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Face-Off: Godfather vs. Goodfellas

08.30.2012by: Paul Huffman
For the stop-motion animation theme for last weeks Face Off, we threw two classics of the medium in the ring to duke it out. At the end of the day our readers tied it up with 5-5. Both live to fight another day.

This week, with the release of the prohibition era crime drama Lawless (based on 2008 novel The Wettest Country in the World written by Matt Bondurant) only a couple days away, we've decided to focus on two other classic crime films that were based on novels. The contestants are The Godfather (based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo) and Goodfellas (based on the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi). The film counterparts to said books have become all time classics of not only the crime genre but of film in general. Both present a very bleak picture of the world the stories were immersed in, and in a very different fashion. Which one stuck with you more? Let's discuss!
Direction
Francis Ford Coppola brought so much directorial style to a film that was at its essence the story of a royal family. The classic pull back in the opening scene to reveal Don Corleone, to the brilliantly put together montage of Michael Corleone's revenge of against the five families at the end of the film. Teaming with a legendary cinematographer in Gordon Willis will definitely provide with an impressive finished piece of work. His contrast of light and darkly lit scenes were interesting. Also, I have to give extra points to Coppola standing by his convictions that the film needed to faithful to the novel as a period piece, despite the studios efforts to reset it in present day. Definitely the wise choice.
To me, Goodfellas seemed like a documentary on acid. Scorsese shot this film in a way that was gritty, and made you feel like these were the real cats and you were living this lifestyle right along with them. But it is a Scorsese film, so style was present...and I had no choice but to laugh at the theme of all the clubs depicted in the film having some kind of aversion to light. But documentary style this film was, the narration pulled from the book backed that theme up and it immersed me in the film even more. One of my favorite sequences of the film was the somewhat Godfather style montage of Henry Hill rushing in and out of the house making dinner and keeping his desperate criminal activities going. It also makes me freaking hungry.
Cast/Performances
The Godfather was plagued with countless problems during production, but none caused so much paranoia that Coppola would get fired than that of his casting decisions. From the studio not wanting Pacino or Brando, which resulted in James Caan almost getting cast as Michael, it's a miracle everything turned out for the best. All the actors in this film seemed to perfectly understand their characters and knew how to bring them to life. It's said that the scene that convinced the studio to allow Pacino to remain was his shooting of Solozzo and the police captain. His transformation from the innocent war hero to who he ultimately became was fascinating. James Caan's performance was undoubtedly the influenced many 'mafioso' performances that followed. And Brando, well I've read that Brando altered the way real life mobsters spoke and conducted themselves, take from that what you will.
Scorsese had less troubles in the process of casting for this film, but the choices and the results were no less brilliant than that of the Godfather. Robert De Niro's star had risen, so when he agreed to take part the studio was ready to give Marty the world. Ray Liotta was a harder sell, Scorsese was determined to have him but the studio wanted a marketable name...Liotta fought hard to secure the role and based on his performance, thank god he did. I'm going to have to give Goodfellas the edge in this category based on the energy that all the actors brought to this film, every single one of them. Also to me, Henry Hill's descent into drugs was just as enthralling to watch as Michael Corleone's descent into darkness. Nobody could have done it better.
Bloody Mayhem
The film was slow burning, but when it was time to get to the goods it delivered. The massacre of Sonny (influenced by the deaths of Bonnie & Clyde) being the obvious scene to highlight, all those squibs must have been a bitch. The agonizing strangling of Clemenza, the death of Sollozo and the police captain (that red mist was nuts), and the classic bullet to the eye. This film may have romanticized a crime family, but it definitely pulled out all the stops when it depicted the potential consequences of their dealings.
There was no romantic theme in Goodfellas, the film opened up with Joe Pesci stabbing the shit out of a man in a trunk, that let us in on exactly what we were in for. What are the violent sequences that brought out the squeamish side in me the most? Sam Jackson's bullet to the head, Joe Pesci's bullet to the head, that annoying schmuck that got the screwdriver through the throat. Who can forget a whole clip being emptied into poor Spider? The violence in this film was more terrifying because you knew this shit really went on, and without no feeling whatsoever.
Quotes
"You spent time with your family? Because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

"YOU CAN ACT LIKE A MAN!!"

"Leave the gun, take the cannoli."

"Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter... 's wedding... on the day of your daughter's wedding. And I hope their first child be a masculine child."

"It's a sicilian message, it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."

"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."

"What do you mean funny, like I'm a clown I amuse you? I make you laugh? I'm here to fuckin' amuse you?"

"Go home and get your fuckin' shine box."

"Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me."

"Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut."

"Now take me to jail."
Mob Depiction
I mentioned a couple times throughout this article that the mob is depicted in a romanticized and dare I say somewhat noble way in The Godfather. In some aspects the organized crime aspect is depicted in a realistic way, but like the films of the 30's we are given a group of criminals that we end up rooting for. The whole story played out more like a Shakespearean play rather than an accurate portrayal of a life in "that thing of theirs". This is by no means a negative aspect of the film, but it definitely had a tone and a message all its own.
The real life Henry Hill has gotten on camera and said that when he saw the film, he felt like he was watching himself and his friends on the screen. Marty nailed the heart of what the mob represented at the time, some of that is attributed to his upbringing and what he was around growing up and it shined through in Goodfellas. Maybe bosses were a different story in real life, but this film focused on soldiers who were sociopaths who killed at will, did what they wanted, and lived like kings until they were either imprisoned or killed. Nothing noble about these men and Nicholas Pillegi and Scorsese knew it.
Overall
I love a story that focuses on a tragic hero, a story that began with a good man and chronicled his fall from grace. That is what The Godfather provided us with. I loved the direction, I loved the cinematography, I loved the cast, I loved the music, all the elements just came together to make this film a classic to the majority of those who see it. I have yet to see an ending to a film that packed as big of a punch as The Godfather did. I hate repeating myself but Michael Corleone's transformation was the heart of this film, and he was complimented by characters that became just as memorable as he is.
Goodfellas is like an official manual for those who are fascinated with the lifestyle that these men lived. He brought a cast together that completely disappeared into their roles and it made sense that for a lot of mobsters that saw the film had their line between fiction and reality blurred. The best compliment I can give Goodfellas is that it had a director that had all the knowledge it took about this world and those in it to make it a classic. This is a man who knew what he was doing, and everybody involved brought the same dedication. No film has ever nailed consistent narration the way Goodfellas did. I think it was more of a blueprint for films of its kind than that of The Godfather was.
Goodfellas
So there you have it folks, I love both films immensely, but when I saw Goodfellas for the first time I found myself appreciating the accurate portrayal of a life of a crime that Scorsese presented a bit more than the tragedy of The Godfather. Different strokes for different folks I suppose. What approach did you appreciate more? Let us know!

If you have an idea that you'd like to see in a future FACE OFF column, feel free to shoot an email to me at paulhuffman@joblo.com with your ideas and some ideas for the critique to base your ideas off. Thank you and in the meantime...

Which gangster film is your favourite?
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