Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Prod. Albert S Ruddy
Based on. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Music. Nino Rota
Starring. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire
Running time.177 Minutes
The obvious polarising nature of reviewing an all-time classic means you are more than likely to fall into the category of being an enthusiast or finding it overrated. This will be from the point of view of the former.
There are boundless stories about the making of this movie. This will not be one of them There are tales of Brando misbehaving, Pacino being a shortarse, and the studio execs conflicting. There were reports of Mafia approval/sanctions, and budget problems. I give little credence to this. Why is it that every film that ever had a documentary made of it making somehow had badly behaved stars, over-shot budgets, were “seconds away” from being shut down forever, and had location issues? Why was it never a well-accounted exercise? So, with the aim of avoiding clichés and bullshit, I will ignore this and focus on the film.
The Godfather opens with utter class. A dark and unfeeling room, and a troubled voice, lamenting justice for his ruined daughter. A beautifully subtle lead into the character of Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, possibly the most influential screen actor of all time. Vito is born into poverty in Sicily at the turn of the century, forced to flee to New York and through chance encounters took steps to become among most powerful men in America. Held in fear and respect by those who knew him, loved by his people, feared with a deathly dread by those who may or may not become his enemies. Said to be based (in the book) on legendary mobster Frank Costello, given Frank Costello's notoriously placid demeanor and his modest operating technique and the supposed love he had from those under him, as well as the fact he also had a gravelly voice from a gunshot wound, it is likely there is some truth to that. He certainly is not the only character from the trilogy that bears many resemblances to real-life famous folk from American modern-culture.
The start is a wedding of the daughter, Constanzia (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi. We learn of the now well-known fact that it is Sicilian tradition for no man to refuse a favour on his daughter’s wedding day . He has three sons, the legendary Santino a.k.a “Sonny” (so-called because of his fierce loyalty to his father) who was a violent mob-warfare veteran and his father’s underboss, the ineffective Fredo, played by the late John Cazales, and Al Pacino as the enigmatic youngest son, Michael, an apparent black-sheep due to his choice of serving in the Marines during WWII and winning bravery medals, an achievement shrugged off by his unimpressed father as “miracles for strangers”. Then there is the fourth male in the household, a German Irish lawyer called Tom Hagen, raised as part of the family after the kind-hearted Santino found him orphaned on the street.
Glances are made at the characters of each, particularly Santino (James Caan), who after displaying his well-known temper then deflowers a bridesmaid while his wife knowingly misses his presence. He is not a subtle man, we see much screen radiance from Mr Caan, effortless dominance in speech and absolute physical awe. , his torso is almost inversely triangular (watch for the scene where he walks from the table to answer a phone). His temper and strength are legendary. The former is something he is held in scorn by his father for. Vito sees anger and force as weaknesses. Ultimately he disapproves of how his eldest son operates.
Everything we see at the opening event, the wedding, goes towards the greatest strength of this movie and Puzo's script and storytelling: Exposition, the best example in all of cinema to my opinion. Take the segment in which he promises that he will resolve his Godson’s dilemma, This turns into a mainstay in our cinematic minds as well as our day to day language in a scene of power, terror, and a clue to just who we are dealing with. Yet there are no jumps, it flows from Vito's office to a screen-magnate's mansion, then his bedroom. Seamless and magnificent.
The story takes hold when a narcotics deal is rebuffed by the great Don, and the knock-on effects it produces. The advantage taken of a deadly mistake made in conference by Santino that leads to him having to step up and deal with what his display of non-unity causes. Michael must leave his life and his love for safety in Sicily that is almost a film within itself. The lush countryside marked by the scars of war and vendetta is hypnotic and a very powerful perfume that contrasts the dark cityscape of New York
It is through all of this that the exposition I said is so prevalent, we learn by understanding and piecing together for ourselves. Nothing clumsy here and it would be unfair to say that one viewing should be enough, but it does not matter, there is enough for many sittings.
The Mafia war raging at home claims many a casualty of the Corleone organisation. A scene between the unofficially adopted son as the lawyer and “Consigliere” and his boss/surrogate father lamenting one of these casualties, is just one of many acting masterclasses, the young Robert Duvall and the perfect Brando blend together with the darkened set and the musical mood-setting that is as much a staple as the script. It is simply breath-taking.
Michael returns to take a strong role in the business he once eschewed and to rescue his family from the damage done in gangland war. Vito attends a meeting of the group of Mafia chiefs from across America to sue for a peace, Here we see any question as to why Brando is so revered answered. He makes a speech of smooth charisma and velvet reason, ending with an aggressive snarl of remembrance: He tells them he forgives, but push any more, and you will see what happens. He has a deft physical presence, wily, yet vulnerable. Statesmanlike but also deadly
Reconciling with his estranged girlfriend, Kay, Michael asserts his power. I found this the only failing in the plausibility of the entire film. To make a lost love of 8 years ago drop her life, job, and everything with one meeting, especially given the independence and strength of the woman in question, was not easy to swallow.
Michael takes power, taking steps his father couldn’t, for reasons of keeping his word and family morals. Things Michael is not bound by.
Then one of the classiest montage scenes you will ever see, a polar metaphor A gentle, holy act covering for a swift violent masterstroke, culminating at the end of the in the revenge for betrayal. A fearful and rich scene where a once cocksure character drains and realises after all, that Michael is going to be the man his father was.
The closing scene ends in a way that just simply could not have been better. Simple, swift, and telling, and playing to one of the many fan theories that, along with oranges, The Godfather is all about doors (google it).
Regardless of that, the Godfather IS all about class. When I hear people say they don’t like it, I hear the same thing as when people say they don’t like The Beatles, hipster posturing. Its popular and well regarded so I must seem cool and interesting if I don’t like it. This production is just exquisite, it oozes technical and artistic proficiency, and while, yes, everyone has tastes, and some people prefer a simpler film and there is nothing wrong with that, it is not those people I am mocking, it is those who seem to be bursting to tell you how they don’t like it and why. People who probably very often hear the phrase: “Yes I heard you the first time.” You know the type. If you don’t, it is you.