Hobbes After Marx, Scorsese After Coppola: On GoodFellas
by Carl Freedman
Originally published in Film International 9.1 (2011): 42-62.
From Coppola to Scorsese
GoodFellas--which I take to be the absolute summit of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career, surpassing even Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976),Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) among his other strongest works--came out in 1990, the same year as the final third of Francis Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Though the timing is almost certainly a co-incidence, it is a highly appropriate one. For Scorsese’s film of 1990 is, like Coppola’s, defined--though of course it is much less obviously or directly defined--by the first two installments of the Godfather series. This is not to deny that some of the seeds of GoodFellas can be found in Scorsese’s earlier work and also, for that matter, in films by other directors as well. Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), in which James Cagney’s character is clearly the direct model for Joe Pesci’s in GoodFellas (and also for Pesci’s character in Casino), is one especially pertinent example. But GoodFellas is a mob movie in a way and to a degree that White Heat and even Mean Streets are not, and, indeed, that hardly any really first-rate Hollywood film before The Godfather (1972) is. In White Heat, for example, there is no real “mob,” no large-scale criminal organization--just a small, mobile band of robbers. As for Mean Streets, most of its action (like some of the action of Raging Bull) takes place on the fringes of the Mafia. But the inner workings of organized crime are incidental--not, as in the genuine mob movie, central--to the film’s narrative and character development. Indeed, Coppola’s overwhelming success has made it easy to forget that, prior to 1972, the mob movie was a relatively minor genre. It had a certain presence in the Hollywood repertoire, but had never attained the kind of major success enjoyed by the Western or by film noir. As a matter of fact, the genre’s relatively undistinguished history helped to make for considerable studio resistance, at first, to turning Mario Puzo’s novel into a big-budget film.
The Godfather and its immediate sequel, The Godfather, Part Two (1974), changed all that, of course; and by 1990 the pre-eminence of Coppola’s masterpieces within the genre of the mob film was incontestable (though Brian De Palma had made an important contribution to the form with Scarface --a remake vastly superior to Howard Hawks’s 1932 film of the same name--as had Sergio Leone with Once Upon a Time in America ). The best way, I think, to understand GoodFellas is to see it as the only successful attempt to make a mob movie of stature truly comparable to that of the Godfather films: and, moreover, one that understands that it would have been quite impossible to rival Coppola’s work by attempting anything profoundly similar to it. Samuel Beckett famously maintained that James Joyce had written literature that expanded the resources of language to the utmost, beyond what any other author could hope to do; and that, therefore, the only way to follow Joyce’s incomparable achievement was to go in the exactly opposite direction and to contract language to the maximum extent feasible. In somewhat the same way, Scorsese (whether with full self-consciousness or not) implicitly offers to rival Coppola by making a mob movie that is as much opposed as possible to the Godfather films.1 Scorsese himself has, in fact, more than once seemed to imply as much.
In the following pages I will keep the antithetical precedent of the Godfather trilogy steadily in view as I analyze what seem to me the three most important aspects of the mob lifeworld as represented by GoodFellas: the essentially proletarian nature of the stratum of the Mafia inhabited by the film’s characters, where the rewards of crime generally turn out to be considerably more meager than they may at first seem; the Hobbesian near-anarchy of violence, fear, and insecurity that characterizes everyday life in this proletarian stratum of the mob; and the attendant solitariness in which the characters of GoodFellas necessarily live.
The View from the Mafia’s Factory Floor
Perhaps the most obvious way that GoodFellas adopts a strategy opposite to that of the Godfather films concerns the radically different coigns of vantage from which the two filmmakers examine the workings of the Mafia. Coppola’s interest is almost entirely in top management: the Corleones themselves are the main examples, of course, but other examples include such secondary characters as the Tattaglias (the Corleones’ arch-rivals in New York in the first film), Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo, Moe Greene, Don Barzini, Don Tommasino (Michael’s protector in Sicilian exile in the first film, who returns in the third), Hyman Roth, Frankie Pentangeli, and, in the third film, Don Altobello and Don Lucchesi. Such ruling-class types prefer to conduct business in private, and the spaces most prominently featured in the Godfather films are indeed private ones: especially fortress-like mansions, but also the offices, suites, and conference rooms of the mighty. In few respects is Coppola’s trilogy more profoundly a saga of American big business from the perspective of the boardroom than in the rigorous separation it observes between the machinations of the top bosses and the actual work on which all the wealth of the enterprise ultimately depends. Don Vito Corleone’s fortune is based primarily on businesses like bootlegging and illegal gambling; but never do we see a bet taken or a drink served. Coppola’s interest in the Mafia is macroeconomic (and macropolitical). GoodFellas, by contrast, is very much a street-level film, with a keen interest in the microeconomics of organized crime.3 Much of the action takes place literally on the streets of New York City (mainly the unfashionable borough of Queens), and most of the rest is set in places like bars, inexpensive restaurants, airports, and prisons: all public spaces in which privacy is at a minimum. The highest-ranking Mafia executive in the movie is Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a mere neighborhood boss who, on a hypothetical organization chart of the mob, would surely be placed at least two or three levels below Michael Corleone; and even he is a secondary character. The protagonist is one Henry Hill (based on an actual person of the same name and played by Ray Liotta as an adult, by Christopher Serrone as a youngster), a proletarian type who, far from being born into Mafia aristocracy, is not even born into the Mafia at all. Coming from working-class poverty in a mixed Irish-Italian family, Henry as a child just happens to live across the street from a cabstand and a pizzeria that function as mob fronts and hang-outs for lower-level Mafiosi. Observing the goings-on there from his parents’ front window, Henry aspires to what he imagines to be the free, easy, and glamorous life of the mobsters: “I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant, and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer, when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.” It is striking how pathetically modest are these examples of privilege, cited by Henry in voice-over, that convince him that being a gangster is somehow “better than being President of the United States.” As a schoolboy, he crosses the street to join the mob at the lowest possible level--doing such odd jobs as parking cars, serving food, and delivering messages--and gradually works his way up to modest success as the owner of a mob-connected restaurant and, later, as a dealer in cocaine.
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