How ‘Goodfellas’ Humanized Its Mobsters And Helped Redefine The Genre

When Martin Scorsese read Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 book, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, he became interested in revisiting the mob-movie genre, but only if he could “get into the frame of mind of a guy who works that way everyday.” With the screenplay Scorsese and Pileggi crafted for what would become Goodfellas, the two created a new kind of crime story that focused on the hectic, dangerous and unpredictable nature of daily life in the mafia. The screenplay is told mostly through a fictionalized version of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta.

While Goodfellas never hesitated to show that these guys would (and did) kill each other at the drop of a hat, Scorsese was able to convey humanity underlying all the fear, anxiety and thrill seeking that went with life in the mafia. 

On the film’s 25th anniversary, here’s a look at how Goodfellas was able to reinvent the mob movie by humanizing its characters.

Henry’s youthful idealism.

Other than the film’s cold open, the entire first act of Goodfellas is told through Henry’s wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm. Having spent his childhood idolizing local mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and his crew, he jumps at the chance to work for them, and through his narration, he delivers lines like “for us, any other way to live was nuts,” with unassuming candor.

At this point, he’s quite happy indulging in the many perks of the lifestyle. When courting Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, he walks her through the Copacabana as the camera follows them for almost three minutes. It’s the highpoint of his life. He has money, power, notoriety and seemingly lives without consequences. The world accommodates itself around him, and settling for anything less would be, as Hill would put it, for suckers.

The late night dinner with Tommy’s mother.

What starts as a casual night out soon goes south when Tommy, played by Joe Pesci (who won an Oscar for his role), crosses paths with Billy Batts, a made guy fresh out of prison, who can’t stop teasing him about his old job as a shoeshine boy. On their way to dig a shallow grave, the crew stops by Tommy’s mother’s house in the middle of the night to borrow a shovel. Before long, they’re sitting around the kitchen table with Tommy’s mother, eating food and casually chatting while she shows the three of them her latest painting. Watching this mother/son dynamic play out so soon after such a violent outburst doesn’t excuse Tommy’s psychotic behavior (and by this point in the movie there have been a few examples of it), but it does show that Tommy has a heart, and that there’s more to him than the stereotypical, murderous hothead.

“Wake up, Henry.”

After Karen finds out that Henry has been cheating on her, he wakes up staring down the barrel of a loaded handgun, with Karen’s finger on the trigger. At first he simply stares back, while calmly asking her to give him the gun and repeatedly whispering that he loves her.

Once he gets the gun away from her, Henry’s whispering erupts into a rage, screaming at her about his constant worry over getting killed, and how Karen has brought this fear into his own bedroom. Of course, it’s around this time that his idealization with mob life begins to chip away. The worry over being killed has become an occupational hazard, and as Henry’s already seen firsthand, sometimes you get killed for nothing more than a snide remark.

Dinnertime in prison.

Once Henry is sentenced to 10 years in prison, we get a glimpse of what life behind bars entails for mobsters. Along with their nightly gourmet dinners, complete with Paulie’s razor-thin slices of garlic, they drink good wine and smoke fine cigars, all while squabbling about how many onions should go in the sauce — and all from the comfort of their own private living quarters.

It’s a sharp contrast to the common visitation area, which is much closer to Henry’s description of life in prison for everyone else. Of course, while behind bars, he relies on Karen to help smuggle in everything from loaves of bread to narcotics to help him make a living. Being locked up may simply be a part of the hustle for these guys, but Goodfellas showed the kind of strain it has on their families.

Jimmy (almost) cries when he hears about Tommy.

In the middle of the movie’s coked-out third act, Jimmy, played by Robert De Niro, grows increasingly excited over the idea of Tommy being made, an honor he saw as benefitting to both himself and Henry as well. His excitement is cut short, however, after he gets some unexpected bad news about what really happened at Tommy’s supposed ceremony. After spending the better part of a lifetime together, Jimmy stands there, briefly choking back tears, while Henry stands next to him.

This moment plays out just after the famous montage that reveals more than a half-dozen dead bodies, all killed at the hand of Jimmy (set to the outro of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos). Even as Henry is able to shrug off the aspect of brutal violence that’s simply their chosen way of life, it’s only now we see the true aftermath of a mafia hit. No retaliation, no comforting one another, and, in the end, no open casket.