Brief Intro

“Goodfellas,” directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese in 1990, dives into the complex world of organized crime through the eyes of Henry Hill. This gritty and compelling film, based on true events, explores the rise and fall of a mobster and his associates in the New York City mafia from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Literary Devices Used in Goodfellas

Goodfellas is renowned for its masterful storytelling, and a big part of that comes from the literary devices embedded throughout the film. Here’s a breakdown of ten devices used, with specific examples from key scenes:

1. Irony

Movie SceneDevice Example
Henry’s final day as a gangster contrasts his earlier life.Dramatic irony is used as viewers know more about the impending FBI capture than Henry does.
Henry idolizes the gangster life but ends up in witness protection, lamenting his average life.Situational irony highlights the stark difference between his dreams and reality.

2. Foreshadowing

Movie SceneDevice Example
Tommy’s aggressive behavior at the bar early in the film.Suggests his uncontrollable nature which eventually leads to his downfall.
The introduction of the pink Cadillac.Symbolizes the eventual cause of Jimmy’s paranoia and the crew’s unraveling.

3. Flashback

Movie SceneDevice Example
Henry’s early memories of joining the mob.Provides background on his motivations and initial allure to the gangster lifestyle.
Jimmy’s flashbacks to other heists after the Lufthansa heist.Offers insights into his paranoia and distrust, shaping his subsequent actions.

4. Symbolism

Movie SceneDevice Example
The use of the color red in key scenes.Red often appears during scenes of violence and danger, symbolizing blood and death.
The prison dinner scene.Represents the gangsters’ ability to maintain luxury and control even when incarcerated.

5. Allusion

Movie SceneDevice Example
References to real-life mob figures and events.Enhances realism and connects the story to actual historical contexts.
Henry’s narration mentions the 1970s New York.Alludes to the economic and cultural backdrop of the time, adding depth to the narrative.

6. Juxtaposition

Movie SceneDevice Example
Luxurious life scenes versus scenes of violence.Highlights the contrast between the gangsters’ glamorous life and the brutal reality of their actions.
Henry’s calm family life contrasted with his chaotic criminal activities.Emphasizes the duality of his character and lifestyle.

7. Motif

Movie SceneDevice Example
Frequent family gatherings.Reinforces the theme of loyalty and family within the mob.
The recurring theme of betrayal among friends.Highlights the inevitable downfall and mistrust within the mob hierarchy.

8. Hyperbole

Movie SceneDevice Example
Tommy’s exaggerated reactions and violent outbursts.Amplifies his unstable and fearsome personality.
Henry’s descriptions of his extravagant lifestyle.Emphasizes the excess and decadence associated with mob life.

9. Metaphor

Movie SceneDevice Example
The portrayal of the mob as a ‘family’.Suggests a distorted, dangerous form of familial bond and loyalty.
Henry’s drug addiction as a metaphor for his loss of control.Reflects his spiraling descent into chaos and his inability to manage his life.

10. Personification

Movie SceneDevice Example
The mob is described as having a life of its own.Gives the criminal enterprise a menacing, almost sentient presence.
The city’s nightlife is portrayed as seductive and dangerous.Personifies the urban setting as a living, breathing entity that lures Henry deeper into crime.

Character Analysis Through Literary Devices

Character Studies: The complex characters in “Goodfellas” are defined not just by their actions but also by how they are portrayed through various literary devices. Here’s a detailed look at the main characters:

Henry Hill

Literary DeviceExplanation
First-person narrativeHenry’s extensive use of first-person narration allows audiences to see the world from his perspective, making his journey more personal and relatable.
ForeshadowingHis early enchantment with the gangster lifestyle foreshadows his lifelong struggle between allure and reality.

Jimmy Conway

Literary DeviceExplanation
SymbolismJimmy’s association with money and luxury symbolizes his deep-rooted greed and his ultimate downfall.
IronyHis mentorship of Henry and Tommy is ironic given his eventual betrayal, highlighting the theme of trust and betrayal.

Tommy DeVito

Literary DeviceExplanation
HyperboleTommy’s violent outbursts and unpredictable behavior are often exaggerated, underlining his volatile nature and the fear he instills in others.
JuxtapositionHis jovial manner at social events contrasted with his ruthless violence emphasizes his unpredictable and dangerous nature.

Character Dynamics: The relationships between characters in “Goodfellas” are central to driving the narrative forward. The interplay of these relationships through literary devices enhances the thematic depth of the film.

  • Henry and Jimmy: Their relationship, built on mutual benefit and respect, gradually deteriorates through a series of betrayals and mistrust. Literary devices like irony and foreshadowing are used to hint at the eventual breakdown of their partnership.
  • Henry and Tommy: This relationship showcases a blend of camaraderie and underlying tension. The use of contrast between Tommy’s loyalty to Henry in certain situations and his overall impulsiveness highlights the unpredictable life of crime.
  • Jimmy and Tommy: The dynamic between these two is marked by a mentor-mentee relationship that ultimately spirals into paranoia and betrayal, using symbolism (like the pink Cadillac) to signify the changing nature of their relationship.

Thematic Analysis

Goodfellas explores several themes through its narrative, enhanced by the use of literary devices. Here’s how these themes are developed:

Power and Corruption

Literary DeviceExplanation
MetaphorThe mafia is often portrayed as a kingdom, with the leaders as kings and soldiers, highlighting the corrupting influence of power.
SymbolismExpensive cars, flashy clothes, and luxurious watches symbolize the corruption and moral decay brought by the pursuit of power.

Identity and Loss

Literary DeviceExplanation
FlashbackHenry’s flashbacks to his early days in the mob contrast with his later life, emphasizing his loss of identity and regret.
IronyHenry’s final entry into witness protection, which grants him safety but strips him from his identity, illustrates the ultimate loss.

Loyalty and Betrayal

Literary DeviceExplanation
IronyThe frequent toasts to loyalty among mob members juxtaposed with their actual betrayals highlight the hollow nature of their promises.
MotifThe recurring discussions about trust and loyalty among the characters underscore the theme throughout the film.

Cinematic Techniques That Enhance Literary Devices

“Goodfellas” is not just a triumph of storytelling through script and performance but also a showcase of how cinematic techniques can amplify literary devices. Here’s how specific techniques work in tandem with literary elements to deepen the impact of the film’s themes and characterizations:

Visual Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
SymbolismCostume and ColorThe strategic use of color, especially red, during violent scenes or significant moments accentuates the danger and bloodshed inherent in mob life. Costumes evolve with the characters, reflecting their rising or falling fortunes.
JuxtapositionScene CompositionScorsese often contrasts luxurious lifestyle shots with brutal acts of violence in the same sequence, highlighting the shocking disparity between the gangsters’ glamorous facade and their brutal reality.

Sound Techniques

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
IronyContrasting SoundtrackThe upbeat, classic soundtrack playing over violent scenes creates a stark irony, contrasting the cheerful music with the grim actions, enhancing the emotional dissonance.
ForeshadowingAudio MotifsRecurring sound motifs, like the ominous tones that play before major betrayals or upheavals, cue the audience to impending trouble, building tension and expectation.

Key Scene Analysis

In “Goodfellas,” several key scenes stand out for their use of literary and cinematic techniques. Here’s a breakdown of these scenes, with links to view them for a deeper analysis:

Copacabana Tracking Shot

  • Scene Link: Goodfellas – Copacabana Scene (YouTube)
  • Scene Breakdown: This famous long take follows Henry and Karen’s entry through the back door of the Copacabana, leading up to their table at the front, bypassing the queue. This scene uses a tracking shot to symbolize Henry’s smooth pathway through life and his ability to navigate the complexities of his world effortlessly. The uninterrupted flow of the camera mirrors his ascent in the mob world, enhancing the motif of power and privilege.

The Lufthansa Heist Revelation

  • Scene Link: Goodfellas – Lufthansa Heist Revelation (YouTube)
  • Scene Breakdown: This scene where Jimmy learns about the success of the Lufthansa heist and then starts planning the elimination of his accomplices uses cross-cutting between the celebrations and the subsequent murders. This technique, combined with a chilling soundtrack, underscores the dramatic irony and foreshadowing of the joy turning into horror, reinforcing the theme of betrayal.

Tommy’s Execution

  • Scene Link: Goodfellas – Tommy’s Execution (YouTube)
  • Scene Breakdown: In a shocking twist, Tommy is executed instead of being made. The use of silent slow-motion at the moment he realizes his fate intensifies the personal tragedy and the abrupt end of his ambitions, using symbolism to signify his ultimate downfall through the very violence he wielded against others.


“Goodfellas” masterfully blends literary devices with cinematic techniques to create a rich, textured portrayal of life within the mob. To conclude our exploration, let’s engage with a fun quiz to test your understanding of the literary devices used in the movie:

  1. What does the color red symbolize in the movie?
    • A) Love and Passion
    • B) Blood and Danger
    • C) Wealth and Power
    • D) Envy and Jealousy
  2. Which literary device is used when the soundtrack plays cheerful music over violent scenes?
  3. What cinematic technique is used in the Copacabana tracking shot?
    • A) Cross-cutting
    • B) Slow-motion
    • C) Tracking shot
    • D) Flashback

These questions should help solidify your understanding of how “Goodfellas” uses various elements to tell its compelling story. Whether you’re a film student or a cinema enthusiast, there’s no doubt that Scorsese’s craft in this film offers a profound lesson in the art of filmmaking.