Saturday, August 25, 2012

Choosing between jewels: 'The Godfather' and 'GoodFellas'

Brando's last great role
Films about the mob have been a staple of entertainment since the earliest days of movie making. For example, the original Scarface was made in the early 1930s and presented a graphic view (for that time) of how Hollywood interpreted a life in crime.

Of course, movies like this are fantasy no matter how realistically they are presented. Still, the world of the Mafia has always been fascinating subject matter that seems like a perfect match for people in Hollywood.
Recently, I came across a crime film marathon presented on one of the movie channels I frequently watch. A few of the films were throwaways, but two of them are among the greatest films ever made. The Godfather and GoodFellas are films that stand up to repeated viewings. In fact, if I am searching channels for something to watch and stumble across one of these two, I drop whatever I am doing and watch them. They are that good.
The Godfather was released in 1972, and it focuses primarily on the inner workings of a Mafia family headed Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando). The film unfolds and is told only from the viewpoint of the family. 'Honor' is perhaps the most valued trait in this family though it plays itself out mostly in terms of loyalty and not honesty. After all, these guys are big-time thugs so there can only be so much honesty.
However, 'loyalty' is key for them. Traitors appear to be the biggest villains in the film, and as the character Michael (played by Al Pacino) says: "Don't ever take sides against the family."
Brando's character is the moral compass of the film (if it can be called that). For example, he does not have a problem being involved with crimes related to liquor and gambling, but draws the line at drugs. He is more focused on what he considers victimless crimes, according to film critic Roger Ebert. It is an odd form of morality, and director Francis Ford Coppola presents it in a brilliant way.
GoodFellas was released in 1990, and it presents the mob through the eyes of three characters: Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). While The Godfather presents a weird form of morality, GoodFellas is almost totally lacking in morality.
While there is loyalty among those three characters, there is a brutality and ruthlessness throughout the film that takes no prisoners. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of brutality in The Godfather but at the heart of it was a loyalty to the family. This is not seen in GoodFellas.
The film ends with Hill ratting out everybody else in order to save his own life. He goes into the witness protection program while everybody else goes to prison. It is as if Hill had spent his entire life using people for his own purposes, and by the end, there was nobody else left to stab in the back other than his 'friends.'
Joe Pesci's performance as Tommy so dominated the film that he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He plays a psychopath so tightly wired that people suck up to him to avoid his murderous wrath.
Perhaps the film's most famous scene takes place in a restaurant, and Hill innocently calls Tommy a 'funny guy.' Tommy pretends to take it as an insult and verbally intimidates everybody so completely that everybody is left sitting in stunned, awkward silence. After he reveals he is only joking, Tommy tells Hill that he may fold under questioning someday.
Both films are jewels, but if I had to pick one it would be The Godfather. It feels more like an epic.

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