what life in the mob is really like. "That [Henry] narrates his own story—and is later joined by his wife, narrating hers—is crucial to the movie's success," claims Roger Ebert. "This is not an outsider's view, but a point-of-view movie based on nostalgia for the lifestyle." (Source)
There's no "he said, she said" conflict between Henry and Karen; instead, their points of view complement each other. "For us, to live any other way was nuts," Henry explains of his, uh, unique line of work. "To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers." Adds Karen: "After a while, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts." Simply put, Henry and Karen's stories line up like a set of His and Hers towels, creating an all-inclusive portrait of just how decadent and morally twisted life in the mafia can be.
Allowing Henry and Karen to tell their own story also allows them to explain themselves and their often-questionable—and, sometimes, downright deplorable—behavior. Karen hiding Henry's gun may have had you screaming at your TV, for example. But then, she tells us directly, "I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on." Karen fessing up that she knew it was a big red flag, but she just didn't care, makes it harder to be angry at her poor decisions. Hiding your new boyfriend's firearm is still a really, really stupid idea, but her self-awareness is endearing. She's just a young moron in love.
Covering nearly 30 years in Henry's life, Goodfellas is a lengthy flick. But, it doesn't feel that way. The narrative's episodic structure makes Henry's adventures in the mob fly by as it jumps from decade to decade using helpful on-screen time stamps. It's frenetic and exciting, just like Henry's real experience.
Chopping up the narrative into episodes also gives the story space. The narrative starts with a flash-forward before settling into Henry's teenage years in Brooklyn. Characters drop in and out when necessary, just like how people drop in and out of our real lives. The story doesn't chronologically charge from one plot point to the next. Instead, it moves like our memories actually do. It's fragmented and occasionally messy.
The takeaway from Goodfellas' narrative isn't that first, this happened, and then, this happened. Rather, Goodfellas' narrative structure sets the mood and lets the audience experience what life in a 20th century mafia family was really all about.
Battery. Hijacking. Murder. Lots and lots of murder. Is there any doubt that the wiseguys in Goodfellas are criminals? Movies in the crime genre are all about the lives of lawbreakers. Trips to jail and courtroom scenes are commonplace; violence and police officers are plentiful. While the characters in Goodfellas may be outlaws from head to toe, when it comes to the conventions of the crime movie, Goodfellas plays by the rules.
Drama movies are all about conflict, and, boy oh boy, are the characters in Goodfellas conflicted. They're constantly choosing between right and wrong, good and evil. Furthermore, Henry and his crew are perpetually at odds with people and often at odds with each other. From all of this conflict comes a metric ton of tension. Families are often at the heart of dramatic films, and our main man Henry has not one but two families to try to keep happy. By the end of the movie, as a helicopter full of narcs looms overhead, Henry is in full-blown crisis mode. And, crisis? It's a hallmark of the drama genre.
Less than a minute into Goodfellas, a title card tells us, "This film is based on a true story." Why, hello there, biography.
Biopics (short for "biographical pictures") tell the story of a real person, using their real name, and clinging as close to the truth as possible. In the case of Goodfellas, that real-deal character is Henry Hill, and the film's story is pulled from writer Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy, a non-fiction book all about the mobster-turned-informant.
While the movie sticks mostly to the facts—what with its source material including hundreds of hours of interviews with Hill himself—it does tweak a few minor things, like supporting characters' names. But, most of what goes down in Goodfellas—from the Air France robbery to the brutal murder of Billy Batts—happened.
Do you mind if we let Henry explain this one?
HENRY: You know, we always called each other "goodfellas." Like you said to, uh, somebody, "You're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella. He's one of us." You understand? We were goodfellas. Wiseguys.
So, according to Henry's narration, "goodfella" is a term of endearment, a way to mark someone as one of your own. Of course, the fact that these self-proclaimed goodfellas spend the film's 146 minutes hijacking planes, cheating on their wives, and whacking people left and right is more than a little bit ironic and really stretches the meaning of the word "good."
Henry Hill's story doesn't wind to an end. It crash lands in suburban hell. As we spot Henry in an ugly blue bathrobe, picking up the morning paper and smirking at the camera, he tells us firsthand that he's super bummed about his decadent mobster lifestyle going kaput. "I'm an average nobody," he grouses, "get to live my life like a schnook." For Henry, living a thoroughly ordinary life is practically a death sentence.
Then, Sid Vicious's punk-rock spin on "My Way" kicks in. "Regrets? I've had a few," Vicious sneers. What about Henry? We get the sense that, if anything, Henry regrets getting caught. He may regret lying to Paulie and going against his advice. He probably doesn't regret all of those dudes he helped kill or the cocaine he pumped through Pittsburgh, though.
Now, we know what you're thinking: "What about that weird shot of Tommy firing a gun straight into the camera? What's that all about?" That's director Martin Scorsese's homage to the grand tradition of outlaws on film, more specifically Edwin Stanton Porter's 1903 silent film, The Great Train Robbery.
The Great Train Robbery is a 12-minute short film about—yep, you guessed it—a bunch of bandits pulling off an awesome train robbery. It ends with one of the outlaws opening fire directly into the cam.
In an interview with the American Film Institute, Scorsese explains the connection between his movie and Porter's: "Basically, in Goodfellas, it's a bunch of outlaws who do this incredible robbery. And then they all kill each other, and the police get them at the end. It's exactly the same story." In other words, Scorsese ripped off the scene. But, you know what they say—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Goodfellas really earns its R rating. Profanities are plentiful—we're talking hundreds of uses of the f-bomb alone, coming up #10 on Pajiba's list of all-time f-bomb frequency in movies. (Someone had to watch them all and count.) The violence is pervasive and graphic. The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert writes that, in order to get the film into theaters and keep an R rating, Scorsese had to edit out almost a dozen bloody frames. (Source) Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll? There's a healthy dose of that, too. Suffice it to say, don't watch this one with your impressionable little brother.