People are fascinated with the Mafia. Organised crime as a whole is an especially attractive subject – the societies that lie parallel to the lives of normal people, with different but no less rigid codes of conduct – but there’s something special about the mob, providing material for countless books, films, television series, video games, et cetera, et cetera, with either based-in-fact credentials or with the names and situations drawn from the general understanding of the way this particular brand of gangsters operate. Just look at this list of films – spots number two and three are occupied by the most famous films about mafioso. People want a look in to this lifestyle, they can’t get enough of it; they want to get close enough that they feel they’ve experienced it.
Goodfellas, adapted from non-fiction crime book Wiseguy, chronicles the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as a gangster, from his introduction into the benefits of a criminal lifestyle as a young man to his rise as part of a crew of thieves alongside James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) to his eventual fall by turning informant after losing everything to drugs and paranoia. If you wanted a film to be your primer into the world of the Mafia, a jumping-off point to understand not just the way that subculture works but what the appeal of it is both to people as a setting within fiction and to people in the real world as a lifestyle, you could ask for no better film than Goodfellas. Mobsters, as Hill explains, get to live lives different than those of other men – the best example, to me, is the scene where Henry and his associates end up doing a little time in prison around the midpoint of the film, setting up their own private kitchen separate from the other inmates cooking steak and lobster, kings of the penitentiary. But all that power comes at a price – the pressure, the living in constant fear of a retribution for a meaningless slight that ends with a bullet to the head and disappearing into an unmarked grave, is enormous even before Hill gets involved with cocaine, which further compounds his stress and paranoia. The matter-of-fact way life as a gangster is portrayed makes it seem almost like just another type of career, a kind of step above high-power politician or Wall Street mogul – the same pressures, the same excesses, amplified tenfold and available to the common man – and that I believe is the root of all that fascination.