Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” and Coppola’s “The Godfather”

Introduction

The common denominator between two classic films – Coppola’s The Godfather and Scorcese’s Goodfellas – is the world of crime built by an underground organization known in the world of criminology as the Mafia. But The Godfather was told from the perspective of an Italian who happened to understand how the members of the Mafia organized themselves into one of the most feared criminal organizations in the United States and what kind of mindset allowed them to do that (Coppola, 1972). On the other hand, the Goodfellas was a movie about the Mafia but told from the perspective of an American who may still have an idea of how old Sicilians conducted business and yet able to contextualize their criminal activities on the American way of life (Scorsese, 1990). Moreover, the major difference between The Godfather and the Goodfellas can be seen in the development of the characters the former is an almost sympathetic view of the Mafia while the latter is a commentary on the evil world of the said type of organized crime.

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Background

The characters in the two movies can trace their heritage to Italy, specifically in Sicily. This is why the members of the Mafia are also called Sicilians. In the movie The Godfather, there was a lot of information given regarding the origins of this infamous type of organized crime. It is not an organization based not on one personality but rules that emanated from the combination of rituals and age-old tradition in Sicily. Their organization theory is based on the idea that the family is the most important thing and that friendship is more real than laws of the land and other social institutions (Messenger, p. 8). This means that all these important elements go beyond citizenship and nation-building. They are fanatics when it comes to family loyalty and blood is thicker than water in this side of town.

The main message of The Godfather is survival of the fittest and that for the Sicilian one sure way to survive and thrive in a new world is to raise a family and in the center is a devoted wife and loyal kids and a good husband. The husband is considered good because he provides for the family but more importantly he safeguards them from the evil world outside. They could not trust American institutions because they are foreigners. Their belief system conflicts with American values. Americans value their freedom and their individuality but Sicilian values family and friends. In the two movies, when one talks about family, it is not only limited to the immediate family but the extended family. This was highlighted so many times in The Godfather and was also one of the major themes in Goodfellas.

In comparing the two movies, it seems at first that both followed the same pattern then it began to diverge when it comes to their interpretation of what is good and evil in this world. In Scorsese’s film, there is little good that can be seen in the Mafia it was populated by selfish and ambitious people and the only good people in the movie are those found on the other side of the law. The main character Henry Hill was transformed from being a crook to a saint when he decided to follow the rules.

This is in contrast with The Godfather wherein good and evil reside in the heart of the mafia boss. Don Corleone is the head of a criminal organization but one cannot see him do the dirty work. And so it appears as if he was doing a respectable job. Aside from that, he was so successful, very rich, and powerful. At the same time, cops are after him but interestingly a great number of people loved him. They respected him and they made their affections known by giving him money and by sending him gifts. It is hard to loathe the main character.

In Goodfellas, the audience is being forced to be sympathetic with Henry Hill but his character is overwhelmed by the character of Tommy and Jimmy played by both Hollywood heavyweights Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro respectively. Joe Pesci was extremely mean in this movie and it seems that Scorsese is trying to say something about the Mafia through that character. Much of what the outside world can perceive about the said organization is seen in the life of Tommy. He is of small stature and it seems that it could be easy to take him down but surprisingly even the much taller and bigger characters around him are afraid of Tommy. This in essence is the Mafia an organization so small that for many years it was hidden from view and yet not even the local police could do anything to stop them. The community may resent their presence and yet nothing can be done to uproot them from society. This is because there is an interplay of good and evil within the organization.

Good and Evil

In The Godfather the idea of good and evil was taken from the belief that family, friendship, and respect are of the highest importance and not religious dogmas or rules created by lawmakers of the land. The good and evil in The Godfather can be seen in how the characters tried to do a noble thing and at the same time reveal that for them to do what is highly important in the Italian American world that they built in the U.S., they had to do something unacceptable for outsiders – the rest of the Americans who share the country with them.

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The best example of the interplay of good and evil can be seen in the opening event of Coppola’s movie. Don Corleone was listening patiently to a father who was angry and at the same time desperate to deal with an aching pain in his heart. His daughter was sexually assaulted by two American boys. They disrespected her by abusing her and also by doing violence to her and breaking her face with their aggressiveness and total disregard that she is a girl who did not do anything to harm them. It was more than enough to break the father’s heart but he had nowhere else to go.

This is the premise of the whole movie, Italian Americans could not expect to be treated fairly by the authorities or so they thought. And the only way to deal with grievances and other problems that fall within the grey areas of the law is to go to the Godfather. He is a man who has acquired power, money, and influence through the Sicilian way of doing favors and a healthy dose of violence, coercion, and plenty of excuses that everything was all about family, friends, and respect.

The father of the sexually assaulted girl had no choice but to go to the Godfather. This is the second premise of the movie, Italian Americans will try their best to distance themselves from the mob but sooner or later they had to acknowledge that they are of a different breed – most especially the Sicilians – and that the only way they can get their fair share in America is to band together and show deep respect and adoration to the local mob boss, for he too in return acts as their father who will do everything for his children.

The good side of the Mafia was revealed in Coppola’s movie when Don Corleone decided that the grieving father’s request was not done in a businesslike manner. He was screaming for blood and allowed his emotions to interfere with the proper way to manage the affairs of life. Don Corleone, like a wise old man, made a mini-speech wherein he lamented the fact that in recent past the supplicant did not even bother to give him any form of gift as a sign of respect and friendship but now that he is in great need he remembers to come to the Godfather. It was as if Don Corleone was saying he is much better than this man because he is willing to forgive his transgressions and agree to help him achieve justice. Then after the short meeting, Don Corleone ordered that the two boys had to be beaten and taught their lesson but they have to hire someone who will not get carried away because he believed that they do not deserve to die – it was not fair.

Don Corleone’s wisdom, his desire to help someone who is not his friend, and his desire to serve justice even if it was too risky showed that he is a good man. But on the other hand, the whole event, the meetings, and the directives were given to his underlings also revealed the evil side of Don Corleone and the duplicity of the Mafia world. They are willing to break the law to achieve their goal which is not really to help the grieving father achieve justice but to increase their influence in the area as more people become indebted to them.

In Goodfellas, there is still the interplay of good and evil but most of the time one can only see the evil side of the mob in this movie. Scorsese had a negative view of the Mafia they were not the gentlemen as portrayed in Coppola’s The Godfather but thugs who only understood the language of violence. In Goodfellas, it was only the character played by Liotta that seemed able to go beyond the machismo and managed to speak good English to achieve what he wanted through negotiations and not through the rough and intimidating tactics of Tommy played by Joe Pesci. Yet, the best of what Henry Hill can offer dwarfs in comparison with the smooth and sophisticated ways of Don Corleone.

According to one commentator, Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry were Italian American mobsters who did not master the art of diplomacy because they are low-level members of the Mafia (Nicholls, 101). Yet, even if the movie centered on the depraved nature of the mob Scorsese tried to explain the good side of the Italian American mob family. First of all, there is something important about someone’s ancestry and that alone is worthy of respect. The mere fact that a boy like Henry Hill was not even a full-blooded Italian, he was still accepted because his mother was born in Sicily. In other words, security is not due to educational attainment or talent but in bloodlines. This can easily give a person the confidence to go through life knowing that family, relatives, and friends are there to offer unconditional love.

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The second good thing that can be extracted from the mob family is their intense loyalty to each other. Henry Hill was caught selling stolen goods and even if he was in the lion’s den of police officers he did not betray his friends and continued to keep everything to himself. As a result, they treated Hill as a hero and he was allowed to gain access to the inner world of the Italian American Mafia. Finally, the good side of the said criminal organization is that Henry Hill found a place where his life mattered and that he could become independent, not having to suffer the mundane aspects of life.

Yet, everything in Goodfellas amounted to nothing, all the good intentions and the love of family, relatives are friends are two of the most important feature of the crime family but this paled in comparison to the kind of wickedness the members were forced to do and endure for the sake of maintaining their position within the family. Furthermore, when someone had to face long jail terms sentences – their fabled mob structure where the code of silence was always a major component of the system – had to give way to the more pressing needs of survival.

The interplay between good and evil was only clear in the beginning when Henry Hill wanted to belong to a group where he is treated with respect and admiration. But this quickly faded out, only to be replaced with the evil side of the Mafia. This was exemplified by the Billy “Batts” portion of the movie. Billy “Batts” was a made man, meaning he was given the distinct honor of becoming an official member of a particular crime family. This means that he is an influential man and able to control a significant portion of the crime operations in the city. This also means that he enjoys a host of privileges while at the same time protected by the laws that govern the Mafia.

It is therefore not hard to understand why Billy “Batts” – in the scene where he will quarrel with Tommy – acted as if he owned the place. He expected deference from everyone that he knew including the tough guy named Tommy De Vito. But Tommy was also a seasoned criminal and expected to be respected because of his achievements and his status even if he is not a “made man” like Billy “Batts” and so the altercation started when Billy insulted Tommy in front of many people.

In this particular scene, there was no interplay between good and evil. Both groups were acting like spoiled kids. Billy “Batts” was an immature man who dressed up as a gentleman but has the manners of a crook. Tommy on the other hand was always thinking about himself and not mindful of his friends and crew members. If this is not the case then Tommy could have feigned respect and made a show that he liked Billy “Batts”, knowing fully well that they will be in a world of trouble if he pulls a crazy stunt against a “made man”, and yet he was oblivious to all that.

Billy “Batts” was well aware of his status and so he did not only provoked Tommy by continually saying not-so-nice words to him but he also had the temerity to stay in the pub where he is surrounded by friends of Tommy without a single bodyguard with him and not even a single companion that can assist him if he gets into trouble. His pride showed in staying in late and talking with the crew members of the person that he deeply insulted.

While Billy “Batts” was an example of wickedness, full of boasting and selfishness, Tommy was able to eclipse him by not thinking about the future and like a spoiled brat desired to do something that he knew, at the back of his mind, was tantamount to suicide. Using deception he assaulted Billy “Batts” and when he was on the floor, Tommy repeatedly struck him with his gun and with such force that the pistol broke into two. Then the audience was reminded that in the opening scene the trio hid the body of Billy “Batts” in the trunk of Henry’s car and when they realized that their passenger was not yet dead, Tommy repeatedly stabbed him to make sure that he was dead.

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The macabre scene was pushed to the limits when Tommy said that before they will bury the body they had to swing by his mother’s place so that he can borrow her mother’s spade for digging. It may be an attempt for humor but it can also be interpreted as a sublime message that Scorsese wanted to get across to the audience – that this crew had no sense of morality at all. While Don Corleone justified his actions through the idea that everything is “business” the trio of Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy was all about their selfish desires and their belief that since they are mobsters they can do whatever they want to do.

Depravity of Human Nature

Italian Americans are deeply religious people and this does not exclude the members of the Mafia. They too made it a point to go to church regularly and to observe the important traditions such as christening, communion, weddings, etc. It can be argued that it was their exposure to religion that urged them to do manage their business so that it will appear that they are legitimate. It was the life-long desire of Don Corleone that his empire will never again be pursued by law enforcement agencies because he wished to make money legitimately. But for him to achieve that he had to finance current operations and make more money to enter the world of normal business procedures.

Since they wanted respectability and acceptance from the broader section of society they had to make a rule to prevent anarchy and to restrain their men from doing foolish things. For instance, Don Corleone was not in favor of selling drugs because he reasoned out that someday children will have access to dangerous substances and it would be too difficult to control and manage. This is an important portion of the film because it seems that the Don contradicted himself. But upon closer examination, one can see that when the Don talked about the business he was not encouraging his people to make money at all costs. The Don was a criminal mastermind but he had the prudence to say no to drugs.

This was not the same with other members of the Italian American gangster families. They wanted to make a great deal amount of money and they do not care what the cost will amount to. This is what happened to the trio of Henry Hill, Jimmy Conway, and Tommy De Vito, they strongly believed that they had the right to forcibly take what they wanted and to enjoy life in the fast lane. In the end, their depraved lifestyles caught up with them. But not after they changed the lives of many people.

In The Godfather, Don Corleone’s wicked side was displayed when he was obligated to help his godson. The singer-actor was a big Hollywood star who could not control himself when it comes to women. As a result, he was barred by a powerful and influential producer from making any more movies in Hollywood. Once again, Don Corleone wanted to show that he is a good godparent by coming to the aide of his grandson but the methods that he used betrayed his inner-worth. He was a man who is an expert in intimidation and other forms of strong-arm tactics.

It can be argued that the producer – the object of his wrath – was an obnoxious man who used people like he used toilet paper but still there is no excuse for cutting the head of a very expensive stallion and then placing it under the covers of his bed and awake from the blood that seeped out of its head. There is no excuse or any justification for this behavior because if Don Corleone will train his sights on a particular individual he had the power to force him or her to obey his commands even if it violated their value system.

In the case of the Goodfellas, there was little thought given to finding an excuse for their behavior. They did not apologize for their hijackings, coercion, and murder believing that they have the right to all these things. While Don Corleone expended great effort to explain the rationality of his actions, the trio from Goodfellas did not care about the consequences of their deeds. Their motto is based on the idea that this world is in a mess and that one has to take charge of their lives and control their destiny. If they hurt a lot of people along the way then it is not their problem because they answer only to higher reasoning which is the perversion of a concept called “survival of the fittest”; this is because they did not do those things to merely survive but to feed their ego and to satisfy their lusts.

Tommy De Vito could have been a sympathetic character but there is nothing in him that the audience can root for. He was probably insecure about his small stature and wanted to show the world that no one can step on him. It is perfectly understandable for someone who has been bullied or who felt inferior all his life to desire to be important so that the taunting and the cruel jokes would stop. But Tommy went much further and instead of forcing them to stop making fun of him, he is the one who terrorized them and make them feel inferior.

Two scenes exemplified Tommy’s loathsome behavior. The first one is the restaurant scene wherein he was approached by the manager, concerned about the credit that Tommy and his crew were racking up and may not be able to pay for it. Instead of reasoning out with him in a Don Corleone type of way, Tommy bashed the manager’s head with a wine bottle. Then he insulted and threatened some big-bodied personnel who worked in the restaurant to show who the boss is. The second scene was in a card game where Tommy wanted a protégé to make drinks for him. And when the young man faltered Tommy was so displeased with him that he pulled up his revolver and forced him to dance and be quick on his feet. Unfortunately, the young man was shot in one foot.

It is not just the behavior of Tommy that shows the depravity of mobsters but also the way the people around him treated him and affirmed his actions even though they knew it was wrong. In the aforementioned restaurant scene, all Tommy’s friends were laughing at his jokes and laughing still after he hit the manager with a wine bottle. In the background, there is a member of the gang that Tommy could not see because his back was turned away from him and yet this man continued to hang on to every word that Tommy spoke and laughed at all his jokes.

No one can rebuke Tommy and teach him what he can and cannot do. This was explained by Tommy’s boss when the manager of the restaurant approached him to complain about Tommy’s behavior. The boss said that there is nothing he can do because Tommy is a bad seed and everyone must agree that he will stay the way that he is. The corruption of the Italian American Mafia is made more potent by the code of silence that each member and their family members agreed to a long time ago. Thus, these gangsters are supremely confident that it will take complicated detective work to bring them to prison. This is why they continue to harass people and make money illegally, knowing that they are safe from the law.

Conclusion

What makes these two movies compelling is the interplay of good and evil. This does not only provide contrast also tension. These characters are flawed, they are criminals but at the same time, they are fighting for values that to them are more important than the laws of the land and the social institutions around them. They believed that no one cares for them, except for the local mafia boss who makes certain that there is peace and order in the community. But this extra-legal system is not without its fault. The boss, like Don Corleon and his underlings, criminals like Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry will extract a heavy price for their protection. Their friendship is not free and borne out of unconditional love. Everything is all about business and everyone involved must contribute to keep the boss happy and in return, he will protect them from the rest of the population. But this is only an illusion because, in the end, the whole society suffers from the random acts of violence perpetrated by the Mafia. After all, they are only mindful of their interests and do not care about other people’s lives. The gangsters and their families also suffer because in the end crime does not pay.

Works Cited

Coppola, F. The Godfather. USA: Paramount Pictures, 1972.

Messenger, C. The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones became our Gang. New York: Suny Press, 2002.

Nicholls, M. Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Australia: Pluto Press, 2004.

Scorsese, M. Goodfellas. USA: Warner Bros., 1990.

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