THE GODFATHER (1972)

  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writers: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on Puzo’s novel
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Richard Castellano, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, John Cazale, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, Al Martino, and Talia Shire
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#2), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#21), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#40), 3 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor – Marlon Brando, Best Adapted Screenplay), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Francis Ford Coppola, Best Supporting Actor – James Caan, Best Supporting Actor – Robert Duvall, Best Supporting Actor – Al Pacino, Best Costumes, Best Film Editing, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

The Godfather exists on a different level from most movies. If most films are drawings, it is like it is carved into wood. I knew probably a dozen lines from this movie before I’d ever watched it. It is sprawling and yet surprisingly straight-forward. There aren’t a lot of doglegs in the plot over nearly three hours. Yet I do feel a bit of a disconnect with it. For one, unlike the later Goodfellas (which likely would not exist if not for this movie), it isn’t particularly interested in the dark side of the mob. Yes, its characters leave horse heads in the beds of people that cross them, but our heroes live by a code, unlike those other, bad gangsters. They don’t murder people over drugs, just over gambling! The actual mob was worried about its portrayal in The Godfather, and did everything it could to keep it from being made. Someone (it’s still not 100% clear who) even blew up the gates of Paramount Studios. But in fact, the movie made the mafia look glamorous, like a sepia toned painting where someone gets “assassinated” every once in a while. It was the mob’s best recruitment tool in years.

The movie’s runaway success made the career of its director, Francis Ford Coppola, and several of its actors, especially Al Pacino. It also revived the career of Marlon Brando, who after an unsuccessful 1960s went on to star in Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Superman. In effect, it spawned basically every gangster movie since, including its own two, acclaimed sequels. Producer Robert Evans, after recent gangster movie failures with leads like Kirk Douglas, decided to lean into the Italian, “ethnic” flavor of Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. He insisted on an Italian to direct, though Coppola was something like his twelfth choice (the first was Sergio Leone, who turned it down). Similarly, the studio had wanted Ernest Borgnine, of all people, to play Don Vito, the towering patriarch of the Corleone mafia family. Coppola and Evans insisted on Brando, who they fooled into doing a screentest by telling him they were “testing the equipment,” and the rest is history.

Though Brando’s performance remains iconic, the movie is really the story of Vito’s son, Michael, played by Pacino, an unknown at the time. In fact, to Pacino’s dismay, he was nominated at the Oscars as Best Supporting Actor, with Brando in the lead category, when in fact he had more total screen-time in the movie than Brando did. At the start of the movie, Michael is a young war hero back from World War II, dating the outsider Kay (Diane Keaton), and going to college. He is so far outside of the “family business” that at one point he’s referred to as a “civilian” by his brother Sonny (James Caan). The movie shows his transformation into the ruthless head of the family. The plot involves the family’s fight against various other Italian crime families in New York, which can seem labyrinthine if you care which rival crime boss is which. In reality, the movie doesn’t care: it is about the Corleones, surviving external threats, and in that sense its plot is straight as an arrow.

The transformation of Michael is not particularly convincing, or at least it remains opaque right to the end. What works better is the movie’s portrayal of what feels like an alternate universe, a closed world of Italian immigrants presided over by the Godfather. Yet something about the style and presentation of this movie makes it feel far more universal than it has any right to. The first line of the movie is “I believe in America,” and one of the killings takes place in a wheat field with the Statue of Liberty towering in the distance. Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, used underexposed film stock to give everything a yellow tint, and shot many scenes as “tableau,” looking for a painting-like quality. There are no dolly or crane shots in this movie.

Those qualities make a lot of parts of this movie work that probably shouldn’t. There’s an extended bit in the middle involving Michael meeting with two rivals in order to kill them. This is structured weirdly, such that we hear the plan explained in detail, then Michael executes the plan exactly as we heard. In the meantime he spends multiple minutes talking to the rival boss in Italian without subtitles. Yet, somehow, there’s still suspense about what will happen. Will it work out? Will Michael go through with it? None of this should work, but it does. A lot of the dialogue was dubbed later (the famous opening scene with Brando petting a cat had to be dubbed over because the cat kept meowing), and more than one part was apparently cast because the mob insisted on particular actors, and yet, it doesn’t out of place among the pantheon of the greatest American films.

The movie’s most obvious theme is all about family and its place in this culture. A lot of movies put kids in scenes where they’re important to the plot and make them magically disappear when they don’t. In this movie, the children are everywhere, always underfoot. A scene where Sonny gets an important phone call has to wait because a little girl won’t stop screaming in his ear. Vito is seen as a success because he survives being gunned down and dies of a heart attack in his garden, playing with his grandchild. Michael is going down the wrong path, a fact the movie underlines in its final shot of the door closing in Diane Keaton’s face. He cuts himself off from his family, when it was the most important thing to Vito.

Because the Corleones are family, it’s the other guys who are the bad guys. But this isn’t a judgment based on exterior morality. As Michael tells his black sheep brother Fredo (John Cazale, in his first movie), “never take sides against the family.” And that’s why we’re supposed to root for them, because these guys are family and the other guys aren’t. But I can’t quite escape the fact that they’re all a bunch of murderers and thugs.

Despite this, the movie has seeped into our culture to a degree that few others can match. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan cutesily quote lines from it to each other in You’ve Got Mail. I remember when I heard “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” little kid me assumed that they were leaving the gun because they wouldn’t need it, because you know, they were going camping or something. But in reality they leave it because they just killed a dude, and it’s his cannoli they’re taking. Anyway, Marlon Brando did win that Best Actor Oscar, but refused to accept it. Instead he sent a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeater, who was bizarrely booed when she gave a speech on his behalf saying he was refusing the award because of “Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans.” The 1970s are the same as today in some ways but an entirely different country in others. The Godfather, however, feels somehow timeless.

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