I seem to be in a gangster-film fascination at the moment, a consequence of a Scorsese fascination in the UK at present. At the beginning of March, I saw the newly restored Goodfellas in the cinema in Norwich.
This is hyperbolic cinema: a lot of shouting and over-the-top psychopathic behaviour, with performance foregrounded before all else. There were a number of sustained tracking shots (I like these), but also music getting louder all the time (and somehow particularly annoying).
And what crudity, of dialogue and of characterisation, the first perhaps shaping the second. Compare the way Ford humanises his minor characters, or the way Hitchcock ‘highlights’ his marginal characters to make them more interesting.
Look at Tommy (Jo Pesci): his monstrousness needs some inner motivation like Shakespeare gives Richard III to make him compelling. Tommy by contrast is all repellent surface, with not one iota of charisma. And Henry should surely be more like Charlie in Mean Streets, so that some inner disturbance is seen to be working in him. This would help signpost the climax to the audience. Instead the betrayal Henry undertakes just happens, rather than the audience foreseeing it – and fearing it.
It all feels twenty minutes too long. I have been looking at the crime thrillers Anthony Mann made in the late 1940s – Railroaded, T-Men, Raw Deal and so on, which are no doubt admired by Scorsese – and they are tight as a fist, sometimes under eighty minutes, and since they have a kino-fist quality they leave you pummelled.
Compare Goodfellas too to The Godfather: a satyr to a Hyperion, surely. The popular music in Goodfellas is especially crude. It is used to mark the passage of time, ‘the soundtrack of our lives’, but it is Scorsese’s life not that of his characters or even of their milieu. The Godfather on the other hand has a memorable musical theme, the Sicilian essence of which speaks volumes on behalf of a whole culture. And The Godfather has a vivid cast of characters who generate their own drama: the Corleone family versus Salozzo, the non-italian consigliere Tom Hagen, a grotesquerie like Luca Brasi, and so on. The narrative arc of Goodfellas has Henry starting as a gangster but turning into an informer – a very good story – but The Godfather has an arc transforming Michael Corleone from war hero into godfather living in grim isolation – not just a good story but a tragic one. It is sombrely melodramatic, like nothing so much as Jacobean revenge drama, a dimension which for all its pyrotechnics is missing from Goodfellas.