Before analysing Godfellas as a gangster genre the concept of genre needs to be defined and explained. Genre in its literal meaning means ‘type’. Schatz defines genre around sets of thematic binary oppositions, arguing that their narrative patterns work to temporarily resolve particular cultural tensions and therefore must be told repeatedly in various ways. A genre is a group of codes and conventions, which are repeated throughout a selection of productions, which contain the same or similar themes.
One common theme for example would be horror, and so some of the codes and conventions which could be repeated would be, gruesome deaths, isolated locations, dim lights, and unknown killer and so on. This essay will explore in detail the gangster genre focusing on the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. The gangster genre dates back from the late 1920’s and came into its own with the introduction of sound and fully blossomed with three classics in the early 1930’s, Little Ceasar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932).
These earlier films laid down the conventions that were followed by future gangster films. The conventions laid down include: urban gang crime, bootlegging and prohibition, glamorous lifestyle, honour among thieves and so on. In the US this was the period of prohibition (1919-1933), during which the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic drinks was forbidden, and the depression (1929-34) when worldwide economic collapse precipitated commercial failure and mass unemployment. The frequent occurring themes are law, order, and crime with an emphasis on the gangster figure.
It focuses on gangsters and their stories: how they entered a life of crime, their motifs for doing so, their success as gangsters, their common and predetermined fall from power (usually their death). The gangster genre takes form from real life concerns in society. There is cultural realism. Ryall suggests that the ‘ history of organised crime… provides the historical “raw material” from which the genre is drawn’. It is versatile genre as it deals with issues of drugs etc. Gangster genre has more variation, as gangsters can be anybody.
The gangster was associated with the proletarian class, not the rich and moneyed so the only way he could access the American dream was by stealing it. 1The film Goodfellas shows the mafia as something in which one aspires. The Goodfellas gangsters are primarily businessmen for whom murder is an integral part of business, and big time crime is an accepted extension of family life. 2 Growing up in the fifties, doing odd jobs for local hoods, Henry Hill (Liotta) commends himself to good father Paul Cicero (Sorvino) by refusing to notch to the cops.
In the sixties, he joins forces with James Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), embarks into a stormy marriage to Karen (Bracco), and is sentenced to 10 years in jail, from where he begins dealing dugs. In the eighties, Liotta, De Niro and Pesci pull off the robbery that brings about their downfall. When the thieves fall out, Sorvino orders Pesci’s execution and Liotta, forced to betray De Niro to the police, is given a new identity under the Witness Protection Program. GoodFellas combines elements of the musical and black comedy in its story of the rise and fall of the gangster.
Goodfellas displays the typical viciousness found in most gangster films. There is violence, killings and so on, although at the same time the audience can still identify with the gangster. This is done through editing, camera angles, and music. The audience is made to feel sorry for the gangster, as for example at the end when Henry finds out that his wife has flashed the drugs down the toilet, the look of desperation and fear presented by the character allows the character not to be looked at as a monster and the audience almost wants to help the gangster.
The most shocking element of Goodfellas is the ending, in which Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is stuck in the prison of American suburbia. Henry has the American dream but despises it. Genres change over time and Goodfellas is a good example of this. For example if you watched a gangster film in the 1930’s you would see features typical of the genre then: men in hats wearing spats carrying machine guns in violin cases. If you watch a modern gangster film like Goodfellas you see that most of these have disappeared- some have become boring clichi?? , some such as the violin cases had been repeated so often they have become comic. Repetition and variation is important to note. The audience knows that Goodfellas is a gangster film because of the iconography that is used, also the stars like De Niro, which is recognised as a gangster figure.
There is also variation from the earlier films as mentioned above. The film echoes many of the iconography found in gangster film for example cigars, suits, fancy cars, and fancy homes. Also the film echoes many of the settings typically found in gangster films as for example bars. One side of the gangster film’s cultural realism and generic popularity is about the criminally organised supply of illegal but marketable goods (Goodfellas deals with drugs and illegal guns). Another side involves ethnicity, the family and their relationship to American society and the American dream. Winkour points out that the contemporary gangster film covers ‘the same ethnic groups as their predecessors: Italian, Irish, Jewish and WASP’. Looking at this in relation to Goodfellas it is evident that it deals with ethnic minorities i. e. Italian Americans.
GoodFellas follows the conventional narrative of the gangster genre. There is order when the film starts, disruption as for example when Goodfellas gangsters pull the big robbery and restoration, which is the end of the film when Henry goes under the Witness Protection Program. In the end the gangster has his downfall and social order is once again restored. These narrative and ideological features characterise the gangster genre and can be applied to many of its examples. Before applying the star system to Goodfellas it is important to note that the star system did not always exist.
By 1910 stars were seen as marketing potential and it was tied in with genre and held as being as important as genre. The star studies approaches began in the late 1970’s and has grown and evolved since. 4The star is found in two places – in the roles he plays and in the media exposure he receives as a consequence of this and which will in turn contribute to the meaning he brings to his next role. The star uses the film as an opportunity to display whatever is specific to his or her star persona.
Dyer identifies the following: a character role, a situation, a context for doing his ‘thing’- be it dancing, singing or whatever. Recurring themes within the films that stars play in contribute to the genres of film that the audience expect them to play in. Dyer identifies iconography, visual style and placement within the structure of the narrative. The star therefore can be approached as a formal structure. The star’s appearance, voice, gestures, movements and so on will be important to the audience’s recognition of the film’s genre and the construction of the star’s persona and the genre he or she will be linked with.
It is important to note that genre also depends on the star and the availability of stars that can play the roles needed to portray that genre effectively. Not only the film itself constructs the star’s image. 5 For example Dyer differentiates between promotional material, produced by the industry (including the agency acting on behalf of the star) and criticism and commentaries which function to ‘voice’ the response of the public. In practice each can construct and alter the star’s image while circulating it within culture.
Christine Gledhill identifies four components, which make up the star, which are; the real person, the characters/ roles which are generally fixed by fictional and stereotypical conventions, the persona which is the predictable in role and the ‘unique’ in self and finally the image circulating in subsidiary media forms such as TV interviews, magazines etc. When exploring the star of a film his or her relation to the audience needs to be explored too. It is just as likely that the audience will go and see a film because of who is in it as much for the genre it is in.
Also important is the reaction of the audience to the film, which is very often affected by the presence of the star and their knowledge of them. In Goodfellas taking the character of De Niro the audience recognises the performance that he gives from other gangster films that he has played in. De Niro acts in a way that fits in with his star persona. Therefore the audience know what type film and the kind of performance they could expect prior to seeing the film. For the film Goodfellas’ De Niro could be said to be the ‘perfect fit’ as his character and star image mould perfectly.
Seeing De Niro in Goodfellas the audience already have expectations of him, for example they expect him to be a gangster, be brutal, be a womaniser, be violent, be part of a mafia. An unknown actor would not have these connotations and the film would have to rely only on the genre of the film in order to attract the audience. It could be said that De Niro’s name alone could be enough to sell the movie considering his success in other gangster films. To quote from Pam Cook’s The Cinema Book, stars offer ‘insurance value’ to the industry, a ‘production value’ to the filmmakers and a ‘trademark’ value to potential audiences.
Thus stars have, in economic terms, an ‘exchange value’; they are forms of capital strategically employed in order to create profit. Finally to quote from Film Theory and Criticism, the stars are only to gaze at, after the fact, and their actions divine our projects. We must note the sense in which the creation of a (screen performer) is also the creation of a character- not the kind of character an author creates, but the kind that certain real people are: a type. In conclusion genre and stars are important marketing tools.
Together they can maximise the popularity of a film and guarantee success at the box office. Goodfellas is a good example of contemporary gangster film and a good example when looking at the history of gangster films and the changes that have occurred within it over the decades. As stated above the stars used within this film like Roberto De Niro are perfect fits in relation to the genre and their star persona, which is one of the main reasons why this film is a success.