Martin Scorsese's camera just can't sit still. It's like your little brother, two hours into a nine-hour road trip—you know, minus the sticky fingers and repeated requests to play license plate poker. Unlike your pesky little brother, however, there's a method to Scorsese's madness.
Setting the Mood
Scorsese's mix of quick cuts, long panning shots, and even the liberal use of freeze frame creates a mood. It doesn't just let you see what it's like to be a gangster, it lets you feel it. "Scorsese's camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes," explains Roger Ebert. "And when they're planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal." (Source) The mob is an incredibly tight-knit, insular, closed-off family. Scorsese's production flourishes let you inside. And, unlike Henry, you don't even have to get arrested first.
That Infamous Tracking Shot
The long, unbroken shot that follows Henry and Karen into the Copacabana isn't just the most famous scene in Goodfellas; it's one of the most famous scenes in film history, period. "It's probably the hardest orchestrated single shot I've ever been involved in," first assistant director Joseph Reidy told GQ magazine. Adds Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, "There were 400 or more absolutely precise timing moments. It was totally impossible, mathematically."
The point of all of that hard work is to put the viewer in Henry's freshly buffed shoes. Doors being opened, tips being dished out, tables and champagne flying in from nowhere: Through that single continuous shot, the audience gets to ride shotgun with Henry on his big night out, as he works his butt off to impress Karen. Wooing her is a dance more intricate than a Pirates of the Caribbean paso doble, and Henry knows all of the steps. That Steadicam shot lets the viewer dance, too.
Henry According to Henry
That legendary tracking shot isn't the only way we're fed Henry's POV. It's not even the main way. The primary way that the viewer grasps Henry's point of view is through voice-over. "Often […] if you have a complicated plot, and you haven't figured out the plot, you have a voice-over explaining it to people," explains the film's co-writer, Nicholas Pileggi. "That isn't what we have here. What we have here is really the essence of the story... Let [Henry] tell his own story." (Source) Allowing Henry to share not only his story but also his motivations for all of the crazy stuff that goes down is just another innovative way that Goodfellas locks its audience into Henry's perspective.
So, why is that important? Because Henry and his associates do some seriously messed up stuff. The production techniques that Scorsese and his crew use to invite audiences into Henry's dynamic, claustrophobic, often violent world keep these wiseguys from turning into total monsters. Because Henry explains to us in voice-over why he does what he does, we see that's he majorly flawed but still totally human.
Mobsters—They're Just Like Us
Furthermore, when Henry climbs down off the witness stand at the end of the movie, breaks the fourth wall, and appeals to the audience directly, it becomes clear that he doesn't just want the audience to understand him—he needs them to. But, don't get it twisted: Henry isn't seeking forgiveness for the crimes he committed. Henry feels like he's the victim of the greatest injustice of all: having to waste away in suburbia like a regular schnook. He breaks the fourth wall in pursuit of your empathy.
Scorsese's production techniques don't judge Henry. They simply let Henry tell his own tale. Getting his story heard is important to him because, the way he sees it, he just wants what everybody wants: economic security, safety for his family, a sense of belonging, and some bomb spaghetti. Unlike you and us, however, he regularly goes to disturbing, and usually illegal, lengths to get those things. (We don't know about you, but our dad never robbed an airline so he could get us a rad Christmas tree. Just saying.)
Is Henry a bad guy? That's left up to the viewer to decide after they spend 146 minutes listening to him make his case. Because Goodfellas' production isn't trying to rat anybody out.