Since his directorial debut in 1963, Martin Scorsese has captivated audiences with a plethora of instant classics, ranging from character-driven masterpieces like Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. However, the legendary director is perhaps best known for his exceptional gangster films. Surprisingly, Scorsese has only made five gangster films throughout his illustrious career, with two of them, Goodfellas and The Departed, considered among the best in the genre.
The 1990s classic Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci, is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguys. The film follows the life of Henry Hill, a young man who rises through the ranks of an Italian-American crime syndicate. Despite enjoying the fruits of his labor, Hill’s drug addiction and a series of mistakes ultimately lead to his downfall. Nominated for six Academy Awards and winner of one, Goodfellas is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of the 1990s and was entered into the Library of Congress in 2000.
Interestingly, it was not Goodfellas that earned Scorsese his first Academy Award for Best Director, but rather 2006’s The Departed. This film, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, follows South Boston cop Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan, who infiltrate a gang organization led by Frank Costello and the police department, respectively. When both organizations realize they have a mole, Billy and Colin must uncover each other’s identities to save their own lives. Nominated for five Academy Awards and winner of four, The Departed is also considered one of Scorsese’s best gangster films. But is it better than Goodfellas? Let’s take a closer look at both films:
Goodfellas achieved a rare feat in storytelling by presenting a nuanced, layered film featuring a cast of compelling characters. While Henry Hill, James Conway, Tommy Devito, and the rest of the crew are not likable people, audiences become deeply invested in their lives due to their fascinating personalities and the gripping narrative of their rise and fall within the Italian-American gang.
Despite their criminal activities, these characters are portrayed as complex individuals with families and friends, making them well-rounded and relatable. The film also delves into the consequences and repercussions of their actions in a crime-riddled world, with some meeting their end through death or, in Hill’s case, living under witness protection for the rest of his life. Scorsese masterfully avoids softening these characters into anti-heroes, and Goodfellas seamlessly blends themes of love, loyalty, and honor without ever feeling contrived or forced.
In The Departed, Scorsese explores both the worlds of gangs and law enforcement, once again delivering a character-driven masterpiece. Despite its all-star cast, the film never feels overcrowded, focusing primarily on the lives of Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan and the impact of their choices on those around them. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a powerful performance as Costigan, an undercover cop struggling to maintain his sanity while working for both sides of the organization.
Matt Damon is perfectly cast as the slimy, two-faced mole Sullivan, with Scorsese skillfully avoiding painting him as a one-dimensional antagonist. Like Hill in Goodfellas, Sullivan is a complex character who loves the gangster lifestyle but lacks any internal struggle over his loyalty to Frank Costello, brilliantly portrayed by Jack Nicholson. As with Goodfellas, The Departed examines themes of love, loyalty, and honor, and the repercussions of the characters’ actions, while offering a fresh take on the gangster drama that allows it to stand on its own.
So, which gangster film is better? In my opinion, Goodfellas takes the crown. While The Departed is an excellent addition to Scorsese’s filmography, Goodfellas elevated the gangster drama with its intricate story and unforgettable cast of characters. Ultimately, both films showcase Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled talent for crafting compelling, character-driven narratives that continue to captivate audiences and stand the test of time.
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