The Godfather And Goodfellas – Contrasting Crime Epics

They're two great films with opposing perspectives on the Mafia life - but not the way you think.

the godfather goodfellas marlon brando ray liotta robert de niro joe pesci

In the world of gangster flicks, the recurrent claim is that The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppolla’s seminal depiction of a Mafia family which never actually uses the term ‘Mafia’, is the glossy, glamorising version of the subject, while Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s later, more working-class iteration, is the grim, grittier depiction of the Mafia life. Like pretty well all conventionally received wisdom, this is almost entirely wrong.

This isn’t to say those who’ve picked up that idea are dim, or even wilfully ignorant. It was Goodfellas that led and fed into The Sopranos, which was a fairly gritty treatment of it all. And when you think of The Godfather, you think of Marlon Brandon dolled up in a tuxedo, acting. You think of the many, many stories about how real-life crims loved The Godfather, that it was only after the film that gangsters ever started waxing philosophical rather than grunting in a strong Brooklyn accent (an idea that’s almost certainly apocryphal – mob bosses always rubbed shoulders with the highest-ranking society figures).

The only reason the two films are compared quite so much is that they’re the two most successful and iconic films about the American Mafia. Beyond the subject matter, they’re really quite different. The facts are these: despite the gloss of The Godfather, it’s ultimately a story about Al Pacino’s character becoming evil. By contrast, the shine only comes off Goodfellas once Ray Liotta’s character defies the neighbourhood boss and gets into the cocaine business.

goodfellas ray liotta robert de niro joe pesci

The major source of grit in Goodfellas, before any extended scenes of Henry Hill hopelessly strung out on cocaine, is the nervous trigger fingers of his best pals (those old Scorsese reliables Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci). Certainly they rack up a body count over basically nothing, but the people they murder – like the dopey wig salesman or hapless barboy Spider – are, almost invariably, not members of the in-group.

The message, despite Hill’s paranoia about being ‘whacked on the street’, appears to be that not being in the Mafia is hazardous to your health. In the one exception, their drawn-out murder of Billy Batts (not a member of their ingroup but still a paid-up Mafioso), Pesci’s Tommy pays for it with his life – and that was for breaking a clear and well-established Mafia rule.

Later on, Henry and his wife narrowly avoid the same fate, but, as said, by this point they’re all deep into the cocaine trade, and, more importantly, the Hills are on the verge of turning state’s evidence. Again, it is the act of going against the Mafia that turns things sour.

The nearest thing to this during the glory days is the legendary ‘how am I funny?’ scene, which turns out to be the kind of pointed joke that physically violent men enjoy. Roger Ebert reckoned some of the laughs shared by Goodfellas’ main cast were forced, but that’s not one of them – and if the supreme release of tension doesn’t draw a laugh from the audience, it will at least prompt them to breath in again.

By turning state’s evidence, Henry escapes all legal consequences for his many crimes. This was exactly what the ‘30s-era Hayes censorship code sought to avoid, stipulating that crime must never be glamourised, and those that commit it must always face the music by the final act. But really, Henry ultimately faces what is, to him, a far worse karmic punishment – he finds himself banished from the gangster lifestyle he had always wanted, and finds himself ‘an average nobody’.

(This does appear to tally with the real Henry Hill, so beside himself with pride at seeing his story dramatised by Scorsese and Liotta that he couldn’t resist boasting about it, to the point he was finally booted out of witness protection – and would go on to be arrested many more times on a litany of drug and assault charges.)

Really, this kind of fall from grace glamorises being a professional criminal far more than films like Scarface or Little Caesar, whose protagonists end up shot to death, or, yes, The Godfather, where the new Don gains the whole world but loses his soul. It shares this select kind of glamorisation with Donnie Brasco, another gangster biopic fronted by Al Pacino (well into the stage in his career when he was just turning up on set and being loud), where Johnny Depp’s undercover fed finds himself identifying more with the men he’s investigating, and feels dreadfully guilty about ultimately getting his Mafia pals killed.

The allure of the Mafia life that draws in Depp’s character, that perverse fascination, is of course the very reason these films are so appealing. This isn’t to say Scorsese and Coppola didn’t turn out some fine work as directors, but they had some robust subject matter to work with. As far back as the 1930s – that is to say, when there were real-life bootleggers roaming the streets thumbing their noses at the feds – the gangster flick always had that unaccountable pull.

Much criticism and analysis of Scorsese’s work makes mention of his Catholic background. There is, after all, plenty of sin to go around in Goodfellas. But Coppola is also of Italian Catholic heritage, and even the most lapsed of Catholics is probably trying to tell you something when they produce a montage of a man having people murdered while attending a baptism. This literal mix of the sacred and the profane is the climax of The Godfather, whereas Goodfellas’ own mass-killing montage is a relaxed interlude to the piano exit of Eric Clapton’s Layla.

This isn’t one of those interminable chicken-and-egg debates about which film is ‘better’. If anything, highlighting the stark differences between the two suggests it’s wrong to even rank them on the same scale. And there’s no difference starker than this: Henry Hill never personally kills anyone, and at worst is an accessory to murder. Michael Corleone personally murders two men, which represents a clear turning point in The Godfather’s narrative.

A recurring saying, both in your higher-end crime dramas and in the real-life criminal justice community, is that murder stays murder. This is true for most legal systems. Unlike other crimes, there is no statute of limitations or equivalent – this is why, to this day, elderly Germans still find themselves dragged into court for having been party to crimes against humanity.

Henry Hill, through his whole cushy career as a gangster, never had to indulge in this most heinous of crimes. Meanwhile, Michael Corleone jumps straight from rank outsider to mob triggerman. Even he, as the Don’s favourite son, must cross this Rubicon. One trembles to think what anyone without the surname Corleone has to do to get into the gang.

Neither is this seen as simply a cost of doing business. All the experienced gangsters present are surprised, bordering on shocked, that the golden boy is willing to get down into the gutter with them. It’s no secret, even within the film itself, that this represents a major turn in Michael’s character.

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Michael starts the film downplaying that legendary ‘offer he can’t refuse’ as “That’s my family…that’s not me”. After becoming a murderer, we see him justifying his family’s misdeeds by pointing out that his father is “no different than any powerful man…like a President or Senator”. And, of course, he ends the film firm in his position as head of the family. This whole process comes about for the noblest of reasons, avenging a rival gang’s attempt to murder his father, but you know what they say about what the road to hell is paved with – or, indeed, what happens when you fight monsters.

The dead giveaway is when Vito – not quite tearfully, but the emotion’s there – confesses that he’d never wanted Michael to follow in his footsteps, that he’d wanted his youngest son to be “Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.” Something? We probably don’t have to guess how that list ends, although to this day there’s never been an Italian-American President of the United States – and the man who came closest, Mario Cuomo, had to suffer more than his share of guilt-by-association slurs about the Mafia, particularly ironic given that the Sicilian Mafia once attempted to have him killed.

(And it is of course Cuomo’s son Chris who’s been in the news lately having reacted badly to being called ‘Fredo’ – the name of the bumbling middle Corleone son.)

Any crim with the wits to make it in that volatile industry knows that the last thing they want is for their kids to go down the same path. In this light, Vito’s tragedy is that his first two boys did, and now Michael, clearly the most capable of the three, is likewise cut off from a legitimate life. For all Henry Hill’s sins and eventual fall, he didn’t manage to completely screw up his children’s lives.

To draw in another great American crime drama, Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White has his decline mapped out very clearly by his birthday parties. On his 50th, he’s surprised by all his friends and family. On his 51st, once he’s got into the meth trade in earnest, he comes home to an empty house. (On his 52nd he’s on the run.) The Godfather Part II ends in much the same way, with Michael having dealt with all his enemies without and within, yet utterly alone. If this is what success in the world of organised crime looks like, it’s a pretty poor advertisement for it.

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