Based upon the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather (1972) is one of those rare film adaptations that perfectly captures every essential aspect of its source material. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Puzo, The Godfather was the highest grossing film of the year, and it went on to receive ten nominations and three wins at the Academy Awards. This film, along with its two sequels, formed The Godfather Trilogy, which established Coppolla as a master director. Coppola was relatively young — his early 30s saw both Godfather I and II hit theaters — and he spent the remainder of his career attempting to live up to the cinematic standards and commercial success of his own creations. Perhaps the closest Coppola ever got to reaching some slight form of epic street cred again was with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but even that paled in comparison to the incredible stature and achievement of The Godfather. It is similarly daunting to attempt to write a review of the film that many consider to be one of the greatest works of American cinema. Even without regard to the sequels, it’s still not possible to adequately do justice to all of the important aspects of The Godfather in this review’s context.
Upon its release, The Godfather quickly became the standard by which all gangster films are judged, and it deserves recognition as part of Pajiba Classic Week, but this review shall, inevitably, work an inevitable disservice in its scope. For instance, we could talk about the importance that Coppola placed upon atmosphere and mood or discuss the film’s cutting-edge cinematography or highly effective score. In the alternative, we could get slightly more academic and discuss the film’s operatic structure or its keen resemblance to Shakespeare’s King Lear. For a slightly frivolous turn, we could consider some of the symbolism involved in the film, such as the unsavory bedpartner that Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) wakes up to when he refuses a favor to Don Vito or those citrusy angels of death otherwise known as oranges. Finally, we could bury ourselves within the countless sociological, economic, or ethical interpretations of The Godfather. The sheer volume of possibilities here are almost maddening, but the intricate richness of The Godfather is also the reason for its timeless endurance and almost universal appeal. It is a film capable of existing at so many different levels, and viewers can choose their complexity based on whether or not they wish to view it as pure entertainment, a statement upon society, or just as an example of great cinematic technique. Since I tend to be a total whore for wonderfully-drawn film characters, I find one of the most compelling aspects of The Godfather to be the story of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) reluctant rise to power.
The Godfather is set in the latter part of 1940s in New York City, and is, nominally, a gangster epic about a turf war between five crime families. At its core, the film is an exploration of the corruption of power, in both the government and private sectors. Coppola tells the story of the Corleones, a crime family headed by Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and the troubled process by which power is passed onto the lower generation. Don Vito has raised three sons Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Michael (Al Pacino) as well as an adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who acts as the family’s trusted consigliere and legal advisor. The Corleones are, at first glance, a very tight-knit family, but they are entirely unable to separate the notions of “family” and “business.” Religion also takes a backseat to the business practices that serve as the absolute morality for the Corleones. Business remains the unquestionable justification that drives members of one family to choose sides and become disloyal, and business also justifies the slaughter of such traitors. The unbreakable tenet, as Michael reminds Fredo, is this: “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family.”
Coppola opens the film at the wedding celebration of Don Vito’s only daughter, Connie (Talia Shire) and Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). At this point, we are outsiders to the family and have much in common with Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), the WASP girlfriend of Michael. Kay is fascinated by the Corleones and their seemingly mythical power. Although she is shocked when the almost babyfaced Pacino relates the story about how Don Vito got his way with a music exec by “making him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Kay is easily comforted when Michael assures her that he is not like his family. During the celebration, Don Vito carries out business in his darkened office. He grants favors to those who call him Godfather and promise a future service, and one such visitor asks Don Vito to provide justice where the court system has failed to punish his daughter’s rapists. Don Vito refuses payment for his service because, unlike politicians and law enforcement, the Godfather himself cannot be bought. Don Vito is also the only leader of the five families who resists the “dirty business” of drug trafficking introduced by rogue gangster, Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). This opposition results in an assassination attempt upon Don Vito, and, for the remainder of the film, Corleone brothers struggle to keep control of the situation.
Within Don Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando creates an iconic character that has endured as the subject of endless imitation and parody. Brando gives his usual impeccible performance with a voice modelled after gangster Frank Costello and subtle, purposefully understated body and hand gestures. Don Vito is a man of careful consideration, and, so, all of his actions carry particular significance. Quite simply, the man is so bloody intimidating that he never even has to raise his voice to get his point across. However, to be quite blunt, Brando could have done the part of Don Vito in his sleep. A larger challenge for Coppola, as a director, must have been to keep Pacino from making a tidy meal of the Sicilian scenery while demonstrating a deep intensity from within. Michael is the youngest son and a college-educated, highly decorated WWII veteran, who has always aimed to avoid the family business. We identify with his struggle to maintain his belief that that a life of violent crime is wrong, but we also empathize with Michael’s slow submission to the idea that his family’s acts are a necessary evil. This is a gradual transformation, achieved by Pacino’s masterful take on an excellent script, and Michael’s face slowly loses its humanity as he makes the voyage from relatively wide-eyed civilian to hardened leader of a mafia family.
One of many unforgettable scenes of the film occurs one evening when Michael visits Don Vito in the hospital, finds his father unprotected, and knows instantly that trouble is on the way. After Michael and a nurse move Don Vito down the hallway, Michael confronts a man looking for his father. It turns out to be Enzo, the baker, who feels endebted to the Corleones and insists on staying to help. Michael tells Enzo to wait outside and returns to his father’s bedside:
MICHAEL Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you…
[Michael kisses the Don’s hand; the Don smiles, with a tear in his eye. Michael leaves to meet Enzo outside of the hospital.]
MICHAEL (grabbing and tossing the flowers that Enzo is still holding) Get rid of these. (then, as Michael turns Enzo’s collar up) Come ‘ere. Put your hand in your pocket like you have a gun. You’ll be alright. (then, after he sighs) You’ll be okay…
[A black sedan pulls up to the front of the hospital. The occupants look at Michael and Enzo, as Michael undoes a button of his coat and puts his hand in, as if he had a gun. The car then drives off.]
MICHAEL You did good.
Like most people, Enzo is pretty much scared shitless at this point and pulls out a cigarette, but his hands are shaking so violently that lighting up is an impossibility. Michael then takes the lighter, easily lights the cigarette, and, unavoidably, notices that his hands are as steady as they come. At that moment, Michael seems to realize that his life has irreversibly changed.
The notion of free will in The Godfather is a complex one, and a predominant issue is whether Michael ever truly has a choice but to eventually become the head of a violent crime family. Ideally, the eldest brother and heir apparent, Sonny, would succeed Don Vito upon his death. However, Sonny is quite the loose cannon, as is evident by James Caan’s smoldering performance, and Don Vito realizes that he must look to another successor. His second son, the awkward, cowardly Fredo, is pretty much a lost cause. Michael is a more levelheaded and logical decision maker, and he demonstrates this by taking charge of the situation. Michael recognizes that, as a civilian, he is the only one of the family who can gain access and kill Sollozzo and the corrupt police captain Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). However, after Michael commits double murder, he still sees his violent act as an isolated act of vengeance for the assassination attempt against his father. As a result of the murders, Michael must hide out in Sicily for at least a year, but he still maintains the view that his involvement with the family business is a temporary affair. In Sicily, Michael falls in love with, quickly courts, and marries Appolonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). This happiness is short-lived, for, even in isolation, Michael cannot escape the dangers of the family business. News of Sonny’s assassination arrives, and Appollonia dies in a botched assassination attempt against Michael, who finally realizes that he is the only hope for maintaining the Corleone power.
With the death of his new bride, Michael, newly hardened, surrenders to his fate and returns to America, where he marries Kay and tries to bring peace and dignity to his father’s last years. Michael succeeds in protecting Don Vito from further gangster bloodshed, and the Godfather meets his end while engaging in grandfatherly pursuits. After Don Vito’s death, peace ends between the warring families. Michael is quickly propositioned by a traitor, who aims to arrange a “safe” meeting for the rival families to assassinate Michael. This leads Michael to engineer the spectacularly chilling “Baptism Bloodbath” scene and become recognized as the new Godfather. Throughout The Godfather, it’s difficult to not identify with Michael, and Pacino’s uncharacterisically controlled take on the role of Michael Corleone was the mark of one of the greatest antiheroes in cinema. Even more remarkable is Coppola’s relatively neutral presentation of Michael’s transformation, which allows us to form our own judgments about the film, and, most importantly, surrender to the The Godfather saga.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can also be found at agentbedhead.com.Resistance Is Futile
Film | June 24, 2008 | Comments ()