You only need to have seen a “gangster” film or two to understand the nature of the genre: The films are almost always androcentric, and any scene can turn violent in a moment’s notice. Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) undoubtedly fits into the “gangster” genre, but there are several distinguishable elements in the film’s use of plot devices and the story itself that make it memorable.
For one, two of the main characters — Henry and Karen Hill — narrate much of the events on screen in the past tense. In choosing to move the plot forward this way, Scorsese is signaling to the audience that future Henry and Karen are telling the story, adding an intriguing and somewhat eerie dimension to the viewing experience.
As for the plot itself, even though the acclaimed actor Robert De Niro appears in the forefront of the promotional poster, the film primarily focuses on the life of the aforementioned Henry Hill, who is portrayed by Ray Liotta. Growing up across the street from a gang in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, Henry is exposed to crime at a young age. He idolizes the life of a gangster and, by the time he is a teenager, he begins working for the group across the street led by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and drops out of school. He immediately shows a dedication to the work, as he spends nearly all his time with the gang and does plenty of busy work to please his older counterparts. Though he is fairly reserved, the young Henry demonstrates a knack for cultivating and maintaining relationships with powerful people in the community right away.
Before long, he becomes acquainted with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who is considered one of the most dangerous and authoritative men in the city’s crime world. When Henry is arrested by detectives for selling cigarettes to local workers, he does not reveal anything about his peers or the gang at large, which earns him a great deal of respect from many members of the gang. Jimmy is particularly impressed with the youngster’s instincts in the courtroom. After Henry receives his relatively minor sentence, Jimmy pulls him aside to congratulate him, saying: “You took your first pinch like a man, and you learned the two greatest things in life… never rat on your friends… and always keep your mouth shut.” Jimmy’s comments highlight the importance of trust in the gang, as they all need to look after one another to evade the police and thrive in their crime-filled lives.
Another friend of Henry’s is the highly volatile Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). From the moment he is introduced to the audience, it is clear that Tommy is incredibly insecure. As a result, he can quickly grow angry and violent even when being lightly teased. On one occasion, his hot-headed nature leads him to murdering an “untouchable” member of a different gang, which opens him and his friends up to a world of trouble.
As the film progresses, Henry evolves into a selfish, deceitful and rather violent man himself. His actions throughout the rest of the film exhibit his relative immaturity, as he lies to some of his closest peers — namely his wife, Jimmy and Paulie — and begins trusting the wrong people. He also becomes addicted to cocaine, which makes him even more uneasy and uptight in trying to elude both rival gang members and the police.
Ultimately, what makes “Goodfellas” special is that Scorsese chooses not to glorify the life of a gangster in the end. While there are certainly superficial perks, there is also an everlasting, undeniable sense of fear and uncertainty that goes along with the job. As a result, characters like Henry cannot truly enjoy simple pleasures like spending time with family. Tommy’s ill-advised hit undoes much of the trust necessary for a gang to survive, and as a result, the seemingly infallible gangsters watch their lives begin to unravel. All in all, Scorsese makes clear that the life of a gangster is like a house of cards; everything can come crashing down in a moment’s notice, and all it takes is one mistake.