The Sopranos was strongly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic Goodfellas, including one small story that The Sopranos took directly from the earlier movie but put its own dark take on. Both stories used similar plot details to comment on their lead characters’ insecurities as well as the changing world around them, taking a psychological approach to the gangster genre. One of the best illustrations of this is the stories both The Sopranos and Goodfellas tell about their central gangsters having to dig up the buried body of someone they killed.
One of the reasons David Chase’s The Sopranos was so influential was the self-reflexive approach it took to the mob narrative, showing Tony Soprano and his lieutenants obsessing over classic mafia movies such as The Godfather and trying to emulate them. Goodfellas was itself a more self-reflexive version of the genre, showing how Henry Hill is lured in by the mystique of gangsters. As such, there are many links between The Sopranos and Goodfellas, including Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, and several other actors appearing in both.
Another thing The Sopranos took from Goodfellas was a plot detail about having to move the body of a previous murder victim. In Goodfellas, Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy have to dig up the corpse of Billy Batts and move it because a condo is scheduled to be built on the same ground. This is a short scene, but it is very memorable due to the red lighting that Scorsese uses as a backdrop to the scene and Henry’s physical reaction to Billy’s decaying corpse. Tommy and Jimmy mock his disgust, showing how they harbor less guilt. Alongside other nods to Goodfellas in The Sopranos, the HBO series took this scene and did its own take on the same basic premise.
In the series premiere, Christopher Moltisanti kills Emil Kolar, a shady figure involved in a rival sanitation company to the DiMeo family’s Barone Sanitation. It is the first on-screen death in the series. Christopher and Sal Bumpasero initially bury the body in a nondescript location. However, Christopher later begins seeing Emil in his dreams, and comes to believe that he has left crucial evidence inside the body. Christopher and Georgie Santorelli dig up the body which, like Billy Batts, is badly decomposing, and move it to the pine barons. Later on in the series, in The Sopranos season 5, Christopher and Tony Blundetto further dig up and mutilate the body, taking it to Pat Blundetto’s farm and smashing the bones before throwing them in the water.
The Sopranos‘ take on digging up a body is even darker than Goodfellas. Whereas Billy Batts is only exhumed once, Emil Kolar’s body is repeatedly dug up and desecrated. The exhumations don’t serve any real practical purposes, but due to Christopher’s unresolved guilt and trauma over his actions. While the appearance of Kolar’s “spirit” in Christopher’s dreams is a projection of his inner guilt, it still creates the impression that his life is tragically unfinished, especially due to his family being uncertain whether he is alive or dead.
While the similarity of the two plots reflects how Goodfellas influenced The Sopranos, the different details show the series’ different focuses. Goodfellas is told over a longer period of time, and the building of a condo on old mafia killing ground symbolizes how times are changing and the gangsters that Henry Hill grew up admiring are losing power even as they are largely oblivious to this lost. The Sopranos is set in the modern period where the mafia has long since declined past its mythical height, and explores the interior lives and psychologies of its characters in more detail. Whereas digging up a body in Goodfellas told the viewer about the changing world, in The Sopranos it suggests Christopher’s repressed guilt over the violence he is a part of, which would continue to haunt him throughout the series. In this way, The Sopranos copied the premise of one of Goodfellas‘ most memorable scenes, but gave it a darker and more psychological twist.