Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" are the ironically glamorized criminal underclass who occupy an ambivalent textual position somewhere between a criminal rap sheet and the pages of Modern Screen. With GoodFellas, Scorsese extends and refines his examination of those shadowy figures at the edge of collective media consciousness who seem both to shun exposure and to covet a dubious celebrity. A product of the urban working-class environment, they are "movie stars with muscle," familiar with the back alleys and circuitous underground routes which seem to lead to the front rows of the urban high life.
Yet it is a world in which display and concealment must be held in delicate equilibrium, where an incomprehensible chaos simmers beneath the surface textures of "normal" behaviours. Criminal camaraderie co-exists uneasily with virulent self-promotion; Joe Pesci's unnerving performance as Tommy DeVito provides the central figure for an explosive and unpredictable brutality, a barbarity which is ironically both ethos and threatening "other" to the self-regulating world of corporate criminality. Tommy is the dangerous and disruptive "arch-criminal" whose pathological machismo violates a more-or-less stable corporate hierarchy. His execution is less a visitation of poetic justice than a reminder of the arbitrary stratification which excludes Henry and Jimmy Conway from true success, from the "legitimacy" of more comfortable criminal associations.
By occupation, and by carefully educating himself in a life of crime, Henry seems to choose social over familial connections. Yet the glamorized freedoms of criminal marginality seem to inevitably segue into the restrictive enclosures of traditional domesticity. When Henry moves in with his mistress, Jimmy and Paulie Cicero order him to "do the right thing," to return to his wife. Appearances, at least, must be kept up, and deviation from normality frequently exacts the harshest of penalties. Economic freedom itself, the marginal "extras" wise guys struggle after, becomes a form of imprisonment, and criminal conspiracy inevitably demands the social exclusivity of the traditional suburban enclave. As Karen Hill explains, no "outsiders" are admitted into their social circle: "Being together all the time made everything seem all the more normal."
With the combined pressure of constant police harassment and a radically unpredictable business environment, domestic behaviours are grotesquely exaggerated while at the same time boundaries between private and "public" life are eroded: Karen casually sits in front of the television as detectives execute yet another search warrant; the morning after Henry witnesses another of Tommy's violent depravities, Karen threatens Henry for his sexual infidelities with a loaded pistol.
Karen's perception of surface normality is ironically echoed by Henry's commentary on the acceleration of mob violence throughout the 1970's. Shooting people simply becomes a "normal thing." During a lengthy though luxurious prison stay, Henry begins to deal cocaine even though on the outside dealing is an unacceptable form of enterprise because it exposes his superiors to harsh federal penalties. The romanticized illusion of a cohesive criminal community, of conspiratorial confidence, is dissipated with Tommy's execution and, ironically, with the final big score engineered by Morrie and Jimmy. Calculation and self-interest can no longer be glossed over by social familiarity, and the bodies of Jimmy's former associates garishly accumulate for months after the Lufthansa robbery.
In the final act, Henry has become the rogue individualist, dealing cocaine through a lucrative out-of-town connection. In a brilliantly adrenalized sequence during which he juggles the mounting pressures of state surveillance, banal domestic appointments, drug-intensified paranoia, professional treachery, and careless babysitters, Henry is finally outmanoeuvred by federal narcotics investigators. His arrest, of course, simultaneously exposes his treachery to his mob superiors, yet Henry remains adept in reading the duplicitous surface of a criminal society in which he has suddenly become a dangerous liability. After his final meeting with Jimmy, Henry opts into the witness protection program which, ironically, subjects him to an inescapable suburban normality. For Henry the hardest thing is not betraying lifelong associates but "leaving the life," becoming the "average nobody" who has to "wait around like everybody else."
In GoodFellas, organized crime seems to grow out of and perpetuate class division; it is the shortcut whereby the ambitious working class achieves only a tenuous facsimile of capitalist success. Scorsese's obvious message is that the American dream feeds upon those it enthralls, that even the criminal "success" story, however perilous, replicates the image of mainstream cultural beliefs.
Essay by Tom Orman
Release Date: 1990
Starring: Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Chuck Low, Frank Vincent, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Debi Mazar, Frank DiLeo, and Christopher Serrone
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi
Source Citation: Orman, Tom. "Goodfellas." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 475-477.