Martin Scorsese Makes Movies That Hurt to Love

illustration by Steve Adams

You can love Martin Scorsese movies for the wrong reasons.

The violence, the overt masculinity, the drugs, and the sex plastered across the screen seem to condone terrible behavior and offer a guidebook for anyone looking to do harm. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver offer no limit to male-centric self-destruction, and the later pictures After Hours, Last Temptation of Christ, and The Wolf of Wall Street give anyone with a moral bent a serious headache. Yet few Scorsese pictures (hell, few movies in general) provoke more moral revulsion than Goodfellas.

But that revulsion is all part of what Goodfellas is trying to do. The movie doesn’t seek to endorse violence or illegal activity, it wants to condemn them—but it wants to do so without letting the audience off the hook. Goodfellas is a deeply nuanced view of how American culture normalizes and reproduces violence, and the film itself actually works to implicate the audience in that violence. Three specific shot sequences, taken together—one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from the end—display both the movie’s view on violence and Scorsese’s expert manipulation of the audience’s experience (and even enjoyment) of that violence.

I. Henry Hill is a Psycho

The shot of Henry Hill as a kid looking out at the mobsters in the pizza place says it all. The image is lifted right from Psycho, the eye bright against a small opening. Here, the object of psychotic fascination is not the female body, but the gleaming car, slick shoes, and bright clothes of the gangsters across the street.

The eye against the little bright hole is the perfect metaphor for watching a movie. We sit somewhere dark and watch something bright—transgressive, fetishized, and torturing all at once. Something we know that maybe we shouldn’t like.

Henry Hill, then, is watching a movie. A mobster movie filled with fetishized cars and male power (a bit homoerotic, but then so are many of Scorsese’s movies); a movie that we have also been watching. We come to this image after the cold open and the credits—after the wonderfully complete statement, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”—so we’re already in Henry’s headspace. We buy into what he is saying because gangster movies are cool, and always have been. But then this shot appears as a warning signal, a huge red flag. It should dissuade us from believing Henry, and make us turn off the movie. Of course, we are not dissuaded, and we don’t turn it off.

We pay so much attention to the cars and the clothes and the killing and the beautiful shots that even if we do get the reference, we most likely would say, “Oh man, this guy’s obviously nuts, this movie’s gonna rock!” But of course Scorsese didn’t lift that shot to tell us, “Hey, watch out, this guy’s a psycho for wanting to be a gangster and a killer.” He lifted it to say, “Hey you, you’re a fucking psycho ’cause you want to be like that, too.” We are watching the same movie that Henry is, literally and figuratively, and we don’t look away. We become complicit in his fetishizing of violence and crime.

But we don’t really grasp that; Scorsese doesn’t let us. Instead, he primes the gangster movie pump with a mysterious and ghastly cold open that contrasts with shots gliding over old cars and snazzy shoes and suits. Nostalgia and style blind us to the warning because Scorsese doesn’t want us to take that warning seriously—lest we should stop watching.

The movie purports to be a true story about how living as part of the mob works—the real life version of The Godfather’s “Great American Mob”—and this shot with the eye tells us all the grand facts there are to say about gangsters and gangster movies. These men are insane. They kill and do drugs and extort people and they like to kill and do drugs and extort people. Watching them in a movie theater and thinking they are cool is just…psycho.

But, again, Scorsese doesn’t want that simple truth to repulse us. The facts of any gangster movie are really simple. They always have been. We know it, but we don’t acknowledge it, preferring to think that the crime and the violence are cool. This shot should be the be-all and end-all of gangster movies in the same way that photos of men shot through the head in newspapers should be the be-all and end-all of mob recruitment. But instead of ending the movie, this shot opens it—showing how bad these guys are without actually dissuading anyone. This image gets all the basic facts out of the way so that the rest of the movie can focus on the complexities of mob life: how we romanticize it; how that aesthetitization and romanticism allows us to normalize horrible violence; and how that leads to ruined lives.

II. Karen Gets Taken In.

We now jump to about an hour and change into the movie. Henry is now Ray Liotta rather than a child actor, and has become a fully-fledged mobster. He steals and drinks and fucks around and he makes a bunch of money doing it. He has fallen in “love” with Karen and has married her. A few years, it seems, have passed, and we see Henry and Tommy hold up a semi.

Directly following the hold up, Karen begins describing her early years as Henry’s wife. The FBI shows up with a search warrant, and then a sequence of the Polaroid snaps begin to pass across the screen. These faked photos make the previous violence seem “all the more normal,” as Karen says. By this point in the movie, we have begun to feel deep down how bad these people are—that we shouldn’t be watching this. Like Karen, we begin to question what previously was fine. But these pictures stop us; they talk us into believing that these people (if still not good) are just normal or silly. They make us feel like part of the family.

Scorsese pulls off that magic trick by drawing on the subtext of the Polaroid snapshot. The Polaroid plays off of nostalgia—the nostalgia of your own family photos and the possibility of looking back on your life. In the photos, all these people—all these murderous gangsters—appear as members of a real community, and they have stories and feelings and everything else that comes with being a person—and of course, that’s true. But when you allow for complexity and humanity, violence either becomes harder to believe, or a necessary tool for that community’s endurance.

Scorsese mixes the subjective input of Polaroid nostalgia with the objective input of visceral violence to temper and play with our reaction. Where the Psycho shot subtly let us know that we were totally doomed on this trip because of how much we innately want to be like those guys—free and powerful—these fake Polaroids ask us to think of these characters as people (and not just any people, tacky people). We are allowed to think we are better than them. “They have terrible haircuts!” we can laugh. We can hear the ridiculous nature of Karen’s statement that she’s “proud to have a husband who was willing to go out and risk his neck, just to get us the little extras.” As we move into the back half of the movie, and see and feel all of the bad shit that goes down, we can reassure ourselves with the thought that we are better than these people—that we don’t do that stuff.

Scorsese almost lets us get away with it.

We feel the weight of poetic justice when Tommy gets whacked. We cringe in disgust at Henry’s philandering and drug use. We feel Henry’s fear and loathing for himself when he has that last bad day. Yet we still put ourselves above the cops, because we are still in Henry’s psycho headspace.

But then the very last shot of the movie comes along.

III. Bang, You’re Dead

The last shot sequence—Tommy shooting straight at the audience—is lifted from one of the first narrative motion pictures, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. That film ends with all the robbers dead—and then, suddenly, one of the bandits appears, shooting at the screen. The sequence surprises us and gives an unexpected final curtain. It also scares us, and provides a perfectly ironic rejoinder for Henry’s statement that normal life sucks. But more than anything else, it kills us.

This last shot closes the story that the Psycho shot opens. If we were psychos for thinking that gangsters were cool—and that their drugs and money were awesome—then we are dead men. Since Goodfellas is a movie, we are only theoretically dead, of course—but let’s stop for a moment and ask why Scorsese wants us to die.

Henry just said that he felt dead because he was no longer in the mob—no longer making massive amounts of money and getting all the head he wanted. What’s more, he “can’t even get decent food,” receiving “egg noodles and ketchup” when he ordered “spaghetti with marinara sauce.” But what do we have to feel dead about? Well, we probably live in a suburban house like Henry—and even if we live in New York City or L.A., then we most likely will get up on Monday and go to our job and then come back home to do nothing but watch TV, maybe read a book. We are dead to Henry. We lived vicariously through these psychotic people to feel more alive than we did before, and now Scorsese wants us to feel dead like Henry. We cannot be left dangling, seeing ourselves as separate from Henry, lest we think, even for a second, that we can live like him. Scorsese kills us so that we don’t go out and live like Henry Hill.

So why don’t people walk out talking about the moral toll of Goodfellas? No one thinks about it because that last shot is also a cultural reference, just like Psycho and Polaroids. It’s normalized. It’s cool. The Great Train Robbery was a hit and it started off the American cinematic tradition of lifting up violent people as heroes—the tradition Goodfellas continues. Scorsese knows this, knows that if he made the movie a maudlin examination of how horrible these people were a) nobody would watch it, and b) it wouldn’t be an honest examination of the life of a mobster.

That is ultimately what Goodfellas does so well; it gets us in Henry Hill’s head. We feel his elation at becoming a mobster; his joy at getting married and still banging everything with a pulse; and, finally, his self-loathing descent into the layers of madness the movie always knew was there, right from that first shot. And Scorsese knows it has all been done before. The robbing and the killing and the glorification are in all the movies and the TV and the “true crime” books that we love. We get off on it, just like Karen. Goodfellas does not endorse violence and avarice. Rather, it shows us how violence and avarice get normalized in American culture. The movie embeds itself in that same process so we can feel that process happening. If someone watches it and does not understand that process—or thinks that those people are truly living—then the movie proves its own point.

In short, Martin Scorsese is cruel. He made a perfect gangster film that crucifies the very idea of gangster films, a beautifully violent movie that abhors violence. He made a film that you cannot love without either hating yourself a little or showing other people how horrible you truly are. Martin Scorsese is a genius, and a Catholic, and cruel.

Alex Dabertin is graduating this month from Columbia University with a dual degree in Theater and Chemistry. He has no idea what he is planning on doing with that either.