PRINT January 1991


Martin Scorsese’s Betrayals

EVERY FORM OF BETRAYAL is possible for Martin Scorsese. Obsessed with betrayal in The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988, the film in which he gives vent to his religious feelings and his Catholic origins, Scorsese completely develops “l’affaire Judas” (as Thierry Jousse calls it in Cahiers du Cinéma, September 1990) in GoodFellas, 1990. Stylistic decisions also clearly make betrayal an aspect of Made in Milan, 1990, Scorsese’s documentary about the Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani, and it is the very subject of his current project, a remake of Cape Fear (the 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson, made from the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald).

This betrayal takes place, first of all, in cinematic terms, specifically in its most beloved and classical form, for Scorsese has shown himself to be freer in his most recent films than in many of his earlier projects, both in his stylistic choices and in unexpected changes of directorial “manner.” Not only were these earlier works more closed in narrative structure, but they were also gloomier, almost anguished in their rigor and in their stylistic fidelity to film noir. In GoodFellas Scorsese maintains his view of a world from which one can escape only by closing oneself off in another, equally suffocating world. Nor does he abandon his search for a violent solution that will break the isolation and the compulsory mechanisms of living in a big city (large themes of Mean Streets, 1973, and of Taxi Driver, 1976). But thanks to the theorization of betrayal, he now succeeds in giving more vitality to his characters and to his story. It is he himself, whenever possible, who as director frees and gives breadth to them.

The King of Comedy, 1983, worked in the opposite way. Rupert Pupkin, the aspiring comic whose only desire was to appear for a moment on the Jerry Langford show, was crushed by a direction entirely intent upon pushing Pupkin to disgrace, upon breaking a comical character who not only never seems funny but who achieves success only by being transformed into a criminal.

GoodFellas and Made in Milan push further. This was, perhaps, inevitable, after extreme films like Raging Bull, 1980, and The King of Comedy, both for Scorsese and for his protagonist Robert De Niro. Once more, every scene is resolved according to good old cinematic principles. But there is always a readiness to remix the cards with an absolute freedom that continually pays homage while, at the same time, destroying its own icons. The Max Ophüls-like sequence (it’s no accident that the director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, is Ophüls’ nephew) in GoodFellas that transports us through a maze of back corridors in the Copacabana nightclub, doesn’t go as far as it might in terms of directorial sensationalism, ending in an abrupt editing cut. The off-camera voice of the protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), always present in the first part of the film, unexpectedly gives way to that of Lorraine Bracco, who plays the role of his wife, Karen Hill. While it is true that this gimmick also occurs in Nicholas Pileggi’s book, Wise Guy (upon which GoodFellas is based), in the film it takes on a different flavor, almost like a violation of a classic taboo of film noir against narration in any but the first person. In one of the last courtroom scenes, where Hill definitively betrays his cronies, he speaks to the camera for the first time, as if in a state of Brechtian alienation, adhering to a TV vérité model. Furthermore, any form of classicism is eliminated in the sudden beginning conceived above the titles by Saul Bass (the designer of the titles of such films as Psycho, Vertigo, Bonjour Tristesse, and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). It is eliminated, too, with the sickening shift in action in the strong central scene of the almost tribal homicide of the gangster locked in the trunk of the car (which leads to the demise of the group of the three “good fellas”). Betrayal of the spectator, therefore, but also of his own principles of directing. Like the gangsters, who know exactly how much betrayal is part of the game and accept it as a natural event (even assassination of their best friends), Scorsese tries to indicate, for the first time with completeness, how much directors themselves must be alive to their own traditions and to their own revelations—no matter what the consequences.

What a banal film GoodFellas would have been if it had respected the rules of the thriller mixed with those of the many films that deal with “growing up” in Manhattan. It seems preordained that Scorsese wants to touch upon “all styles” (he has said so himself in numerous interviews), combining brutality with homey bits, though certainly less for sociological reasons than to surprise us with various sentiments as well as with a multitude of styles. His desire to move in every direction—commercials, video, TV horror films, commissioned documentaries—illustrates this frenzy, which is also a coherent search for new ways to exercise style. But all his solutions show us the same desire to experiment and to betray what has already been seen. Scorsese betrays Armani in Made in Milan (and, indeed, the designer has declared himself unsatisfied with the project) precisely when he accepts the rules of the made-to-order documentary, and deals with the character only as an icon of fashion without probing the deeper reality. His eye is more interested in reversing a style of direction, in dissecting that style, than in the personality of a fashion designer. Nor does he bring out the psychological depth of his gangsters in GoodFellas. There isn’t time—cinema comes first.

Thus the walk of one of Armani’s models—so perfect and yet so fake—in a “realistic” documentary shot is interrupted and exposed in an extremely rapid reverse shot in black and white that shows us the crew, Scorsese, and his director of photography, Nestor Almendros, as they are filming the model. While this clearly doesn’t signify the signing of an image (Oh! Armani’s label!), it does signify the interruption of the flow of cinema reality to explicate its falseness, therefore effecting a betrayal of the image in favor of its staging. And so basically, the profession of gangster and of director end up being conflated.

But hasn’t this always been Scorsese’s hallmark since his early films, from Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, 1968, to Mean Streets? And isn’t it true as well of that scene near the end of GoodFellas, in which we are betrayed by the unexpected, crazy, and clever death of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), himself betrayed like “Broncho Billy” Anderson in the first western in the history of cinema, The Great Train Robbery (1903, by Edwin S. Porter)? Here, thanks to Scorsese, that banditlike vitality serves as an interpretive key to the film—and to every cinematographic dream. And this is precisely the dream pursued by the three “good fellas,” Hill, Jimmy Conway (De Niro), and DeVito, as well as by their director (who appears in the publicity shots along with his hero brothers): to stage the real drama of the American imaginary, which by definition is that of the western, in everyday reality as in the cinema. Throughout the film one sees the search for the purity of the primary shot of “Broncho Billy” Anderson; just think of Conway’s passion for the bad guys of cinema, of the terrible death of Spider, the bartender, killed just to recreate a saloon scene from Lloyd Bacon’s The Oklahoma Kid, 1939, one of the few westerns with Cagney and Bogart. The gangsters and the directors born in the postwar period find their strongest contact point in the world of the western. And it is in the ritual betrayal of those western idols, that is, in their restaging in gangsterlike or cinematographic scenes, that the film takes shape.

In GoodFellas, Scorsese no longer shoots churches or cinemas, and he no longer needs mediations to deal with his habitual central themes. Everything has become more immediate, thanks specifically to the betrayals and to the bandit life of the “good fellas.” They steal from Scorsese his broad, somewhat hysterical laugh, which we seem to hear in the skillful performance of DeVito, who leans on Hill because Hill finds him funny (says DeVito, “It’s funny, me? What do you mean funny?”). Meanwhile, the director steals from the “good fellas” the key mechanisms of their lives—the rituals, the paranoias, their passage through the 1970s as if they were amphetamine-crazed “Hollywood mavericks.” And it is no accident that, in an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (“Scorsese on Scorsese,” October 1990), the director states that the scene in which Hill is followed by a helicopter illustrates the paranoia not only of the cocaine-addict gangster, but that of the director as well, as manifested at the very time the scene was shot.

So Hill’s confusion between cocaine, sex, family, domestic pleasures, and rapid displacements cannot be interpreted simply as a literal representation of a cocaine addict, like Al Pacino in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, 1983. Unlike Scarface or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, 1984, two of the greatest gangster films made in recent years, which Scorsese quotes and in some fashion encompasses in his film, GoodFellas is more consciously resolved (even more than Mean Streets) as a reflection upon the director’s own imaginary and upon the growth that takes place within that imaginary. It is an extreme film study on style, just as The Last Temptation of Christ is on the Catholic faith, as Raging Bull and The King of Comedy are on the director-actor relationship and on the performance community. But with its scornful finale, that is, its image of Pesci, framed like “Broncho Billy” Anderson, a “nobody” without the movie screen, flattened behind any old door, GoodFellas frees itself from the phantasms of the cinematographic imagination.

At the end of Made in Milan, the director Armani, who spies upon his models from a slit in the wings of the runway platform, sees them fly straight through his city, Milan, with the help of the easiest special effects of Georges Méliès. This finale can be understood as an ingenuous and sincere homage by Scorsese to the figure of a fashion designer, Armani, that man capable of creating images so strong they can emerge from the privacy of a room to assert themselves collectively throughout the world. The process is reversed with respect to GoodFellas, even if the thesis is the same: the power of the imaginary, which for Scorsese is cinema but which could as well be art (as in Life Lessons, 1989, part of New York Stories), or fashion, is seen as the apparent salvation of a society that increasingly fractures and destroys our family relationships and friendships. Certainly it is an excessive use of the imagination that leads us to become “larger than life,” to explode in the excesses of the large characters who inhabit Scorsese’s films. It is precisely in the making of the gangster who thinks himself omnipotent, and in the staging that accompanies this flood of images and of styles, that Scorsese supplies us with the interpretive key not only to his filmmaking but to his view of American society. It is significant that, in the Cahiers du Cinéma interview, he says that one of his favorite Nicholas Ray films is Bigger than Life, 1956, the story of a simple everyman who is ill, but who, thanks to cortisone treatments, begins to feel that he is a god. Unlike Ray, Scorsese doesn’t need an external mechanism like cortisone to provoke excess, even if cocaine might seem to have an analogous function in the second part of GoodFellas. For Scorsese, cocaine is only the “cure” for an illness that already lies within us; or better, already lies within our imaginary, which for him overflows on its own account, like the music that not only envelops a scene but extends into the successive one as well. It is within these boundaries—and especially in this blurring of boundaries, which merge with the continual thefts of style and betrayals of other images and of other imaginaries—that we discover these little “good fellas” to be fragile and human, always ready to reverse behaviors more than feelings (just think of the last scene between De Niro and Liotta, a play on the idea of love as well as of betrayal). And it is always within these boundaries that the film—and what it represents—grows majestically like a cancer, like a mafia, within American society and within the American imagination.

Marco Giusti is a writer on film who lives in Rome. He is the author of the cult trash TV show Blob.