An analysis of how narrative and genre features create meaning and generate a response in the opening of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is based on the culture of organized gang crime in New York. The gangster genre from the 1920s until the early 1930s was prevalent because most urban, ethnic and working-class audiences shared gangster’s desire to attain the American dream. A central motif of Howard Hawks ‘Scar face’ is a neon sign that states ‘the world is yours,’ and the contemporary audience shared this dream.
Typical of the genre, the close-knit Italian American community is introduced at the beginning of the film by the voice-over of the protagonist Henry Hill which is later taken over by his wife Karen as he starts to lose control of his life. The classic early genre did not attempt to camouflage their greedy motives, and the audience were attracted to their blunt honesty. Martin Scorsese taps into this enjoyment of gangster of the gangster’s ability to do what the audience can only dream about. Hill’s voiceover” At thirteen, I was making more money than most of the grown-ups in the neighbourhood, I mean I had more money than I could spend.”
Prices start at $12
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Gangster films almost nearly always follow a rise and fall narrative structure; therefore Henry Hills’ claim to ‘have it all’ may be seen by the audience as ironic. Initially, however, in the gangster genre, the accumulation of wealth and power seems unstoppable and in Goodfellas, Henry’s youthful fascination with the mobsters in his neighbourhood mirrors the public fascination with the mafia lifestyle, ‘They weren’t like anybody else they did whatever they wanted, they double-parked in front of a hydrant, and nobody gave them a ticket”.
The gangster genre is notorious for the level of violence on the screen, and the opening does not disappoint. In the preface, Shocking images as Tommy repeatedly stabs Billy Batts in the trunk of his car are matched by the violent dialogue of another genetic convention ‘He’s still alive, you fucking piece of shit! Die you motherfucker die! Look at me! Look at my fucking eyes!” The shock that the audience is likely to experience is prolonged by Scorses’s use of freeze-frame.
This scene is a pivotal screen as it marks Henry Hill’s downfall. Although Goodfellas is a gangster film, Scorsese’s auteur signature is evident throughout. If the level of violence was sustained in the narrative, the audience would have great difficulty empathizing with the protagonist. The use of the voiceover gives the opening an autobiographical element, which draws the audience closer to Ray Liotta’s character. After the preface, the film begins in the 1950s with Henry’s childhood, a narrative situation seen in a number of gangster films such as ‘Angels with dirty faces, Once upon a time in America.
By witnessing Henry Hills’ innocence and naivety during his younger teenage years the audience is more likely to engage with his story. The use of voiceover is more of a convention of film noir than the classic gangster genre. In ‘Goodfellas’ as Hill’s life unravels he even loses control of the narrative roles as his wife Karen takes over certain scenes. The mise en scene in the opening sequence goes a long way in explaining the mafia mystique. It is clear to the audience gangsters are dressed in silk shirts; they drive expensive Cadillac’s The lives of those members of Pauli’s mob who populate the cab stand is juxtaposed to Henry’s home, which is small and crowded.
The use of low-angle shots and freeze frames as his Dad beats him with his belt is, in a way, the most disturbing depiction of violence in the opening scene. Henry’s casual acceptance of his Fathers behaviour again suggests that this is a world that is unfamiliar to the average person, and once in a while, “Ill have to take a beating, but by then I didn’t care. The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometimes.” The costume is a critical iconographic element of the gangster genre. Henry’s Mother alludes to as he appears at the door in lizard snakeskin shoes and silk shirt, a tie and a double-breasted jacket.
“My God, you look like a gangster!” Unlike the classic gangster genre, Scorsese does not stress the economic necessity of being a gangster, as Henry chooses the lifestyle as he views it as an easy option. Youing Henry is impressed by the abundance of money that Jimmy the gent has ” He’d give the doorman ï¿½100 just for opening the door… I mean, the bartender got ï¿½100 just for keeping the ice cubes cold” Scorsese visually highlights riches that come with a life of crime in the opening sequence.
The number of close up of iconography of the genre is shown in the fat cigars, the shiny cars, the bespoke suits and handmade shoes. As Henry states, ” It was a fantasy world”. The soundtrack creates an atmosphere of the 1950’s America, and the lyrics also link to the central theme of gangster narratives (rags to riches). Another generic convention of the gangster genre is the sense of camaraderie. The opening sequence emphasizes the family nature of Pauli’s mob, for example, the scene set in the pizzeria and the barbeque, “You see people like my father could never understand, I was a part of something, and I belonged” However the gangster structure always ends with the protagonist isolating himself to reach the top.
There are several suggestions that the younger Henry’s views of the mafia lifestyle are romantic and naï¿½ve; he shows this when he states that the gangsters were untouchable however the sequence ends with his arrest. The voice-over delivered in the past tense implies that the film will follow a rise and fall narrative “It was a glorious time, and wise guys were everywhere.” Henry’s information regarding the cautious ways in which Pauli lives his life, for example, not owning a telephone and only meeting up with one person, is ironic considering Henry’s drug-fuelled recklessness, which leads to his final arrest.
The opening indicates the excitement of being a gangster. Scorsese brings a twist to these conventions that make the film and his characters more appealing to the audience as they seem like ordinary people. Scorsese demythologizes the gangster world; much of what initially attracts the young Henry is a charade; as the narrative unfolds we see relationships deteriorate as greed and paranoia take hold as characters move from loyalty to betrayal. Normally the protagonist invariably dies in a hail of bullets, Henry returns to a normal anonymous lifestyle he was trying to escape. A fate that to him, seems worse than death. He also shows no remorse, ‘I was an average nobody. I had to live my life like a shnook’.