For a male living in a gang lifestyle, the pathway from boyhood to manhood consists of the first time he is pinched, his first successful big heist, and the robbing and killing of his first individual. In Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), we see the transformation of the main character, Henry Hill, from a very curious, enthusiastic and ambitious boy to a well-known, respected, and wealthy gangster. At a young age, Henry is taken in by New York City’s Italian mafia, who demonstrate the purpose of the mob, their place in the world and how they define what it is to be a man. Unsurprisingly, expressing one’s own masculinity within the mafia is very closely interrelated with criminality and the use of violence, which is demonstrated by the actions of the three main characters: Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy. Through the first-hand narrative of Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese critically analyzes how gangsters display toughness and employ violence to gain respect and establish their masculinity in this underworld society.
Henry is immediately attracted to the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of Cicero’s gang. Instead of wanting to follow his own father’s footsteps as a working-class citizen, Henry idolizes the gang members and their ability to do whatever they want. He believed those individuals who worked a nine-to-five job for an incredibly small amount of money were not masculine; “They were suckers. They had no balls” (Winkler & Scorsese). To him, the only lifestyle he could imagine for a man was being a part of the gang because, “If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice, they got hit so bad they never complained again. It was just all routine. You didn’t even think about it” (Winkler & Scorsese). Since he was essentially raised and mentored by gangsters, he forms his own conclusions on what it means to be a man from what he sees and hears from the surrounding gang culture. Not only did the men have every kind of freedom, but their lives were overflowing with money, women, crime, and respect, which were all things Henry wanted to attain.
As a teenager, Henry gets pinched by law enforcement and thrown in jail for illegally selling goods on the street for the mafia. As he exits the courtroom, all the mobsters cheer, clap, and congratulate him because in their eyes he is now officially a member of the gang because he successfully survived his first jail experience. Jimmy Conway is exceedingly proud of him because Henry learned the two biggest lessons that a ‘goodfella’ must live by: “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut” (Winkler & Scorsese). Being a man means you respect the other members of the gang by remaining silent and not selling them out. Not only does Henry prove his trustworthiness to the rest of the gang, but this is one step in his transformation from a boy to a man.
As Fred Gardaphe remarks, “gangsters start off as rough boys who continually try to prove their manhood” (2006, p.68). Characters use violence throughout the film as a way to establish their masculinity after other characters have challenged them through disrespect. Tommy DeVito is one character who “constantly tries to prove his manhood” by means of shooting, assaulting, or killing others (Gardaphe, 2006, p.78). In one scene, a boy named Spider is serving drinks to the mob group while they are playing cards and accidently shows disrespect to Tommy because he does not bring him a beer. After arguing with Spider about the incident, Tommy takes out his gun and shoots Spider in the foot, sending him to the hospital. At a later card game, Tommy is teased by the rest of the guys after Spiders tells him to “Go fuck yourself”. Jimmy and the boys jokingly egg Tommy on to retaliate, so Tommy pulls out his gun and shoots Spider many times in the chest, killing him. Another scene that displays Tommy’s inability to handle being teased is when he runs into Billy Batts, a recently released from prison “made” member of the mob. Batts mocks Tommy’s childhood shoe shining job by calling him ‘Spitshine Tommy’ and embarrasses him in front of the rest of the people at the bar. Tommy, with the help of Jimmy, eventually strike back by punching him, kicking him, and stabbing him to death.
Besides Tommy, both Jimmy and Henry also take part in excessive use of violence. Jimmy strangles one of his associates, Morrie Kessler, with rope after Morrie tries to escape from paying back the money he had borrowed from Jimmy. At the end of the movie, after a major $6 million dollar heist, Jimmy and Tommy strangle Morrie to death because they fear Morrie, an accomplice in the robbery, might rat out everyone who was involved. Henry employs violence to defend his, at the time, girlfriend, Karen after she is physically violated by one of her male friends. In this scene, Henry grabs his gun, walks across the street to the guy and begins to pound the back of his gun into his face relentlessly, yelling “I swear on my fucking mother, if you touch her again, you're dead” (Winkler & Scorsese). Whether it involved Jimmy making sure he got paid his money or Henry getting revenge on the guy who touched his girlfriend, they both feel it is necessary and justified to retaliate with violence and brutality in order to preserve their masculinity.
The viewer sees Martin Scorsese view of this lifestyle through the use of a voice-over narrative by the main character, Henry Hill. Since he was only half-Italian, Henry was viewed as both an insider and an outsider. Thus, he knew all the inner workings of the mob, but was also able to analyze and assess the mafia critically. He relates most of the story in first-person so the viewer is able “to observe a crime family from the perspective of someone both within and outside it, and thus lent itself to that tone of simultaneously passionate involvement and ironic detachment” (Casillo, 2006). Scorsese does not endorse the gang’s idea of manhood, that the only way to get respect is through demonstrations of toughness and criminality, because he does not glamorize the gang lifestyle like many other gang movies. This very realistic account of the everyday occurrences within the Italian mafia is shown in a way that does not glorify the characters or their actions. Scorsese does comment on their demonstrations of masculinity by not providing an alternative pathway to manhood. As Gardaphe comments, “he has not presented a way for us to imagine a gangster-free masculinity” (2006, p.80). Although he does not support this lifestyle, he expresses that the characters in GoodFellas are only aware of this lifestyle that attaches masculinity to violence because that is all they have ever seen or experienced.
Scorsese’s GoodFellas is unlike other gang films because its use of voice-over gives it a documentary feel, but the film is still very stylized in its shots and scenes. The viewer really obtains an understanding of what life is like for members within the Italian mafia during this decade in history. Scorsese does not glorify or romanticize this true story of the rise and fall of Henry Hill, but paints it very accurately. Furthermore, he is able to highlight the central themes of respect, masculinity, violence, and criminality, and how they are all fundamentally intertwined in this underworld society.
Casillo, Robert. (2006). “The Society of Transgression: GoodFellas.” Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 266-325.
Gardaphe, F. (2006). “Rough Boys: The Gangsters of Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino.” From Wiseguys to Wise Men. Routledge.
Winkler, I. (Producer) & Scorsese, M. (Director). (1990). GoodFellas [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers.