Unlike The Godfather, in Martin Scorsese’s depiction of New York mafioso, no one pretends to be a man of honor. That’s one of the reasons it’s so great.
For a month now, the most frequently asked question among filmoids has been, Which gangster movie do you like? Meanwhile, the rest of the population worries about war. And yet GoodFellas, Miller’s Crossing and King of New York might provide as fitting a context as any other for viewing the present military crisis. First the United States asserts the need to send troops to a client state; then it goes around demanding payment for its services. Has our military policy ever looked more like a protection racket?
Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is probably the best of the gangster pictures now in the theaters, not least because it encourages such leaps of metaphor. Starting from the recollections of Brooklyn mobster Henry Hill, GoodFellas expands outward until it bursts the limits of its form. Like every story told in voiceover, it implies an address to the viewer. But only a filmmaker with Scorsese’s nerve would take that implication to its logical conclusion, ending with an eye-to-eye confrontation between narrator and audience. The character we’ve watched suddenly turns to watch us; the day-to-day business of the Mafia, which we’ve been observing for a thrill, turns out to be part of our own daily business.
The strategy is nervy but it’s also poised—however strange that word sounds for a film of such violence. In recounting Hill’s long career in the mob, from teenaged gofer to middle-aged dope peddler and thief, GoodFellas balances between complicity with the character (which is strongest in the many point-of-view sequences) and a face-off with him, as at the end. Camera movements weigh against occasional freeze-frames; Hill’s voiceover weighs against his wife Karen’s. (Alone among current gangster pictures, GoodFellas lets a woman speak.) Even the tones of voice sound curiously poised. Having married into the Mafia, Karen Hill describes its milieu as both an insider and an outsider. But then, so does the half Sicilian, half Irish Hill, who says of the worst bloodletting, “Among the Italians, it was real greaseball shit.” Characteristically, Scorsese manages to be both brutally physical and coldly rational, to take the viewer inside the character’s skin and yet stand at a distance. Perhaps, though, the balance is a bit too expert.
For the most part, GoodFellas shows us a great filmmaker doing what he already knows how to do. There’s a sense of mastery but not of discovery—except, of course, for one long, extraordinary sequence, in which federal agents finally end Hill’s career. At that point, you can feel Scorsese daring himself to go further, to put together the elements in a new way so that everything he does becomes expressive. What’s brilliant is that the climax of this long sequence is its only moment of stasis. Hill stops and the camera stops—both of them literally arrested—and you understand, without a word being spoken, how this moment must have come as a relief to the frazzled mobster.