Academy Award Wins: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
Inducted into the National Film Registry: 1990
What more is there to possibly say about 1972’s THE GODFATHER that hasn’t already been said? It is undoubtedly, inarguably one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a goddamn institution of cinema that dares you to find fault with it. Yes, you could say it’s overlong, convoluted, even boring– but by no means can you not respect it. I suspect that director Francis Ford Coppola had no idea what he was getting into when cameras first started rolling that fateful day in 1972.
Coppola initially took the job, not for passion, but for money. American Zoetrope, the company he founded with the intent to liberate himself from the studio system of filmmaking, found itself in debt to those very same studios due to budget overruns on his good friend George Lucas’ directorial debut, THX 1138 (1971). As the producer on that film, Coppola found himself deeply in debt and took on THE GODFATHER so that he could afford to feed his growing family.
It was precisely this familial element of the film’s genesis that threw the story into focus for Coppola. Paramount saw another cheap gangster film that would turn an easy profit, but Coppola saw a sprawling epic about loyalty, family, and honor that became a grand metaphor for the ruthless mechanics of American capitalism. So convinced of his own vision was he, Coppola endured a trial by fire wrought by studio executives who made very vocal their distaste of his casting and directorial choices at every step along the way. It was the single most formative experience of Coppola’s career, even more so than his fiasco of a shoot in the jungle for APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).
We all know the characters, and we all know the story– to a varying degree, of course. THE GODFATHER’s famously labyrinthine plotting slowly reveals itself only through multiple viewings. By my own estimations, this was the the third or fourth time I’ve seen the film, but it was probably the first time where I was able to really follow what was going on throughout. I also had the distinct pleasure of watching the film with my girlfriend (hi, Chelsea!), who was watching it for the first time. Many of the film’s sequences are iconic, but it was refreshing to see someone experience it for the first time, and still be actively engaged in a story that is nearly forty years old. This speaks to the great deal of timelessness that THE GODFATHER is imbued with– it’s truly a film that will endure through the ages.
THE GODFATHER focuses on the Corleone crime syndicate, a close-knit Sicilian-Italian family who have amassed a tremendous fortune through illegal gambling operations. As run by aging patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Corleones are a well-oiled, efficient operation with friends in high places. Set in New York in the decade following World War 2, THE GODFATHER chronicles the internal upheaval that the Corleones experience when pressure builds to join the increasingly-profitable narcotics trade, or risk losing their relevance in the world of organized crime. As a man of honor and principe, Vito is staunchly opposed to dealing drugs, which angers the heads of rival crime families. An unsuccessful assassination attempt on Vito’s life sparks open warfare involving his sons, particularly Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a war hero and the youngest of Vito’s progeny. When the heir apparent to Vito’s empire, hotheaded eldest son Sonny (James Caan) is betrayed by his brother-in-law and brutally gunned down in the street, and middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is deemed unfit to head the operation, Michael decides to assume control of the family. However, the cost of this decision will be his very soul.
The performances in THE GODFATHER are career-defining, and nothing short of legendary. A great deal of the film’s power comes from the sheer pathos and gravitas embodied by each and every character. This is all the more-remarkable due to the fact that the studio infamously hated the cast and fought to have some of the key players replaced. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Don Vito (and famously refused to accept it in order to call attention to the terrible depiction of Native Americans in cinema). Only 45 at the time of shooting, Brando assumed the affectations of a man twenty years his senior, all while under heavy prosthetic makeup and an elaborate jaw appliance that gave him a severe underbite. His heartbreak at the sight of his empire crumbling and the corruption of his sons is heartbreaking to watch, and makes his performance one of the most iconic in history.
Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone became his career breakout and instantly established him as one of his generation’s top acting talents. Pacino’s Michael is vindictive and ruthless while still remaining likable, which makes for a believable performance as a man fated to become the very devil he meant to dispel. His character arc is one of the most compelling trajectories ever devised, and while it came close to a reality several times throughout production, it’s very hard to imagine anyone else other than Pacino in the role.
James Caan and Robert Duvall continue their collaboration with Coppola as Sonny and consigliere Tom Hagen, respectively. Caan is all fiery temper and braggadocio as the heir apparent to Vito’s criminal empire. Despite his presence in only 1/9 of the entire GODFATHER TRILOGY’s 9-hour running time, his presence hangs heavy over the entirety of it like a specter. While Caan would continue delivering iconic performances throughout his career, his portrayal of Sonny Corleone will arguably be the one he is always remembered for. Same goes for Duvall, who as Vito’s adopted son of Irish and German descent, is one of the family’s most trusted outsiders. Acting publicly as the family’s lawyer, he privately takes on an advisor role to Vito, dispensing wisdom and objective reason. Filling out the Corleone family is the inimitable Cazale in his film debut as middle son Fredo, as well as Coppola’s real-life sister Talia Shire as their sister Connie. While Cazale’s true importance lies in the events of THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), the roots of those problems are firmly established here by depicting Fredo as somewhat of a black sheep, too stupid and clumsy to reliably lead the Corleone family on his own.
Filling out the cast are Diane Keaton and Sterling Hayden as key players in the Corleone family saga. The impeccable Hayden plays Captain McCluskey, the repugnant, corrupt cop that Michael murders in cold blood. Keaton plays Kay Adams, who becomes Michael’s wife in the film. Her anglo-saxon, WASP-y ways stand in stark contrast to the Corleone’s reserved familial identity, a dynamic visually reinforced by having her continually clad in bright primary colors that scream compared to the dark neutral shades that The Family dresses in. Her growing despair at the realization of Michael’s corruption is a focal point for the saga’s continuing conversation about ethics, and she becomes an avatar of sorts for our own arms-length distance from the family affairs. Coppola finds an elegant way to visually depict this at the film’s end, when Kay stands outside the inner chamber of Michael’s office as his capos come to kiss his ring as the new Don Corleone. We see the remove from her perspective, and then Coppola elegantly cuts to the reverse shot– a close up of Kay’s falling expression as the door closes on her. The moment is pure cinema: the culmination of all that came before it and a charged beat that brings the film’s central conceit into clear focus.
The mastery of craft on display extends to the film’s cinematography, courtesy of Gordon Willis- a man who who’s ability to capture evocative shadows earned him the moniker “The Prince of Darkness”. Indeed, THE GODFATHER is a very dark experience visually and thematically. Shot on 35mm film, the image’s pervading darkness is broken only by strategically placed pools of light which create an exaggerated chiaroscuro without departing too far from reality. Colors are washed out and desaturated, taking on a warm sepia tone that resembles a faded old family photograph. The darkly handsome 1.85:1 frame is given life by elegant, classical camera movements and deep focus that highlights well-worn, distinctive set dressing by production designer Dean Tavoularis. THE GODFATHER is often imitated and held up as a gold standard in cinematography, and after recent restoration efforts by Coppola himself, the film looks just as good as it did when it first unspooled on unsuspecting audiences forty years ago.
Any discussion of THE GODFATHER wouldn’t be complete with mentioning the film’s iconic musical theme. Composed by Nino Rota, the theme has ingrained itself into pop culture so much that it is instantly recognizable, even among those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a mournful waltz that effortlessly incorporates the major themes of the film into musical form. The music is one of those serendipitous things that just resonates with the zeitgeist and becomes a part of the human experience– the mere mention of the words THE GODFATHER makes you immediately hear the song in the head (admit it, you’re humming it to yourself even now) . Part of why the films will never be forgotten is due to Rota’s score being so damn unforgettable. As for Coppola personally, it will accompany him in major milestones for the rest of his life– Oscar wins, public appearances, etc. I’d bet it’s even played at his funeral.
THE GODFATHER is a master-class in directing, revealing new insights upon each subsequent viewing. Many things, like Coppola’s inclusion of oranges in a given sequence as a bellwether of impending death are well known, but many more of THE GODFATHER’s secrets aren’t given up so easily. Coppola’s rich explorations of the themes of family, loyalty, and obligation can be seen as explorations into his own cultural identity and heritage. For Coppola, and Italian culture at large, communal rituals, traditions and ceremonies are major life milestones by which the plot points of our lives are played out. The film begins with a lavish wedding steeped in Old World custom, designed to introduce us not only to this detailed world but to the complicated characters who inhabit it. Conversely, Coppola ends the film with a baptism by both water and blood. It’s the most stunning sequence of the film, and arguably the single best contribution Coppola has ever made to the ever-evolving language of cinema: as Michael’s nephew and godson is baptized into the Catholic Church (and thus delivered into the proverbial saving grace of God), Michael’s capos carry out an elaborate series of murders designed to knock off the Corleones’ rivals and consolidate power in a baptism of blood (thus delivering Michael into the hands of Satan).
It’s a bone-chilling and haunting sequence, effortlessly orchestrated by Coppola in a way that takes full advantage of his experimental affectations. It literally created the cross-cut, a perpendicular editing technique that is still used to today to lend immense power to films like SKYFALL (2012) or THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Even Coppola’s contemporaries have referenced it, most notably in the Jedi extermination/creation of the Empire sequence in George Lucas’ STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005). In this sequence in particular, THE GODFATHER’s hidden, double meaning as a title is revealed. While initially presented in assumed reference to Corleone patriarch Don Vito, it’s not until the end that we realize its in reference to Michael as he fully embraces his descent into evil.
THE GODFATHER has left an enduring legacy on the American psyche that’s almost unfathomable to comprehend. It was a bonafide phenomenon and instant classic upon its release, resulting in the highest box office returns and acclaim in Coppola’s career. It catapulted him into the echelons of cinema’s great directors nearly overnight, and even though many of his contemporaries’ films have lost some of their luster upon reappraisal, THE GODFATHER still holds up as a sterling example of what cinema is and should be. It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and anyone who thinks different is liable to find themselves sleeping with the fishes.
THE GODFATHER is currently available in high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.
Produced by Gray Frederickson, Albert Ruddy, Robert Evans
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Director of Photography: Gordon Willis
Edited by: William Reynolds, Peter Zinner
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Composer: Nino Rota