Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Screenplay: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola based on the novel by Mario Puzo; Cinematography: Gordon Willis; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Albert S. Ruddy
Cast: Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Santino “Sonny” Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams-Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Costanzia “Connie” Corleone), Richard S. Castellano (Pete Clemenza), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore “Sal” Tessio), Al Lettieri (Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo), Gianni Russo (Carlo Rizzi), Sterling Hayden (Captain McCluskey), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Richard Conte (Emilio Barzini), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), John Martino (Paulie Gatto), Victor Rendina (Philip Tattaglia)
With a movie that has acquired the reputation of The Godfather, it’s easy to take for granted what a masterpiece it is. After seeing it innumerable times, hearing the most famous lines repeated to the point that they have become clichés, and suffering through countless imitators that never manage to approach the brilliance of Coppola’s 1972 treasure, it’s easy to forget just how engrossing this three-hour opus truly is. I’ve seen it so many times that I feel like I know every facet of the film, which means that it had been a little while since I took the time to experience it again. Fortunately, this countdown slowed me down in my adventures into various areas of film and had me revisit favorites such as this, and watching it again just reinforces my love of it. I don’t care how stereotypical it is to say it, but this is on the short list of my all-time favorite movies.
The Godfather is a bona fide landmark. In the world of film, it has influenced virtually every organized crime movie that has been made since it debuted, specifically in depictions of “dons” and “bosses” that lead crime families. Don Corleone has become the prototype in the minds of the public at large of how a mob boss is supposed to look and act, and has subsequently been mimicked and imitated ever since. The dark photography of Gordon Willis is something of a blueprint for how to film crime dramas aspiring to the same epic sweep contained in The Godfather. But even beyond film, the movie has had an enormous impact on popular culture. I would venture to say that terms like “family,” “don,” “capo,” and “consigliere” were completely unknown to a majority of people before they became common lingo thanks to this film. The characters and story of the movie are almost universally known, with people being able to talk about the Corleone Family or Fredo and have others completely understand the references. Even if they haven’t seen the trilogy, they’re likely to have some idea about such allusions.
What has always amazed me, as well, is the extent to which this fictional portrayal of an organized crime family had such an enormous impact on the actual organizations. The movie’s popularity was so widespread, that the actions and ideals put forth in it became something like self-fulfilling prophecies in that even true wiseguys began trying to pattern themselves after the characters they saw on the screen. There are multiple accounts of guys who were involved in that lifestyle that admitted to essentially being shown how to act by watching The Godfather. Such proof is seen most clearly in the autobiography of former Gambino crime family underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, when he reminisces about the first time he saw the movie when it was released in 1972. At the time, he was just a 27 year old associate, but he remembers the experience like this: “I left that movie stunned. I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life... I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, everybody, who felt exactly the same way.” (from “Underboss” by Peter Maas). This romanticized vision of a life of organized crime was what guys like Gravano aspired to, what they wanted to believe. Evidence of influence such as this is obviously anecdotal, but to me it is incredibly fascinating and points to how widespread and potent the impact of this film was and continues to be.
Rather than go through the usual plot synopsis, I’m again going to assume that anyone reading this at least has a vague idea of the storyline, and instead focus on the aspects of the film that still leap out at me to this day after countless viewings. The first thing that always strikes me is the number of great performances. And I know that I tend to overuse the word “great,” but in this case I mean nothing less than _great_. I cannot think of another film that can match the number of spectacular, and arguably career-defining, performances that are found in this movie. Marlon Brando had a number of legendary roles over the course of his career, but chances are if you were to approach a stranger on the street and say “Marlon Brando” their first response would be “Don Corleone.” There are few images in film as iconic as Brando as Vito Corleone, cotton balls stuffed in his mouth to puff out his cheeks, stroking a cat as he waxes poetic behind a desk. It truly is a powerhouse performance, among the finest that I’ve ever seen, but it might not even be the best in the film. Michael, played by Al Pacino, is in actuality the main character of the story. It is his fall from grace as the Corleone’s one shot at legitimacy and his rise as the leader of the organization that provides the tragedy of the tale. Pacino’s performance is prickly, giving Michael an attitude that is never completely clear. From the time he arrives at his sister’s wedding at the beginning of the film until the time that underlings are kissing his ring as the new don, he is a complicated character. Even when he is dead set against joining the family business, it is still clear that he has admiration for his father and brothers. When he finally joins, it is more out of obligation than actual desire. In this film and throughout the entire trilogy, Pacino gives Michael the proper amount of darkness necessary to set him up as a character that can both be identified with and sometimes disliked.
These two lead performances are supplemented by the multitude of worthy contributing roles. My personal favorite is Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, the adopted Irish son of Don Corleone. Duvall is such a versatile actor, but whenever I picture him it is as the newly appointed consigliere, trying his damnedest to calm the hotheaded Sonny. Every other support performance adds to the film: James Caan as the wild Sonny, Lenny Montana as the ultra-loyal Luca Brasi, Richard Castellano as the lovable Clemenza, Al Lettieri as the snake Sollozzo, John Marley as the golden era studio executive, Abe Vigoda as the turncoat Tessio, Richard Conte’s Don Barzini as the power behind the scenes. There is not a bum performance in the film. Few films, even great ones, can make such an assertion.
It also blows me away to think of the number of “time capsule” scenes that are littered throughout the film. Just listing them is staggering. The ambitious opening wedding sequence that brilliantly introduces the audience to each major character. Don Corleone declaring that he is going to make Jack Woltz “an offer he can’t refuse.” The horse head in the bed with Woltz. The use of the falling oranges as Don Corleone runs from the assailants sent to kill him. The delivery of the package of a bulletproof vest and a dead fish. The scene in the diner as Michael kills Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. Sonny being gunned down at the toll booth. The showdown at the casino between Michael and Moe Greene. My personal favorite is the sequence in which Coppola displays his genius in juxtaposing the image of Connie’s infant son being christened at the same time that Michael orders the murders of the heads of the other five families. These are just off the top of my head and there are many more that could be added or substituted on such a list. The brilliance of the screenplay of Coppola and author Mario Puzo is that it weaves such episodes together seamlessly. And in terms of “time capsule” aspects of the films, I’ll just go ahead and tack on the score from Nino Rota here as well. Are any themes more instantly recognizable than that of The Godfather?
The other key thing that I want to acknowledge is one that many film lovers are well aware of, but is a feature of the film that does not receive near the credit that it should. One of the defining aspects is the photography of Gordon Willis. The color contrasts utilized by Willis suit what is happening on-screen perfectly. The famed wedding sequence takes place outdoors, where the camera is drenched in sunlight and things could not look more cheerful. At the same time, in the Don’s office, things are dark – at times nearly ink black, such as when Amerigo Bonasera pleads with the Don to start the film. In fact, a large majority of the film is an incredibly dark production. The film may be filmed in color, but there is a definite noir vibe to the photography. I wouldn’t say that Willis’ is an overlooked performance, but it’s one that certainly deserves more praise and recognition than it often receives.
If this write-up is lacking in gushing praise for Francis Ford Coppola, it’s just because I chose to focus my attention elsewhere. There will be many more chances to exalt the director in later years of what I consider to be “The Decade of Coppola.” I instead used this as an outlet just to ponder why I am as passionate about this film as I am. It might not be the most accurate portrayal of organized crime ever put to film – the oft-used description of “romanticized” is certainly accurate – but it is storytelling at its finest. It is a criminal version of the American Dream, one that is both endearing and frightening as the empire built by Corleone and those of legitimate businessmen are shown to be separated by a very fine line. I’ll end things with the talk between Michael and Vito that has stuck with me and emphasizes exactly this point.
Don Corleone: I work my whole life – I don't apologize – to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That's my life, I don't apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something...
Michael: Another pezzonovante.
Don Corleone: Well, there wasn't enough time, Michael. There just wasn't enough time.
Michael: We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there.
Other Contenders for 1972: I love, love, love Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. I am a sucker for historical fiction films like this and Herzog is at the top of his game in this one. The visuals are beautiful and there are obvious similarities to another favorite film, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s a great film and one that I would like to come back to and review after the countdown is completed. A very underrated film from this year is John Huston’s Fat City. A depressing look at the lives of fighters and their handlers, the performance by Nicholas Colasanto is outstanding. A lot of people seem to assume that Huston’s career had gone south by this point, but this proves that idea to be completely false.
Some of my other favorites from this year: Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock), Cabaret (Bob Fosse), Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci), and The Merchant of Four Seasons (R.W. Fassbinder).