Goodfellas: The Use Of Voice-Over

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.

Works Cited

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 Ahmed

I 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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4 Responses to Goodfellas: The Use Of Voice-Over

  1. csno says:

    One of the best uses of voiceover is when Pesci is narrating and you see his on-screen character get hit with a baseball bat and as the narrator he goes “ahh” and it stops. Who was narrating if he was dead at the end? Was the narration meant to be in real time? It’s brilliant.

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