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Two Narratives About The Mob's Quest For The American Dream: "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas"
Written by: Ross Vassilev
“Organized crime is a contorted mirror image of American civil society.”
Metaphor for America?
Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola is quoted as saying that “I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America” (Todd 2000: 15). Organized crime, especially the Sicilian-born Mafia, is such an indelible part of the American experience and identity in the 20th century that it cannot be separated from them without doing great injustice to the historical and socio-cultural truth about America. The Italian-American Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) is not a criminal import from Italy (or Sicily), but a strictly home-grown product bearing all the hallmarks of its native country—organized crime is indeed as American as apple pie. For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen two gangster movies—The Godfather (Parts I and II) and GoodFellas—which depict how organized crime in America has been shaped by and reflects the corrupting influence of money, greed, power, inequality, poverty, and injustice. Filmed by Coppola, The Godfather is a film adaptation of the sensationalist Mafia saga of the same title by the late Italian-American novelist Mario Puzo. This visual text presents the rags-to-riches rise of a fictional Mafia family from its humble origins in Sicily to the top of organized crime in America. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, GoodFellas is based on the non-fiction biography Wiseguy by crime reporter Nicolas Pileggi (1987). This visual text chronicles the real life-story of an Irish-American mobster, the late Henry Hill, who was a consultant to both the book and its film adaptation.
The socio-cultural context
The two gangster narratives portray how new immigrants or their first- and second-generation descendants—faced with poverty, bigotry, discrimination, inequality, and social injustice—resort to crime in their quest for the American Dream. They realize that in America, money and only money—and lots of it—can help you succeed in life and give you power. Aspiring mobsters know that being without a good education, inherited wealth, or high-level connections in government or business, the game is stacked against them. They are ambitious men who have decided that the only way for them to have a shot at the American Dream is by joining organized crime. In The Godfather I, Vito (Andolini) Corleone, the quintessentially charismatic and “honorable” movie gangster, explains why he chose to become an American mafioso after escaping Sicily's deadly crime, crushing poverty (la miseria), and Mafia lawlessness in 1901, “I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all those big shots”—the pezzonovante, as his youngest son Michael contemptuously calls them. Coppola's narrative confirms that America's urban underworld exists because economic opportunity and success are not open to large segments of its immigrant population. Another contributing factor are the hardships and acculturation difficulties experienced by immigrants like Vito, seeking a foothold in the New World. Howard Abadinsky writes that in America, “Conditions of severe deprivation with extremely limited access to ladders of legitimate success result in collective adaptations in the form of delinquent subcultures” (1990: 52). Indeed, as Henry Hill describes his East New York underworld's subliminally “delinquent subculture” in GoodFellas, “For us, to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks, who took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice, they got hit so bad they never complained again. It was routine. You didn't even think about it.”
Both visual texts present the mob as born out of the inequalities, injustices, avarice, corruption, and violence of American society. America's super-wealthy and well-connected “job creators” (like Hollywood tycoon Jack Woltz in The Godfather I) and corrupt politicians (like greedy Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather II) engage with impunity in high-level white-collar crime in countless “legal” and “legitimate” schemes (like Senator Geary's scheme to extort millions of dollars from Michael's Las Vegas casinos or the American corporate world's open bribery of pre-Castro Cuba's corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista in The Godfather II). But the working-class “wiseguys” in GoodFellas can get rich only illegally—that is, always in punishable violation of the law (itself written by the rich and mighty). As Henry's wife Karen tries to explain away his criminal activities in GoodFellas, “None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren't brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money—real extra money—was to go out and cut a few corners.”
As an illicit shortcut to achieving the American Dream of material success, the existence of the Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) has led to WASP prejudice and bias against Italian-American immigrants and to their ethnic stereotyping in 20th-century America's popular culture. For example, Senator Geary readily uses ethnic stereotypes to humiliate Michael, a hereditary Sicilian-American, telling him “I don't like your kind of people. I don't like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, and try to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself...and your whole fucking family.” But Michael coldly reminds him that there is no honor among thieves like themselves, “Senator, we are both part of the same hypocrisy....” In GoodFellas, Karen's Jewish mother would not let her date—let alone marry—Italian-American men, so Karen's Irish-Sicilian suitor Henry has to pretend being half Jewish (“Just the good half”) and even converts to Judaism for their wedding ceremony. While contributing to the mob's romantic aura and glamorous image in 20th-century American pop culture, bestseller novels and blockbuster movies like The Godfather have only perpetuated old Mafia myths and the ethnic stereotyping of all Italian-Americans as mafiosi.
In its romantic and glamorizing vision of organized crime, The Godfather lionizes the “upper echelons of the Mafia and portrays these men as the film's heroes” (Larke-Walsh 2010: 30). Emphasizing the similarity between organized crime and the U.S. business community, Coppola shows the corrupt business practices of the Corleone dons (the Mafia's “upper classes”) as “comfortable bedfellows of more 'legitimate' American business,” including the “American corporate investment in Cuba” under Batista, which only contributes to “the family's sense of omnipotence and the international power of organized crime” (ibid.: 30, 34). Vera Dika even claims that the Sicilian Mafa's traditional code of honor arose from the need to protect the poor and powerless from the local landowners (padroni). In its “Italianicity,” the Mafa in The Godfather I and II returns to “the fading memory of La Via Vecchia” (Browne, 2000: 92)—its old chivalrous code of resisting injustice and providing protection for the poor or powerless paesani (like the Italian immigrant baker Enzo), which makes its criminality morally much less reproachable. George Larke-Walsh identifies four key Mafia myths that underlie the “post-classic” gangster cinema genre: “...firstly, that the origins of the Mafia are primarily located in Italian or Sicilian culture and history. Secondly, that its structure is that of an extended family in that, although not all members are of the same blood lineage, allegiance to the organization is as strong as Sicilian family loyalty. Thirdly, the extended family structure allows for the organization to operate in a business-like manner; its primary motivation is to make money. Lastly, its air-tight secrecy, omertà, protects the organization from outside scrutiny and prosecution“ (2010: 126).
But Jon Lewis questions the very authenticity of The Godfather's Sicilian-originated Mafia mythology based supposedly on the Old-World code of honor and chivalry (“la via vecchia”). According to him, “...it is fair to wonder just how much of the Corleones' talk about 'the old country' and 'the old days' refers not to any real gangster history but instead to a fiction fabricated by Puzo” (Lewis 2011: 72). In fact, Puzo openly admitted that he had never met a real mafioso before he started writing the novel, which relied instead on Mafia renegade Joe Valachi's public testimony in 1962 (even though the latter had reportedly been ghost-written by the FBI) and the NYPD blotter. Lewis cites old news stories which were reporting that after The Godfather I and II had played in movie houses across the nation, real mobsters began to emulate in their behavior the idealized version of gangster life they had seen on the screen (like kissing the hand of their don). That is why Lewis shares the more skeptical view about Mafia mythology, writing that “The Godfather perpetuates a fiction that runs counter to the gangster life on the street” (ibid.). In turn, Alessandro Camon argues that the Mafia's Sicilian-originated myths of honor, silence, and loyalty have been dissolved into the American popular culture of greed, consumerism, nihilism, and narcissistic selfishness, “...Mafia history shows us how the organization became addicted to consumerism, became shallow and nihilistic—how it lost faith in the once cogent fiction of its 'code': honor, respect, silence. Whereas in the previous era it would have been extraordinary for a mafioso to betray the organization, it is now common” (Browne, 2000: 71).
This deconstructivist conclusion seems to be confirmed by the more realistic GoodFellas, which appears to de-mythologize organized crime by offering “a less romantic view of Mafia life” (Larke-Walsh 2010: 41). Even though this visual text portrays them far more sympathetically that they deserve, Henry Hill and his fellow “wiseguys” represent the Mafia's lower echelons—violent, selfish, and venal hoodlums operating at street level who are not committed to the old Sicilian traditions of honor, silence (omertà), justice (vendetta), loyalty, respect and obedience to the capo, family, friends, and the Church. These poorly-organized “small-time crooks” are not even interested in power, but are only after money and the “good life.” Unlike Vito and Michael—both “noble” anti-heroes who are motivated by Old-World mythological allegiance to familia, friendship, and ethnic heritage (“la via vecchia”)—GoodFellas has “the pursuit of profit as the primary motivators for Hill, Conway and DeVito to keep their allegiance to the mob. Their payments to Paulie were to ensure their safety in the neighborhood, rather than to show respect to the boss. In consequence...profit is more important than ethnic allegiance” (ibid.: 43). Reckless greed, rootless individualism, and self-centered disrespect for family, friends, fellow mobsters, and even mob bosses lead to their downfall in the second half of Scorsese's narrative. Henry is so ruthless, self-absorbed, disloyal, and recklessly undisciplined in crime that he even involves his wife Karen, girlfriend Sandy, and former babysitter Lois Byrd in cocaine smuggling. In his egoistic pursuit of money, he ignores his capo and mentor Paulie Cisero, a Vito Corleone-like old-timer, who tries to warn him of the crippling legal consequences from narcotics trafficking. It is easy and even logical for Henry to flout fellow mobster Jimmy Conway's admonition early in the Scorsese's narrative: “Don't rat on your friends and keep your mouth shut”—the Mafia's sacred and manly “code of silence,” which keeps all mafiosi—as well as their associates and families—in line. (In Italian, omertà literally means “behaving like a man.”) At the end of GoodFellas, Jimmy and Henry are both cracking up—their nervous breakdowns brought on by the murderous disarray inside their Brooklyn crew, which is unraveling under heavy pressure from the law over their Lufthansa cargo heist and drug dealing, as well as by Jimmy's paranoia that fellow “wiseguys” (like Henry) might “sing” to the police rather than spend many years behind bars. Their loose connection to Paulie and the Lucchese crime family, which has always been based on the need for protection from the cops and other gangsters while earning money for themselves and for their crime bosses, becomes even more tenuous. (According to Henry, “...what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops. They are like a police department for wiseguys.”) Henry's subsequent defection to the FBI destroys yet another overblown myth of the Mafia as being a very secretive, tightly-knit, internally loyal, and well-disciplined corporate organization.
But once lost in the government's Witness Protection Program, a disgruntled and miserable Henry sorely misses the thrill, glamor, and healthy income of his luxurious life-style as a mobster: “The hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life. We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids—everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen and a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars and the keys to a dozen hideouts flats all over the city. I'd bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend, then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. It didn't matter. When I was broke, I just went out and robbed some more. We ran everything. We paid off lawyers. We paid off cops. Everybody had their hands out. And now it's all over. And that's the hardest part. Today everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like anyone else. Yon can't even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Living a boring and uneventful post-Mafia life as just another contemptible ordinary man (“a schnook”) appeals to Henry probably even less than the four very comfortable years he spent as a convicted mobster in prison, “When you think of prison, you get pictures in your mind of those old movies with rows of guys behind bars. But it was not like that for wiseguys. It really was not that bad. When everybody else in the joint was doing real time, all mixed together, living like pigs, we lived alone. We owned the joint. Even the hacks we couldn't bribe would never rat on the guys we did.”
Even though The Godfather is clearly romanticizing the Mafia, while GoodFellas is presumably de-mythologizing it, Larke-Walsh ultimately finds no real difference between the moral messages from each of the two gangster narratives. In fact, Scorsese's “un-romantic” morality play still glamorizes “made” mafiosi like Paulie and Mafia wannabes like Henry or Jimmy by frequently focusing “on the privileges of being a wiseguy: from jumping the bread queue at the bakeries and skipping school to unlimited credit and the best seats in clubs” (Larke-Walsh 2010: 131). In both visual texts alike, old Mafia myths “are simultaneously romanticized and condemned” (ibid.: 222). The rather ambiguous moral message from GoodFellas's inconclusive ending is hardly an enticing advertisement for living an honest, decent, and ethically upright life, free of crime, deceit, and violence. We read in a postscript to the film that Henry was later re-arrested and sentenced on new drug-trafficking offenses, which eventually led to his divorce from Karen and expulsion from the Witness Protection Program. Such moral ambiguity reflects a rebellious post-modern view of hardened and inveterate criminals as being modern-day anti-establishment Robin Hoods—e.g., Hollywood director Arthur Penn's 1967 gangster film Bonnie and Clyde or his colleague George Roy Hill's 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to mention just a couple of examples. This morally equivocal modern view of crime and criminals goes perhaps as far back as John Milton's Paradise Lost, whose defiant main protagonist, Satan, signifies that being bad, sinful, or anti-social is perhaps preferable (or at least more fun) to being good, pious, or virtuous. True, Coppola shows the profound moral and spiritual crisis, into which a lonely and visibly depressed Michael has sunk by the end of The Godfather II. But his masterpiece film still romanticizes—subconsciously at least—the Mafia's way of life by ennobling and glamorizing its charismatic anti-heroes and exploiting popularized Italian-American stereotypes to give distinctive ethnic flavor to a similarly equivocal moral story about rather un-Dostoevskian crime and punishment.
"After all, we are not Communists"
By contrast, Glenn Man sees the trilogy as a direct critique of American capitalism, challenging its dominant and self-justifying ideology: “On the whole, the trilogy indicts American capitalism for the rampant materialism within society and subverts the dominant prosocial myth”—with The Godfather II (Coppola's sequel to his quasi-epic) “drawing clear analogies between the Mafia and a capitalistic society...as it depicts the corruption of the gangster as part of a larger corruption that stems from the abuses within a system of free enterprise” (Browne 2000: 113, 120). After all, American capitalism has itself spawned the nation-wide networks of entrepreneurial criminals who are trying to make big bucks every time the government outlaws the supply of some desirable goods and services that are much in demand by consumers (like booze, narcotics, prostitutes, gambling, pornography, unlicensed guns, untaxed cigarettes, etc.) At the New Jersey-held board meeting of all the heads of New York's crime syndicates in The Godfather I, Don Barzini boasts of the capitalistic, even patriotic nature of their criminal enterprises, “If Don Vito Corleone has all the judges and politicians in New York, he must share them or let others use them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly, he can present a bill for such services: after all, we are not Communists.” In other words, the Mafia godfathers see themselves as legitimate American entrepreneurs and businessmen, not shady criminals—let alone anti-capitalist and unpatriotic “Communists.” The Corleones are themselves firm believers in the free-enterprise, business-oriented character of their gangster capitalism. In The Godfather I, Michael explains to his future second wife Kay, “My father is no different than any other powerful man. Any man who is responsible for other people—like a senator or president.” When Kay responds in disbelief, “You know how naïve you sound? Senators and presidents don't have men killed,” Michael silences her with a disarming counter-question, “Really? Who is being naïve, Kay?” (This is an obvious allusion to official Washington's Mafia-like policy of “whacking” many opponents abroad, including unfriendly national leaders and governments—or what is sometimes called Uncle Sam's “Godfather foreign policy,” or the “Godfather Doctrine”). In The Godfather II, Michael discusses with Tom Hagen, his loyal adopted brother and consigliere, whether they can trust their Mafia underlings after an unsuccessful attempt has just been made on his life in his own home, confiding to him that “All our people are businessmen. Their loyalty is based on that.” In other words, for as long as they are paid, they will be loyal to their employers.
As part of a group of wealthy American businessmen and private investors, Michael and his Jewish-American partner in crime and nemesis Hyman Roth (the film's version of the Mafia's legendary financial kingpin Mayer Lansky) meet Batista in Havana and present him with a golden telephone as a “gift” from the IT&T. Later Roth is trying to persuade Michael to give the dictator $2 million in bribe money, “This government knows how to help business and to encourage it. The hotels here are bigger and swankier than any of our joints in Las Vegas. We can thank our friends in the Cuban government, which has put up half the cash with the Teamsters on a dollar for dollar basis and has relaxed restrictions on imports. We have now what we have always needed. Real partnership...with a friendly government. Just one small step for a man who wants to be President of the United States and having the cash to make it possible (a likely allusion to JFK's rumored family ties to organized crime). Michael, we are bigger than U.S. Steel” (at that time America's largest industrial corporation). The narrative also shows the two men celebrating Hyman Roth's birthday in the company of other crime bosses on the roof of a Havana casino-hotel owned by Roth, while carving up a birthday cake with a map of Cuba on it, which symbolizes the division of the island among the crime families. Not only do organized-crime chieftains like Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth see themselves as legitimate businessmen and savvy investors abroad, they also believe that their globe-spanning criminal empire is a major and legal component of America's capitalist economy—and not unlike the U.S. Steel Co. of their day.
Pessimism or misanthropy?
In conclusion, there is a strong whiff of pessimism, if not outright misanthropy, about the nature of humanity, given the self-interested venality, corruption, treachery, and callous indifference to violence one finds not only among the movie mobsters, but also among the ordinary folks portrayed in both Mafia narratives, who are not even members of organized crime. In The Godfather I, for instance, the well-to-do Italian-American undertaker Bonasera offers to pay Don Vito (whose personal friendship he has previously rejected) to murder two young men who have date-raped and badly beaten up his daughter. Don Vito's grandson, crooner Johnny Fontane (whose fictional character resembles Frank Sinatra so much that the infuriated legendary performer once assaulted Mario Puzo in a crowded Manhattan restaurant), begs his godfather to strong-arm his bandleader into releasing him from a binding contract (presumably, the real-life famous bandleader Tommy Dorsey) and, years later, to similarly strong-arm a Hollywood mogul into giving him an acting part (presumably in Frank Sinatra's film From Here to Eternity). Son-in-law Carlo, whom Don Vito has deliberately kept out of the family's criminal business, secretly betrays the Corleones to their rivals in the New York Mafia, resulting in the grizly murder of his brother-in-law and ex-best friend Sonny. NYPD Captain McCluskey doubles as a brutal associate and personal body-guard to Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo, a murderous Sicilian mafioso and major narcotics trafficker. In The Godfather II, corrupt Nevada Senator Pat Geary (whose fictional character is supposedly based on the late Nevada Senator Patrick A. McCarran, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, who was rumored to have had close ties to organized crime) tries to extort millions of dollars from the Corleone-owned Las Vegas casinos. Signor Roberto, a typical but legitimate New York slumlord of the 1920s, mistreats and squeezes as much profit as he can from his impoverished tenants, mostly fellow Italian-Americans (like Signora Colombo whom he orders evicted, along with her noisy dog, from one of his slum tenements). Fredo, Michael's treacherous adopted brother, informs him that Mr. Kristatt, chief counsel to the Senate committee investigating the Corleone crime family, is a sock puppet of the mobster Hyman Roth (“...he belongs to Roth”). Michael chides his own sister Connie, “...your oldest boy Victor was picked up in Reno for some petty theft you don’t even know about.”
In GoodFellas, NYPD cops, federal prison guards, lawyers, and even judges take bribes—sometimes openly—from Henry and his fellow “wiseguys.” The JFK Airport's security guards and cargo-truck drivers work hand in glove with the organized criminals in stealing cash, expensive jewelry, and other valuable air-cargo and truck-transported goods. When Henry and Tommy highjack a loaded cargo truck near the airport, the conniving trucker calls the police, complaining that “Two niggers just stole my truck! Can you believe it?!” Sonny, owner and manager of the mob-frequented Brooklyn restaurant Bamboo Lounge, privately urges capo Paulie Cisero to kill fellow mobster Tommy DeVito, a psychopathic bully and Sonny's deadbeat customer and cruel tormentor. Henry involves his wife Karen, girlfriend Sandy, and former babysitter Lois Byrd in his illegal drug dealing, while Karen uses her two little girls as a cover to smuggle concealed bags filled with illicit narcotics during her family visits with Henry, while he is locked up in the federal penitentiary. Henry's father is a short-tempered brute who beats up his teenage son. The nice neighborhood boy, who has lived across the street from Karen all her life, gropes her and tries to molest her inside his posh car.
In fact, many ordinary people, who are not even members of the mob, appear to be little different from our movie gangsters. As Dr. Iain Colley further points out, even “the cordial face of the leisure industries conceals mob rule.... At the same time the criminal milieu, though clannish, is implicated in the wider world, not quarantined from it” (2001: 9). So, it is not only the seductive cinematic images of Italian-American Mafiosi and other ethnic mobsters that contribute to the persistence of the film noir criminal as a paradigmatic pop-culture archetype in America's consumer society. The romantic appeal of organized crime, violence, and evil in general, as well as widespread public fascination with the exotic, glamorous, and brutal folkways of the Sicilian-born Mafia in particular, remain an indelible part of the American identity and voyeuristic psyche.
Abadinsky, Howard. Organized Crime. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1990 (3rd edition). Print. This book is a useful overview of organized crime in America. Abadinsky, Professor of Criminal Justice who served as a consultant to President Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime, offers a penetrating historical analysis of the mob, writing that America's urban underworld exists because economic opportunity and success are closed to large segments of our immigrant population. Abadinsky identifies three “historical antecedents” to the present-day criminal networks: (1) the “robber barons” of the late 19th century; (2) the Irish-dominated urban political machines at the turn of the 20th century; and (3) the Prohibition era, which catapulted to fame the Jewish mob and the Italian-American Mafia, both of which had eclipsed the previously dominant Irish-American gangs. Chapter 3 describes the history of New York's crime syndicates, including Henry Hill's Lucchese Crime Family and even his capo and mentor, Paul (“Paulie”) Vario (36, 56). The text is most compelling when quoting the late Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell who referred to the mob as “an American way of life”: “the jungle quality of the American business community...was reflected in the mode of 'business' practiced by the coarse gangster elements, most of them from new immigrant families” (53-54).
Browne, Nick, ed. Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Trilogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print. Here are six essays written specifically for this volume edited by Nick Browne, Professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His introductory “Fearful A-Symmetries: Violence as History in The Godfather Films” deals with Coppola's view of predatory mob violence as inherent to American society, raising the question if the trilogy is indeed a metaphor for America. In “If History Has Taught Us Anything...Francis Coppola, Paramount Studios, and The Godfather Parts I, II, and III,” Jon Lewis portrays Coppola's struggles with the powerful financial interests of the Mafia-like Hollywood studio system. Alessandro Camon's “The Godfather and the Mythology of Mafia” argues that the Mafia's Sicilian-originated myth has been dissolved into the modern popular culture of greed, consumerism, nihilism, and narcissistic selfishness, “...Mafia history shows us how the organization became addicted to consumerism, became shallow and nihilistic—how it lost faith in the once cogent fiction of its 'code': honor, respect, silence. Whereas in the previous era it would have been extraordinary for a mafioso to betray the organization, it is now common” (71). According to Vera Dika's “The Representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather,” the Sicilian Mafa's traditional code of conduct arose from the need to protect the poor and powerless from the local landowners. The Mafa in The Godfather I and II returns to this chivalrous code of resisting injustice and providing protection, making its criminality morally less reproachable. Glenn Man's “Ideology and Genre in The Godfather Films” sees the trilogy as a critique of American capitalism, challenging its dominant ideology: “On the whole, the trilogy indicts American capitalism for the rampant materialism within society and subverts the dominant prosocial myth” (113)—with The Godfather II “drawing clear analogies between the Mafia and a capitalistic society...as it depicts the corruption of the gangster as part of a larger corruption that stems from the abuses within a system of free enterprise” (113, 120). Finally, Naomi Greene's “Ideology and Genre in The Godfather Films” links Coppola's melodramatic trilogy in both form and spirit to 19th-century Italy's “grand opera.”
Colley, Iain. GoodFellas. London: Longman-York Press, 2001. Print. Dr. Iain Colley provides useful background information about the gangster movie genre and includes excerpts from important critical reviews of Scorsese's film GoodFellas. He describes the cultural context in which this visual text was made and examines the production process, major scenes, key themes, and various cinematic techniques employed in filming the movie. The analysis ends on a rather gloomy note (just before the book's Conclusion), “...GoodFellas offers a perspective on America at a moment when its foundation myths, immortalized in the lyricism of the Western, have become windy excuses for violence, plunder, treachery and unprincipled self-interest as the market ruthlessly sorts out winners and losers. On that level, it is not unreasonable to read Scorsese's energetic tableau of a small, vicious world as an epitome of the state of the nation” (2001: 78-79).
The Godfather, Part 1. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton. Paramount, 1972. Film.
The Godfather, Part 2. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro. Paramount, 1974. Film.
GoodfFellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco. Warner, 1990. Film.
Larke-Walsh, George. Screening the Mafia: Masculinity, Ethnicity and Mobsters from The Godfather to The Sopranos. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2010. Print. Dr. Larke-Walsh, a British academic on the film faculty at the University of North Texas, presents this carefully analyzed historical study of “post-classic” American gangster movies from The Godfather and GoodFellas to the popular television series The Sopranos. In its romantic vision of organized crime, The Godfather focuses on the “upper echelons of the Mafia and portrays these men as the film's heroes” (30). Coppola shows the Corleone crime bosses (the Mafia's “upper classes”) as “comfortable bedfellows of more 'legitimate' American business,” including the “American corporate investment in Cuba” under Batista, which only contributes to “the family's sense of omnipotence and the international power of organized crime” (30, 34). The more realistic GoodFellas, on the other hand, “offers a less romantic view of Mafia life” (41). Henry Hill and his fellow “wiseguys” represent the Mafia's lower echelons—violent, selfish, and venal hoodlums operating at street level who are not committed to the old Sicilian traditions of honor, silence (omertà), justice (vendetta), loyalty, respect and obedience to the crime boss, familia, friends, and the Church. They are not even interested in power, but are only after money and the “good life.” GoodFellas has “the pursuit of profit as the primary motivators for Hill, Conway and DeVito to keep their allegiance to the mob. Their payments to Paulie were to ensure their safety in the neighborhood, rather than to show respect to the boss. In consequence...profit is more important than ethnic allegiance” (43). Reckless greed, rootless disloyalty, and egoistic disrespect for friends, family, and fellow gangsters lead to their downfall in the second half of Scorsese's film. Like his fellow “wiseguys,” Henry is so ruthless, self-centered, undisciplined and reckless that it is morally easy for him to flout Jimmy Conway's early admonition: “Don't rat on your friends and keep your mouth shut” (the Mafia's sacred code of silence).
Lewis, Jon. The Godfather. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. Lewis, Professor in the English Department at Oregon State University, questions the authenticity of the Mafia mythology in The Godfather. He writes that “...it is fair to wonder just how much of the Corleones' talk about 'the old country' and 'the old days' refers not to any real gangster history but instead to a fiction fabricated by Puzo” (72). Lewis cites old news stories which were reporting that after The Godfather I and II had played in movie houses around the country, real mobsters began to emulate in their behavior the idealized versions of gangsters they had seen on the screen (like kissing the hand of their crime boss). That is why the author shares the more skeptical view that “The Godfather perpetuates a fiction that runs counter to the gangster life on the street” (72). The book also provides some intriguing background details about alleged Mafia ties to Coppola's movie. Before production work could begin in New York's Little Italy in 1971, Paramount Pictures had to strike a deal with the Italian-American Civil Rights League presided by Joe Colombo, godfather of one of New York's five crime families, and Mafia associate Frank Sinatra, who was said to have been quite irate about his close resemblance to one of Puzo's fictional characters, Johnny Fontane. As a result of this secret deal, all references to the Mafia and La Cosa Nostra were removed from the screenplay. But that was far from the only mob presence on the production set. The film was financed by a reputed Sicilian mafioso, Michele “The Shark” Sindona, whose shady Italian banks were known to launder Mafia drug and gambling money. Sindona's investment of millions of dollars of ill-gotten mob money in The Godfather I changed dramatically the sagging fortunes of Paramount Studios, which had been on the verge of bankruptcy. The blockbuster contributed to “the box-office recovery” of the rest of the economically depressed Hollywood as well (89).
Pileggi, Nicholas. Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. New York: Pocket Books,1987. Print. This biography, based on interviews with Henry Hill (and his wife Karen), presents his real-life story as a low-ranking member of East New York's underworld. Born to impoverished Irish-Sicilian parents in Brooklyn, Hill was a working-class kid smitten with the ostentatious mafioso lifestyle, who always wanted “to be a gangster. To be a wiseguy. To me, being a wiseguy was better than being president of the United States. It meant power among people who had no power. It meant perks in a working-class neighborhood that had no privileges. To be a wiseguy was to own the world. I dreamed about being a wiseguy the way other kids dreamed about being doctors or movie stars or firemen or ballplayers” (13). Our anti-hero grew up to be a “wiseguy” (a street-smart petty mobster), but because his father was not of Italian heritage, he could never rise in the Mafia's corporate hierarchy. As a long-time associate of the Lucchese Crime Family's strong-arm Brooklyn crew, he participated in many of its lucrative rackets such as hijacking cargo trucks around its cash cow, New York's JFK Airport. He took part in a half-a-million-dollar heist at JFK's Air France cargo hangar, as well as in organizing the landmark Lufthansa Airlines robbery of $6 million in cash and jewelry in 1978—the biggest holdup ever in American history. Arrested for trafficking illegal drugs in 1980, Hill became a “rat”—a paid government informer in the FBI's Witness Protection Program—who “squealed” on his fellow mobsters in court and sent dozens of them to prison, including his mentor, Lucchese capo Paul Vario. Pileggi's bestseller became the basis for the screenplay of GoodFellas.
Todd, Drew. “The History of Crime Films.” Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. Ed. Nicole H. Rafter. London: Oxford University Press, 2000. 15-45. Print. “The History of Crime Films” by Dr. Todd Drew, Lecturer in Film History, Theory, and Analysis at the San José State University, is Chapter One in Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a scholarly study about how crime movies reflect and shape our society. (The rest of the book's chapters are written by Criminology Professor Nicole H. Rafter of the Northeastern University.) This particular chapter provides an informative overview of the origins and history of crime films, focusing on their chronological and thematic evolution from the silent film era to more recent times. Its twin objectives are: first, to establish a detailed inventory of major crime films and genre developments; and, second, to show how the history of crime films reflects the broader social and cultural forces and currents at work in the 20th century. Todd describes how a new, autheurist generation of ambitious and independent-minded movie directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese have revived the cinematic quality and box-office popularity of the Hollywood film noir genre, starting with the 1967 debut of Arthur Penn's glamorizing gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde. In Coppola's romantic imagination, “...The Godfather lionizes its elegant and savvy gangsters, who control even the legal system. At a time when Watergate and the war in Vietnam were undermining the moral authority of the state, The Godfather presented the family as a surrogate state, the source of the Corleones' morality, security, stability, and sense of purpose” (35). By contrast, in the moral bleakness of Coppola's sequel, The Godfather II, “...the family no longer provides a refuge from state ineptitude. Like Nixon's inner circle, the family fails morally, and it degenerates until it serves only one purpose: ensuring its own survival” (35). Another landmark film was Scorsese's “high-spirited,” “manic,” and “violent” GoodFellas, which only reinforced the popular appeal of the gangster genre and continued its revival well into the 1990s (43).