A study of Henry Hill & Michael Corleone (why I’m beginning to love Goodfellas)

Out come all the italians shouting their “oh’s” at me, as I shield myself from incoming flying meatballs. How dare I say what could be one of the greatest motion pictures EVER MADE is loosing its favor with me over Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”.

Now before we get this party started, I want to establish one thing, I love both of these films beyond belief. They both scream New York, and truly show off two filmmakers at the very top of their game. So why is this analysis important if I like them both so much? Well, growing up I always liked Godfather more, but back then I never really delved too much into film critiques. I was just always following the crowd.

After seeing both movies back to back I have to admit, I really love Goodfellas more than Godfather.

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty, what makes Goodfellas more enjoyable, and from that, better in my mind than the Godfather? The answer is very simple: Goodfellas is fun.

We all know that neither on these films are simply about gangsters. On the surface, yes obviously they both depict mafia members through their good times, and more importantly their bad times. Godfather gains the upper hand on this plateau for being able to easily have the angle that this mafia all comes from one family. However, Goodfellas just has so much more to talk about than the Godfather.

Godfather is more like a greek tragedy; filled with betrayal, greed, and major character transformations, it truly echoes what it means to be an epic film. This is where its major flaws come into play. Godfather’s biggest problem is it’s a very cold film. The stark and barren mall of Corleone mansions, the fear in every Corleone family member for their own lives is all incredibly difficult for an average viewer to relate.

Goodfellas depicts an group of really good friends who EVOLVED into a close mobster family over the years. They have more fun in the risk and danger of being gangsters and the politics of people such as the Godfather’s five families is never the issue. In Goodfellas, the political side of the mafia is never addressed and is used more as a vehicle for the character’s progressions through the film. This also comes into play with the contrast of the main protagonists between both films.

What helps us relate most to a typical three-act structured film? The main protagonist. For The Godfather this is Michael Corleone, and for Goodfellas it is Henry Hill. Both characters have major arcs to overcome through the course of the films. Michael starts at the bottom of his family and rises to become Don at the conclusion. Henry, whom is never worried about ranking or “promotion” rises through his success, and eventually fails through drug use and betraying his closest friend/family members.

Now what makes a protagonist most relatable to the audience is when they are being introduced to the conflicts with us. When we both enter a world together, audiences are able to better relate to both the story and the character. The problem with Michael’s story is that when we begin, we slowly learn that he knows all about his family. In the wedding scene it almost comes across that Kay is the protagonist. She gets all the information that the audience gets as far as who is who and what exactly goes on in the Corleone family, but for some reason we are drawn to Michael and that resonates throughout the plot.

What works so well in Henry’s favor is that he starts off just as a kid who aspires to be a gangster. “To me, being a gangster was even better than being president”. Stuff like that relates the audience much better to Henry than to Michael. We go along Henry’s life every step of the way and that gets us to warm up to him and care for him much more. His narrations give everything a welcoming and warm feel especially contrasted to Michael’s cold and anti-social attitude to most of his own family members. Even though Michael slowly becomes Don, he is still more aware of his surroundings than Henry was when he first starts. Henry sees a man shot as a kid, he runs with aprons to help him, and gets scolded. Had that been Michael he would have slowly backed into the shop and let his pop take care of it.

We then have the family aspect of it all. Both movies have major themes of family. Michael honors it throughout, while Henry does nothing but betray it. The way in which they both behave are polar opposites from  each other. Michael starts as an outcast. He betrayed his family’s traditions and chose instead to join the army. Throughout Godfather he earns back their trust through his actions, and eventually overcomes them all.

In Goodfellas, Henry loves everybody, but when shit hits the fan, he betrays everyone he used to look up to, and everyone he idolized when he strived to be a gangster. The way in which Henry is instantly welcomed in has the Italian family theme in a much more positive light, which will warm viewers up to the cast much more than the wedding scene in Godfather, where the first time we truly meet Sonny he’s having sex with a woman who is not his wife.

What makes Goodfellas more appealing as well is just how much more character is in it. The camerawork and the soundtrack really are what make it. While Godfather has a very still, slowly moving camera, Godfellas’ camera is practically another character in the film, always flying around the rooms, and making the viewer feel like they are in on the action (obviously the long steadicam shot is a testament to that fact). The way the camera just pours over the five boroughs during the outro to “Lalia” and we see all of the “whacked” gangsters, it is just nothing short of beautiful filmmaking. Godfather’s aesthetic is much more oriented on much more simple and patient tactics while Goodfellas’ pace just picks up like a boulder rolling down a hill that goes with Henry’s drug problems.

Furthermore Godfather’s soundtrack is a classic horn-heavy orchestra piece. Goodfellas soundtrack is filled with smoldering hot Motown classics mixed in with the occasional Scorsese brand rock-and-roll. This makes the whole envrionment of the film much more fun and free flowing, and much less patient than Godfather.

Let’s get to closing statements, because this blog is getting LONG. All in all, I’ve only touched the tip of this monster analysis ice berg. The protagonists, theme of family, music, and camerawork truly are the focal points of both films which more or less weigh in how I feel about both films.

Again, I love both of them, but growing more as a film lover, I’m developing more of a preference for Goodfellas. I enjoy the characters much more, the music, and just how much more fun it feels to me. It’s like a modern day western, especially based on Tommy’s insane outlaw behavior that completely contradicts Godfather’s conventions which pushes Goodfellas even further up my love list.

Give both of these a good ol’ back to back marathon, and judge it for yourself. Obviously this is just my opinion, and just like my billion grammar problem, we all could be wrong.

…now go get your fuckin’ shinebox!