The Godfather is a brilliant film. Every few years, I sit down with my parents and rewatch the trilogy, and every few years I see new nuances to the direction, new shades in the acting, new meanings in the dialogue. And yet, when I want to enjoy a really good mob film, I put Goodfellas on.
Now, don’t ask me which is better. I could not judge. All I can say is that to me, Goodfellas feels more gritty, more real. This may well be because the film is based on true events, or perhaps it’s the more gung ho approach to directing of Scorsese, versus the more stylised story telling of Coppola; or maybe it’s that Ray Liotta is absolutely perfect in the role of Henry Hill. All I can say is that each time I watch it, the 145 minutes feel like a perfect 90.
The film tells the life of Henry Hill, who starts out in the mob as a boy and only gets out years later after joining the witness protection programme. The story is straight forward enough, but also has its grey areas, the moments when real life comes in and manages what fiction can’t. And that’s what makes it the superior film.
While The Godfather is drama at its best, with some of the best characters to ever grace film, both the story and the character development have a bit too much of the dramatic, sometimes when I watch The Godfather suspension of disbelief goes out the window, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
Watching Goodfellas is a totally different experience. I can believe that the mob is as dirty as in Goodfellas, and I can believe that they spend their money the way the guys in Goodfellas do, and I believe that they can avoid capture for so long and also that some of them are rats in the end.
One of the criticisms levelled at Goodfellas as a mob film is that Henry Hill is a rat, that the whole story of Goodfellas is a story about a traitor. I can understand this accusation. One of the attractive ideas about the mob is that it’s a family business where people shut up and hold the line and never, ever give each other up. This is a romantic notion, and as attractive as it is, it does not ring true. Some people are loyal, and some aren’t. Most people, when they find themselves between death and years in prison, turn into rats. And some people are rats, but not really, because they’re only rats in favour of their friends. All of this is explored in Goodfellas in a way it could never be in The Godfather. And that’s what gives the movie that bit more edge.