In this paper, I will examine Martin Scorsese’s utilization of voice-over in his film Goodfellas (1990). Although voice-over is generally considered a “lazy” form of scriptwriting by the film community, I will argue that Scorsese’s utilization of voice-over as a narrative device benefits the film insofar as it enhances the viewers personal engagement with the characters, it directs the viewers attention to the appropriate perspective, – that of the protagonist, Henry (Ray Liotta) – and it allows the adapted film to stay true to the book. I will begin by presenting some background information about Martin Scorsese and the film. I will then delve a bit into violence and the gangster genre, of which Goodfellas belongs. Subsequently, I will focus on the element of narrative structure, paying particular attention to voice-over as a narrative device.
Goodfellas is a 1990 film by director Martin Scorsese. It is one of several of the director’s films in the ‘gangster’ genre, and, like many of his films, such as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Casino (1995), it is set in New York. The film stars Ray Liotta as the protagonist, Henry Hill, Robert De Niro as the infamous James ‘Jimmy’ Conway, Joe Pesci as the violent Tommy DeVito, Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife Karen, and Paul Sorvino as mob boss Paul Cicero. It is a true story based on Nicholas Pileggi’s best selling book “Wiseguy” – a true account of mobster and eventual FBI informant Henry Hill. In an interview with Raffaele Donato, Martin Scorsese suggested that he received his influence from Italian Neo-Realist films. He says that “they always had a sense of urgency and immediacy” which he tries to emulate in his films, particularly the gangster films. He states that, as a youth, Rosselini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) left particularly influential impressions on him.
Through the use of voice-over, Henry Hill describes his gangster organization in immense detail. He defines it as a culture; the gang is like a second family to him. Because of the broad focus on the gangster culture, the film doesn’t so much retire into stereotyping gangsters as ultra violent, super macho, people full of testosterone. Sure, there are some inextricable qualities of the gangster which Goodfellas admits: he must be tough, fearless, and, to some extent, dangerous and violent – in this line of work, there is no room for pussy’s or the faint of heart; that will get you killed. The character of Tommy (Joe Pesci) epitomizes the stereotypical gangster with his harsh attitude and short temper. On the other hand, Henry and Paulie (Paul Sorvino) demonstrate that respect and pride are as much a part of the gangster culture as the violence.
Although voice-over is generally considered a lazy or easy form of scriptwriting, I believe the use of it in Goodfellas is essential. In the aforementioned interview, Martin Scorsese stated the following: “what’s always interested me about movies, right from the beginning, is the question ‘where do you put the camera?’ In other words, you have the ability to photograph something called ‘life’, to record it, but then how do you record it? From what vantage point?” Because Goodfellas is an adaptation of a book based on the true story of a man named Henry Hill, the vantage point, or perspective the film ought to utilize, is that of Henry Hill. By juxtaposing images with voice-over, Scorsese becomes equipped to allow Henry to ostensibly tell his own story. By doing this, the viewers share the direct perspective of the omniscient narrator, while being able to simultaneously watch his purported actions. In regards to this capacity, Roberta Piazza wrote an article entitled Voice-Over And Self-Narrative In Film. It describes how dialogue, particularly voice-over, artfully interacts with elements of mise-en-scene. This suggests that voice-over, though often used out of laziness, can be used to enhance a films narrative by working with the images and actions shown on screen.
Voice-over is utilized throughout the film; some may consider it overdone. You could palpably choose any scene in the entire film, and it would have, at least, some voice-over. It is primarily done so as to influence the viewers to identify with Henry. Through hearing Henry’s spoken words, the viewer watches each scene with Henry’s particular perspective. If there was no voice-over, the viewer would have to decide for themselves how to attend to the images shown. But, because there is voice-over, the viewer is always reminded that it is Henry’s story, being told by Henry himself. There are a few brief instances where Karen, (Lorraine Bracco), Henry’s wife, does the voice-over; however, her voice-over’s tell us more about Henry than they do about her.
Moreover, Henry’s voice-over’s provide much detail about each of the characters he interacts with. The film is packed full of diegetic information, this enhances the viewers personal engagement with the characters. Because of the vast amount of information divulged through Henry’s voice-over’s, the viewers ostensibly seem to know exactly what Henry knows; this allows them to feel as though they know the characters personally, thus enhancing their personal engagement with them. For example, within the first three minutes of the film, Henry illustrates his childhood – revealing his family lifestyle and his aspirations for becoming a gangster, introduces us to all the major figures in the gangster organization he joins, and describes exactly how each member interacts, and what position each of them fulfill, within their gangster community.
However, since it is Henry’s perspective we are exposed to, we are inclined to agree with his subjective outlook on things. This reveals a disquieting fact: the narrator is fallible, and the voice-over’s may not provide genuine information. In spite of this, I think Henry’s perspective supports the narrative, because, of course, it is Henry’s story which we are being presented with. An example of voice-over incongruity occurs when Henry goes to jail for the second time. In the voice-over, Henry states that he is going to retrieve the remaining dope stashed in the house and use its profits to get him out of the situation he is in. However, we already know, from a previous scene, that Karen has flushed the dope down the toilet in fear of the police finding it.
Goodfellas is ostensibly structured in three acts: the first act introduces the characters, the second act, of which the first scene is the clip in the beginning of the film, depicts the rising action, and the third act, distinguished by the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” screenshot, provides the climax and, at the near end, the resolution. The tone of Henry’s voice-over narrative changes through the acts in order to adequately render the temper and mood of the Henry on screen. In the first act, Henry speaks with a charming and quaint attitude; it is as though he is reminiscing about his wonderful childhood. In the second act, Henry speaks with an increasingly serious attitude; he is clearly faced with a multitude of responsibilities which are slowly eating away at him. Finally, in the third act, Henry speaks with an increasingly nervous attitude; the cocaine and the lifestyle have made him paranoid and desperate. With the resolution, Henry’s voice becomes resentful. After submitting to the witness protection program, he bitterly pines for his former life of riches and respect. In light of the fact that the attitude and tone of Henry’s voice-over narrative changes throughout the acts, the viewer is able to accurately conceptualize the character of Henry Hill, in all his complexities, as he has developed from young ’til old. If it were not for the utilization of voice-over as a narrative device, it is likely that we would all have strikingly dissimilar conceptions of Henry Hill and the trials of his life.
In the second to last scene of the film, Henry Hill is shown on trial. During this scene, Henry’s voice-over amalgamates with the Henry on screen. He gets up, walks toward the camera, and speaks directly into it, as if he’s doing the voice-over. This action defines the notion that it is Henry’s story, being told by Henry himself; Henry’s speaking into the camera elucidates the notion that Henry has been speaking directly to us the entire time. Through voice-over, Henry has been personally revealing his story, as if for an audience to hear. Thus, by employing voice-over as a narrative device, Martin Scorsese adapts the film in such a way so as to stay true to the book, of which personal speech by the actual Henry Hill is quoted extensively.
For these reasons, voice-over in Goodfellas is not used in vain, and it is not used as an ‘easy’ or ‘lazy’ form of scriptwriting. The utilization of voice-over as a narrative device serves the storytelling; it is an essential part of the story itself. Without it, the characters would be less defined, Henry Hill’s point of view would not as accurately be shared, and the film would likely not be an adequate adaptation of the original book; in short, Goodfellas would not be the same.
Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Writ. Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi. Adapted from the book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi. Perfs. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino. Film. Warner Bros Pictures. 1990.
Donato, Raffaele. “Docufictions: An Interview With Martin Scorsese On Documentary Film” Film History; 2007, Vol. 19 Issue 2, p199-207, 9p.
Bradley, Scott. “Film As Literature: Two Screenplays” Literature Film Quarterly; 1995, Vol. 23 Issue 1, p79, 2p.
Piazza, Roberta. “Voice-Over And Self Narrative In Film” Language & Literature; May2010, Vol. 19 Issue 2, p173-195, 23p.
Pileggi, Nicholas. “Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family”. Pocket; Rei Mti edition. September 1, 1990.
About Kamran AhmedI have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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Published by The Massie Twins
Release Date: September 21st, 1990 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Debi Mazar, Samuel L. Jackson
n Brooklyn in 1955, young Henry Hill idolizes the classy act of the gangsters that run the town and he’s anxious to take part in the lifestyle. After snagging a job parking cars for the “wiseguys,” he quickly works his way into stealing, scamming, and heisting towards the big bucks. He gains all the connections and everyone knows him, including mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), master thief Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), and partner-in-crime Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry takes whatever he wants, no one messes with him, and he gets royal treatment in every establishment he sets foot in; he couldn’t be happier or wealthier. By the ‘60s, Henry (Ray Liotta) rockily dates and then marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl who slowly grows accustomed to her husband’s unique method of earning money. In time, for both of them, it seems completely legitimate.
In New York in 1970, Tommy gets in a particularly heated argument with Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), a “made” man (of 100% Italian descent and one of the top guys in a competing family), resulting in Jimmy and Henry aiding in the opposing gangster’s murder. Disposing of the body proves to be a tricky task – one that will haunt the trio for some time. But the special treatment of these particular crooks doesn’t stop even when Hill is sentenced to 10 years in prison for playing loan shark and roughing up the wrong guy – one with a sister working for the FBI. Comedically, “Goodfellas” trivializes incarceration; convicts with money and connections don’t have to spend time with the general population. Instead, Henry wiles away his days consternated over the amount of onions in the sauce for the steak dinner in their private detention center, while Karen smuggles in fine scotch. He serves a mere four years, getting out early, only to start dealing cocaine, which becomes more lucrative than any of the criminal enterprises he previously pursued. This leads to the Lufthansa heist, the largest cash robbery in history.
A dual narration by both Henry and Karen is the start of the unique methods of storytelling for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” a brilliantly witty rise-and-fall tale of high-class, exclusive gangsters. Though it questionably glamorizes the hoodlum lifestyle, it’s undeniably fun to see, masterfully infusing laugh-out-loud comedy with graphic violence and quirky crime. Murder is an accepted element of wiseguy activities, along with paying off cops, coping with search warrants, and contending with scrutiny from law enforcement. Feuds with other families and infidelity similarly pepper their routines. Consequences are ignored with a striking, above-the-law attitude, yet “Goodfellas” is crafty enough to examine the stresses on marriage and familial stability (notably with mistresses), the potential for friends to spontaneously get whacked, and growing paranoia (partially from drug usage), without sacrificing the jubilantly rebellious tone. Scorsese knew the appeal of his subject matter and wished to reveal specific elements of that attraction – from the riches to the freedoms to the sway – before also chronicling the anxiety and the decline. For Hill, his greatest fear is being removed from the assemblage of swanky thugs that give him power and prestige.
The soundtrack is incredible, with jazzy beats, classic numbers, and memorable melodies transitioning every scene. When one song ends, another smoothly begins, reminiscent of “American Graffiti’s” narrative governance through continuous tunes; the background music essentially never terminates. It’s hip, lighthearted, and perfectly contrasting of the generally dark material found in gangster epics, tying into the brilliance of the editing, which makes use of famous tracking shots, freeze frames, improvisations, slow-motion, and cutting between past and present events.
From the soundtrack to the dialogue to the brutal violence, everything is coated in humor – an uncommon but wonderfully wry style to impart on a movie with such serious, tragic, and intense themes. It’s a biopic, based on the true story of Henry Hill and his assortment of gangsters and influenced and advised by real life wiseguys, which gives the mood and scripting an impressive level of authenticity – many of the exchanges were entirely improvised. Oftentimes considered one of the greatest movies of all time, “Goodfellas” received outstanding reviews and critical acclaim during its initial release, garnering nominations for 6 Academy Awards and winning Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci. Rarely does it place any lower than second on lists of mob movies, and in 2000, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance.
– Mike Massie