The Mafia Mystique – The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990)

The course project for one of my classes this past semester was an examination of devices and themes used by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in their presentations of the Mafia as seen in The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990).  This project was not for a film class, but rather for Criminological Reasearch Methods – I felt that this sort of analysis would be a perfect fusion of the methdological research component with my love of classic film.  And it would also aid me in remaining at least somewhat interested in the class.

The document weighs in at 19 pages in Microsoft Word, so feel free to skim some of the more technical methodological terms if they become too insufferable.  All in all, I can say that I enjoyed working on this project because it allowed me to probe two of the greatest films ever made, as well as learn a little background information about the birth and evolution of the gangster film genre.  The infamous Hays Production Code, for instance, had a heavy hand to play in the ethnic (or lack thereof) portrayal of gangsters from the 1930’s onward, until the Code’s demise in the late 1960’s.  Even by 1972, when Coppola was preparing to film The Godfather, he was under substantial pressure from Mafia interests to tailor his depictions to their liking.

Final Project: The Gangster as Italian American Identity


The evolution of the gangster film occupies an interesting space in film history because of its tenuous relationship with ethnicity.  “Early ethnic stereotypes branded Italian immigrants as highly emotional and sometimes prone to violence,” a classification that was seen in cinema as early as the 1906 silent The Black Hand (Bondanella 2004: 176).  Not all depictions of Italians in silent cinema linked them to crime, but the role of Italians in film at this time represented America’s struggle with nationalism and the public’s fear of anarchist violence.  “The definitive connection between Italian Americans and the gangster film would be established by two seminal works in 1930 and 1932: Little Caesar and Scarface,” both of which would be released at the same time that Hollywood was undergoing some drastic internal changes (181). 

The violence and sexual themes depicted in Scarface incensed and frightened significant sectors of the public and many self-proclaimed “moralists,” and the film’s depiction of Italian Americans “offended the powerful Order of the Sons of Italy, a large Italian American group that could play a role in urban elections in the East Coast” (196)  The film came at a time when Hollywood was formulating its infamous Production Code, which would regulate the content of Hollywood films for the next several decades.  Specifically, “[s]ection 10 of the Code…required that ‘no picture shall be produced that tends to incite bigotry or hatred among peoples of different races, religions, or national origins’” (197).  By the late 1960’s, however, the power of the Production Code was irrevocably failing, allowing filmmakers a freedom heretofore experienced only by those working for independent production companies.  This newfound ability of films to utilize ethnicity, especially in relation to crime, piqued my interest in relation to how filmmakers chose to approach these issues, and how the public reacted to them. 


In order to examine how contemporary filmmakers approached the topic of Italian Americans and the Mafia, I chose two well-known examples of the gangster film genre, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas (1990).  Because of the popularity of these films, they would likely be the subject of substantial academic analysis and contemporary reviews and discourse.  In order to examine this use of Italian ethnicity in mob films, I performed a content analysis on both these films and related literature, including contemporary as well as recent reviews and critical analyses. My research questions were: How do films such as The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990) use American nostalgia and Italian-American cultural identity to portray organized crime?  Is this approach meant to soften the public’s perception of criminal lifestyles, or does it work to negatively portray deviant behavior?

Data Collection

In order to measure the concepts of “American nostalgia” and “Italian American cultural identity,” I recorded the frequency of scenes depicting criminal actions, traditional and nontraditional gender roles, affirmation of American capitalism and entrepreneurship, and affirmative depictions of the nuclear family and adherence to traditional American values while viewing these films.  By coding for such variables, I was able to compare and contrast how each film depicted the concepts of nostalgia and Italian American cultural identity, as well as how these concepts are constructed (see Appendix).  I operationalized my research questions by investigating the following:

  • How are the women in these films portrayed?  Are they passive receptors when interacting with men?  Do they engage in any crime with or independent of men?
  • Is religion an important aspect in the lives of those involved in the Mafia?  Are Mafia members active participants in the Church, or are they simply attendees?
  • Is the Mafia depicted as a strictly Italian-American organization?  Is ethnicity an important prerequisite for participation within this organization?
  • Are scenes of criminal acts juxtaposed with depictions of traditional family life?
  • How are serious criminal acts presented?  Are they accepted as part of being in the Mafia, or do they entail negative consequences for the perpetrator?
  • How are historical time periods portrayed?  Do they reinforce traditional American values?  Are they critical of any social or cultural institutions of the time?
  • How are heterosexual relationships portrayed?  Do they reinforce traditional gender roles, or are there instances of (semi-) equality between men and women?
  • How tightly structured is the Mafia organization?  Does it mirror mainstream society (as far as institutional laws and regulations), or does it have a looser structure?

Summary of the Literature

Raymond Durgnat (1991) traces the portrayals of crime within the gangster film drama from the 1930’s to the present day.  The author shows how the gangster film is not limited to a narrow genre, but rather works on many intersecting political and social levels.  In The Godfather, for example, the Corleones are “pillars of their society, their crimes and ‘roots’ mutually supportive.  They do their pater-familias duty.  They’re clan-leaders, well-versed in executive-style intrigue and careful diplomacy” (Durgnat 94).  The American dream is simultaneously invoked and critiqued through this mutual reinforcement of family values and criminal lifestyles. Durgant observes that these films “don’t just establish, they trace in fascinated detail mixtures of guilt-free callousness with punctilious or sensitive sociability” (Durgnat 96).  Durgnat’s ideas highlight the intersection of many competing social and political factors in the portrayal of the Mafia and violence.

 The often overlooked art form of nostalgia is discussed further by Marc Le Seuer (1977), particularly as it pertains to the film industry during the late 1970’s.  By “nostalgia,” the author means “an intense romance with history” or a “wistful longing for a previous age” in American history (Le Seuer 187).  Goodfellas exemplifies what Le Seuer means by “nostalgia” in that it is a painstaking recreation of the period in which it is set, and at all times maintains a “spirit of unquenchable enthusiasm” (Le Seuer 195).  It is this enthusiasm which fosters a kind of selective memory, because these periods or epochs are remembered not necessarily as what they were, but as they should be.

In addition to the stylistic forms of nostalgia, the author introduces the idea of anti-nostalgia, wherein the filmmaker goes to great lengths to strip away the vestiges of romanticization from a particular historical time or event.  Through the use the anti-nostalgia, the artist or filmmaker “decline[s] to use these genres in a reverential manner, infusing them with new tensions designed to shock the viewer to greater understanding of his own world rather than a hazy memory….” (Le Seuer 195).  The interplay between nostalgia and anti-nostalgia is an interesting spin on conventional ideas of the former concept.  In The Godfather and Goodfellas, it can be said that both these ideas are at work.  The Godfather is more of an example of anti-nostalgia because of its much somber mood, which also reflected the moral ambiguity of the political and social climate of the time.  Goodfellas, on the other hand, makes much more use of a more enthusiastic nostalgia, which is less concerned with addressing social malaise than portraying Henry Hill’s (essentially) fun ride to the top of the Mafia power structure.

The Godfather can also be seen as a contemporary work in the tradition of epic European historical melodrama, but also marking a “new sensibility in American film, at once deeply theatrical and pessimistic, a sensibility which reflected on the one hand the formal influence of European and especially Italian models and on the other the traumatized social/political climate of post- Vietnam, post-Watergate America” (Greene 1984: 28).  The interplay of traditional art forms harks toward a notion of nostalgia for the past with a darker, more critical commentary on contemporary American socio-political events and issues.  

Like the inception of European melodrama, this film has come about during a deeply troubled point in American history – not only the melee of the Vietnam War and the political upheaval and cynicism fostered by the Watergate debacle, but also “the end of a certain concept of America” (Greene 29).  The Godfather represents America at a crossroads – a nation “which no longer believed in its future or even, for that matter, in what could be seen as the accepted view of its past” (Greene 34).  The films interweave images of the nostalgic and the traditional in American culture with a darker, bleaker understanding of American capitalism, the ruthlessness of power, and individual pathologies.  The influence of Vietnam is evident in the blurring of good and evil within this film, and also serves to reinforce the notion of “the very lonely, powerful yet impotent America which emerged from the war” (Greene 34).

Maurizio Viano (1991) examines Martin Scorsese’s use of violence within Goodfellas as a mechanism to temper the mood of nostalgia that is so painstakingly created.  Viano writes that it “leaves the audience unresolved as to whether it should be having a good time” (46).  Specifically, the character of Tommy is the most brutal purveyor of violence within the film, bludgeoning and slaughtering at the slightest hint of challenge or opposition.   Despite this interweaving of nostalgia and violence, the film ends with Henry taking an unapologetic view of his life as a gangster, maintaining “only un-ashamed nostalgia for a child’s fantasy” (Viano 47).  Henry displays no evidence of moral growth, leaving the audience to conclude that, despite the pervasive danger from every sort of crime committed during his life, it was a fun ride.  Scorsese’s use of nostalgia in Goodfellas is evident in Henry’s belief in the (male) American dream of money, women, and power, which he pursues determinedly, but not as ruthlessly as Tommy.

Edward LiPuma (1989) examines the fascination of American society with images of the Sicilian Mafia, which is termed the “Mafia Mystique” (1).  He analyzes how the Mafia mythology has developed in America since World War II, particularly how it utilizes romanticized notions of the family, upward economic mobility, and clearly defined gender and social roles.  LiPuma conducts his research by first separating fact from fiction.  He sifts through interviews with actual Sicilian-Americans and other firsthand resources in order to separate them from the products of the American Mafia mythology.  By conducting content analyses of these sources – which include hundreds of interviews with members of the Mafia and law enforcement, and accounts from newspapers and magazines – the author attempts to extract a clearer view of what the Mafia really was (and is).

The term “cultural criminology” refers to a recently developed perspective in criminological thought that explores the intersection of criminal and social processes in contemporary social life.  Cultural criminology examines social definitions of crime and crime control, particularly as defined by the mass media because of its pervasive presence in contemporary society.  It is through these social processes, Ferrell argues, that definitions of crime and deviance are constructed and enforced.  Many criminologists use ethnographic models (such as field research or media/textual analysis) in researching cultural criminology, as they are the most accurate means of examining “precise nuances of meaning within particular cultural milieux” (Ferrell 1999: 399).  The methods and perspectives put forth by cultural criminology are quite relevant to my examination of The Godfather and Goodfellas as well as public reaction to these films at the time of their release.  American nostalgia in both films is used to construct a cultural framework by which to view the Italian-America mafia and organized crime, and the mythologies of the American dream.

Schneider et al. (2008) use anthropological research to explore how definitions of “crime” are developed by state authorities, media, and civilian discourse and applied to particular groups and behaviors.  These definitions particularly arise along class lines, by those who are in power and feel threatened by the encroachment and/or concentration of the “dangerous classes,” especially in urban areas (Schneider et al. 352).  This distinction has worked, in particular, to conflate visible property crimes.  Syndicated criminal organizations, or the “Mafia” in general parlance, are much more difficult for ethnographers to research.  They are thought of less as a criminal organization because they are prosecuted less than many other classes of criminals.  This is because “they are more likely to ingratiate themselves with political, economic, and religious elites by mediating local elections, inviting officials to their banquets, and policing small-scale troublemakers in the name of peace” (Schneider et al. 363).  The Schneider et al.’s research is helpful in explaining why images of the Italian-American Mafia, especially in film, may utilize images of American nostalgia.  This may be because, like typical nostalgia, the American Mafia is viewed as within social and cultural norms, not outside of them.  Even though these organizations are built on crime, there is a sense that they are pursuing the American dream through self-made capitalism and advocating family values by maintaining a traditional patriarchal structure.  It is interesting that once criminals transcend the deviant labels of “poor” or “antisocial,” their crime somehow becomes more acceptable to society.


Criminal Activity

 The types of crime engaged in throughout the course of these two films were, more or less, very similar.  Among these, murder and physical assault were the most prevalent crimes depicted, with a total of 17 scenes in The Godfather and 20 scenes in Goodfellas.   Murder mainly occurs as a power play between Mafia families.  Its occurrence becomes so common, in fact, that it devolves into something routine, a part of everyday life.  In Goodfellas, for instance, Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) remarks that murder became “normal,” and her husband, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), concurs by saying that it had become “no big deal.”  Karen and Henry’s sentiments here illustrate how criminal activity, when repeated often enough, loses its sensitivity so much so that it becomes a part of life.  While murder in Goodfellas became a normalized part of the criminal lifestyles of the characters, it is shown in a slightly different light in The Godfather.  Members of the warring Mafia families are routinely killed as acts of aggression or revenge on the part of the murderers, much like what is shown in Goodfellas.  In two scenes, however, The Godfather juxtaposes these scenes of slaughter with scenes depicting traditional family life or religious observance.  The most notable of these scenes occurs near the end of the film when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) wants to move the family out of New York to the frontiers of Las Vegas.  He meets resistance in his efforts to purchase a casino for the Corleone family, and responds by murdering the businessmen and heads of the families that are standing in his way.  All this is carried out by his henchmen while he stands as godfather to Connie (Talia Shire) and Carlo Rizzi’s (Gianni Russo) baby in a Catholic Church ceremony.  The ordering of this scene lends the murders a sense of divine justice. As sinners against the Corleone dictates, these men must be killed for their treachery.  This impression is certainly appropriate for Michael’s justification of their deaths as something that is unavoidable and must be done.

The acceptance of violence to solve problems extends to the flippant use of physical assault against not only enemies but members of the family as well.  The most brutal depictions of domestic violence occur in The Godfather, between Carlo and Connie, who is the daughter of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando).  Carlo ruthlessly beats her at the least provocation and gives no consideration to her pregnancy or the fact that she is the daughter of a Mafia don.  Goodfellas does not deal with domestic violence as traditionally or as explicitly as The Godfather.  The women in this film occupy a traditional domestic space, but, as evidenced by Karen and Henry’s relationship, the domestic power dynamic is not as blatantly unequal as shown in the relationship between Connie and Carlo.  In order to measure the depiction of traditional gender roles, I found it useful to examine nontraditional gender roles as well.  This includes instances of females controlling male behavior.  This indicator is present in Goodfellas during three scenes, but never surfaces in The Godfather.  As I mentioned, Karen and Henry’s relationship is perhaps the best example of one approaching some semblance of gender equality.  In two scenes, Karen exerts control over Henry’s behavior.  In the first example, she publically reprimands him for standing her up at a restaurant date.  Henry finds her aggression to be very attractive, which he relates in his voiceover during this scene, and it encourages him to continue dating her.  Near the end of the film, Karen becomes enraged on several occasions because she knows that Henry keeps a mistress.  At one point, visibly shaken and unstable, she wakes him from sleep by standing over him with a gun pointed at his head.  This sort of gender dynamic is never even approached in The Godfather, let alone hinted at.

Traditional and Nontraditional Gender Roles

 Another way in which I measured traditional gender roles was by recording scenes in which food is being prepared or served.  In both films, I found that when food is shown being prepared and cooked, this is done exclusively by men.  Both films feature extended scenes (four in Goodfellas and one in The Godfather) where male characters carefully cook elaborate meals for friends and/or family.  In Goodfellas, for instance, Henry observes that cooking is a “big thing in prison.”  The men he is with cook for themselves but never deem it to be women’s work or somehow beneath them.  Paulie is shown slicing garlic so thin it melts in the frying pan.  Later, obviously high on cocaine and arranging a drug deal, Henry painstakingly prepares a pasta sauce to accompany a family dinner.  Even though he must leave the house temporarily, he yells at his brother to make sure he keeps stirring the sauce.  The Godfather, too, features a scene where a male character is preparing a large meal for a group of male friends.  Michael is reminded that he should take note of cooking techniques because he will never know when he may have to “cook for 20 guys.”  The extreme care and detail exhibited by male characters in preparing food is almost a total reversal of expected gender roles, but it is tempered somewhat by the fact that women are always the ones shown serving food, if not cooking it themselves.  The role of women is only reduced by their limited capacity in the kitchen throughout these films.  Their traditional domestic space is not only invaded by men, but they are also relegated to the function of menial servants.  They are not even allowed the privilege of cooking a meal for their respective families.  In Goodfellas, for instance, there are a total of two scenes where women are serving food but they are not shown actually cooking the food.

Traditional American Social and Cultural Values

Adherence to traditional American social and cultural values figures quite prominently in both films, and I used it as a measure of nostalgia.  The structure of the Mafia family is approached in various ways in Goodfellas and The GodfatherGoodfellas is very much from the bottom looking up in order to focus on Henry’s perspective and his ascent among the echelons of Mafia leadership.  From the film’s outset, Henry’s voiceover makes his enchantment with the Mafia very clear.  As a young boy, he views known Mafia members with awe and resolves to “be somebody,” in other words, become a member of the Mob. “The life,” as Henry terms it, is depicted as glamourous and enticing, which is how the young Henry sees it.  The accompanying period soundtrack during the film only serves to heighten this feeling of enchantment and nostalgia for times past.  Even at this early point in the film, Henry voices the pull of nostalgia when he laments that his life is “not the same anymore.”  The importance of business initiative and entrepreneurship is illustrated and measured throughout the film by the amount of money earned (legitimately or not) by Mafia members, who are exclusively male.  In this sense, the male’s role as family breadwinner is affirmed if not explicitly stated. 

 The importance of this role is extended to an affirmation of the nuclear family unit, which is also mirrored in the Mafia structure (often referred to as the “Family”).  Depictions of the nuclear family in both films are often fraught with physical violence, as previously evidenced by the relationships between Connie and Carlo and Karen and Henry (to a lesser extent, however).  Despite the violence that pervades these relationships, the importance of the family unit is clear in both films.  In Goodfellas, Henry is approached by Paulie when Karen becomes hysterical upon learning about his mistress, Janice.  Paulie tells Henry that, for the good of the family, he must break off his relationship with Janice and return to Karen and his children.  The welfare of the family unit is placed above any personal feelings on Henry’s part, and he does his duty as both a father and husband when he returns home to Karen.

The referral of the Mafia as the Family in both these films is significant.  It implies a similar attitude toward its wellbeing as that maintained toward the nuclear family unit.  In The Godfather, the Mafia family is more or less the same as the biological family for Michael.  It is referred to as the “Family business,” which demands equal loyalty as that given to blood relations.  Michael returns to his family after serving in World War Two, and initially distances himself from what he sees as the criminal activity of the Family business.  While at Connie and Carlo’s wedding reception, he reassures his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), “that’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”  When his father, Vito, is almost shot to death by a rival family, however, he begins to accept how inextricably linked the two families really are and takes it upon himself to avenge to attempted murder.  The lines between crime and family duty are blurred.  As Raymond Durgnat (1991) notes in his examination of the gangster film genre, the Corleones are “pillars of their society, their crimes and ‘roots’ mutually supportive.  They do their pater-familias duty.  They’re clan leaders, well-versed in executive-style intrigue and careful diplomacy” (Durgnat 94).  The  Family business is indistinguishable from this pater-familias duty, which serves to not only reinforce acceptance of the criminal lifestyle, but, more importantly, normalizes this sort of behavior.  As pillars of society, their word is gospel.  They are the standard of right and wrong, moral and amoral acceptability. 

Goodfellas explicitly intertwines both families as well, making them almost indistinguishable at times.  While Henry is not related to the Mafia family by blood, he and Karen adopt them as a sort of surrogate family because they do not appear to socialize much with their own.  They rely on the Mafia as a financial and emotional support network, assured in both their personal and familial wellbeing.  These films “don’t just establish, they trace in fascinated detail mixtures of guilt-free callousness with punctilious or sensitive sociability” (Durgnat 96).  Lower-level members of the Family, or “wise guys” (in the parlance of Goodfellas), may think nothing of gunning down a member of a rival Mafia family, but they often display an incredible tenderness and sensitivity toward their own family.  This soft regard is never taken as a display of emasculation.  On the contrary, as one man remarks in The Godfather, “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

Italian Ethnicity and Identity

The importance of ethnicity (particularly among those of Sicilian descent) is much more pronounced in The Godfather than it is in Goodfellas (explicitly mentioned in only two scenes).  This may have to do with the fact that the perspective of The Godfather is that of the highest leadership.  Goodfellas features a scene in which Tommy is going to be “made,” an untouchable honor only bestowed on those members who are full-blooded Italian.  Consequently, Henry and Jimmy do not qualify because they do not have pure Italian ancestry; Henry, for example, is half Irish.  The Corleone family in The Godfather still maintains ties with the old country (Italy), as evidenced by Michael’s flight there once he kills Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo.  The film treats Michael’s time there with a nostalgia that is much more positive than the rest of the film, which depicts life in America.  Gender relationships are strictly traditional in ten scenes (compared with only one scene in which they are not), such as when Michael expresses interest in Apollonia Vitelli to her father.  He asks permission to court her, a courtesy never shown by anyone within the Family while in America. 

The ethnicity portrayed in these films appeals to an authenticity found in the popular American ideological definitions of the Mafia.  According to Edward LiPuma (1989), this ideology understands the Mafia (specifically the Sicilian Mafia) as a “nationwide underworld society made up of well-organized, family-like clans of Sicilian origin and descent; these ‘families’ of Mafioso are rule individually by a godfather, or Don, whose own final name identifies the family as a whole (e.g., the Colombo family), and they are collectively bound through a ruling council of the country’s most powerful Dons; they stand apart from, and above, ordinary society by virtue of their rituals and language, codes of silence (omerta), and unbreakable familial bonds that harken to an earlier epoch in America” (2).  This definition is perfectly in keeping with the portrayal of The Godfather’s Corleone family.  The author disputes the factual authenticity of such a portrayal as a mere idealization, but this adherence to ideology works to appeal to the public at large by fusing accepted ethnic stereotypes with the social malaise of the early 1970’s.

Societal Position of the Mafia

The Mafia families in both films occupy an ambiguous space in American society.  They are self-sufficient units unto themselves, content to police their own behavior, make their own money (legally or otherwise), and adhere to their own laws.  Police officers and other public officials are often the recipients of generous bribes (depicted in three scenes in Goodfellas but only one in The Godfather) or on the wrong side of a bullet for their foolish interference in Family business (as Captain McCluskey finds out in The Godfather).  The definitions of crime and criminal activity are consequently given much more individual, vigilante-style meanings.  Murder in The Godfather, for example, is justified in 13 instances as something that must be done in order to avenge a perceived wrong.  The social processes at work in The Godfather and Goodfellas are insulated from outside censure or official punishment, and are left to create their own definitions of right and wrong, legal and illegal behavior (Ferrell 1999).  Ethnographic research of syndicated criminal organizations such as the Mafia is incredibly difficult because they are “more likely to ingratiate themselves with political, economic, and religious elites by mediating local elections, inviting officials to their banquets, and policing small-scale troublemakers in the name of peace” (Schneider et. al 2008: 363).  Consequently, the Mafia is thought of less as a criminal organization because they are prosecuted far less than many other classes of criminals.

The Influence of Nostalgia

Despite this tenuous separation from mainstream American society, there is still a constant, unspoken yearning after many of the traditional American social and cultural values.  Even though this organization is built on crime, there is a tangible sense that they are pursuing the American dream through self-made capitalism and affirmation of family values by maintaining a traditional patriarchal structure.  The portrayals of the Mafia in both films heavily utilize the art form of nostalgia, which Marc Le Seuer (1977) defines in the Journal of Popular Film as “an intense romance with history or a wistful longing for a previous age in American history” (Le Seuer 187).  Both films are painstaking recreations of the respective periods in which they are set, but differ markedly in tone and mood.  The positive use of nostalgia features a “spirit of unquenchable enthusiasm that excites both the characters in the film and the audience by being a reminder of the past as it perhaps should have been, but not necessarily as how it was” (Le Seuer 195).  The mood throughout much of Goodfellas adheres to this spirit of enthusiasm, largely because the audience sees Mafia life from Henry’s idolizing perspective.  The film is set up from his gaze, looking from the bottom upward at the seemingly untouchable, unreachable echelons of Mafia leadership.  He frequently laments that “it’s not the same anymore,” referring to the glamour that is absent during the latter days of his involvement in the mob.  It is likely that Henry is merely assessing mob life with a selective memory, and chooses not to dwell on the seedier elements in this lifestyle.

Le Seuer introduces the companion idea of “anti-nostalgia,” wherein the filmmaker goes to great lengths to strip away the vestiges of romanticization from a particular historical time or event.  Through the use of anti-nostalgia, the artist or filmmaker “decline[s] to use these genres in a reverential manner, infusing them with new tensions designed to shock the viewer to greater understanding of his own world rather than a hazy memory of Philip Marlowe” (195).  The Godfather employs this gritty view of the past, which arguably is meant to reflect the moral ambiguity of the American political and social climate of the time, which was leading up to the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam quagmire.   The Godfather entered the national stage during a deeply troubled point in American history – not only the melee of the Vietnam War and the political upheaval and cynicism fostered by the Watergate debacle, but also “the end of a certain concept of America” (Greene 1984: 29).  The Godfather represents America at a crossroads – a nation “which no longer believed in its future or even, for that matter, in what could be seen as the accepted view of its past” (34). 

The films interweave images of the nostalgic and the traditional in American culture with a darker, bleaker understanding of American capitalism, the ruthlessness of power, and individual pathologies.  The influence of Vietnam is evident in the blurring of good and evil within these films, and also serves to reinforce the notion of “the very lonely, powerful yet impotent America which emerged from the war” (34). Goodfellas, released almost twenty years after The Godfather, is far less concerned with addressing such social malaise.  Indeed, Goodfellas often “leaves the audience unresolved as to whether it should be having a good time” (Viano 46).  Henry maintains only “un-ashamed nostalgia for a child’s fantasy, selectively remembering the wild times and fast living that initially enchanted him as a young boy” (Viano 1991: 47).

 Methodology Reflection and Conclusion

 Using a content analysis allowed me to watch these films in a completely new way.  Coding for certain variables – in this case, criminal activity and traditional American social and cultural values – created a frame through which I was able to understand how these variables intersected and related to the larger community of social science research. The content analysis is undoubtedly the most appropriate methodology for this type of study, but now I understand that it requires a heightened attention to the more quantitative aspects of this approach.  I used my coding sheet to record the frequency of scenes that depicted specified variables, but beyond this I did not perform any additional quantitative analyses.  The limitations of the record keeping that I did perform resurfaced later as I was writing my data analysis.  Making connections between the two films sometimes proved rather difficult as I struggled to remember things I did not always record (such as dialogue).  If I were to perform this study again in the future, I would make my coding sheet much more comprehensive, and also take the time to better understand the dynamics of a content analysis.  I believe that a firmer grasp of the latter would have help me tremendously in sorting through and making sense of my data.

Unlike several other studies and articles I utilized to help me understand film and the gangster genre (Durgnat 1991; Greene 1984; Le Seuer 1977; LiPuma 1989; Viano 1991), my research suffered from a lack of adequate historical information (e.g., reviews, public reactions to the films, etc.)  from the time these films were made.  At the beginning of this project, I had hoped to compare such artifacts to the way the films present crime and traditional American values in order to gain some sense of how the filmmakers interpreted such issues in light of contemporary events (e.g., the Watergate burglary and the end of the Vietnam War).  I was able to gain some understanding of these questions through the secondary sources I found, but I felt that I had to extrapolate some of this myself (e.g., comparing what I knew of 1970’s and early 1990’s American society or film history in general).  None of the other studies I referenced sought to contextualize these films in particular (socially or historically), but this was not a problem for me as I collected other studies that adressed these issues (LiPuma 1989; Ferrell 1999; Schneider et al. 2008; Bondanella 2004).  In addition to the need for a better understanding of the content analysis methodology I mentioned, perhaps a more informed view of The Godfather and Goodfellas within cinematic and broader American history would have been of immeasurable assistance.


 Bondanella, Peter. 2004. Hollywood Italians. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.

 Durgnat, Raymond. 1991. “The Gangster File: from the Musketeers to Goodfellas.”

     Monthly Film Bulletin 58 (687): 93.

 Ferrell, Jeff. 1999. “Cultural Criminology.” Annual Review of Sociology 25: 395-418.

 Greene, Naomi. 1984. “Coppola, Cimino: The Operatics of History.” Film Quarterly 38 (2): 28-37.

 Le Seuer, Marc. 1977. “Theory Number Five: Anatomy of Nostalgia Films: Heritage and
     Methods.” Journal of Popular Film 6 (2): 187.

LiPuma, Edward. 1989. “Capitalism and the Crimes of Mythology: An Interpretation of

     the Mafia Mystique.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 17 (2): 1.

 Schneider, Jane and Peter Schneider. 2008.  “The Anthropology of Crime and

     Criminalization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 37: 351–73.

 Viano, Maurizio. 1991. “Goodfellas.” Film Quarterly 44 (3): 43-50.


5 Responses to “The Mafia Mystique – The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990)”

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