A landmark film, even if not quite for the same reasons it has won high praise for decades elsewhere.
I thought Mario Puzo’s novel, which I read before I saw the film the first time, was pretty lightweight, the language adding nothing to what seemed to be a pedestrian plot. Perhaps I need to re-read it, because the story I saw in the film was far from shallow.
Keeping in mind the era, and an unusually convincing portrayal of characters by a largely unknown cast, it was the deliberate, exquisite breach of one of Hollywood’s most hypocritical and senseless conventions that makes the film so extraordinary.
This convention is the rule that ‘bad guys’ can never succeed or be more than rakishly sympathetic. The Godfather’s son and successor, Michael Corleone (the then almost unknown Al Pacino), who develops into a ruthless killer, is portrayed as more than personable: he is admirable for his strength and courage.
Another convention to be broken was to never to bring into disrepute the American legal system or its enforcers, who are deliberately portrayed as avaricious, corrupt bit players on a stage dominated by the Mafia families that interact with the Corleones.
The Corleones treat police officers and judges as ‘so many nickels and dimes’ to be traded in an interpretation of the American way of life that illuminates the roots of American capitalism in the lawlessness of the 19th century land, railroad, and oil robber barons, emulated by the new arrivals to the land of the brave and home of the free.
Stylistically, the film also broke away from the ‘super-realism’ of American cinema in its day, which tended to overdo lurid colours and harsh lighting. The Godfather is shot in subdued tones which go well with the period setting (1945 into the 1950s).
The narrative structure itself was yet another departure from Hollywood cinematic conventions, with long sequences at a family wedding introducing the main characters almost as an aside to the festivities. The audience is invited into this wedding feast like the guests themselves, and they are treated to some extra voyeuristic insights that add enormously to the human dimension of the principal rôles.
The wedding sequence tells us much about the hierarchy of the Corleone family, its power, and the nature of its business.
The following sequences, about family lawyer and adopted son to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), convincing a powerful Hollywood movie mogul to cast a crooner very reminiscent of Frank Sinatra in a new big-budget movie, tell us about the methods employed in pursuing the family business.
From then on, The Godfather is a story about a family in the crisis of changing times. While World War II has come to a close off-screen, a different kind of war takes place in America. This Mafia war begins because Don Vito Corleone, played with skilful insight and wonderful understatement by Marlon Brando, refuses to financially back an emerging narcotics trade. Ironically this narcotis trade did really emerge in the US and caused some major power-plays among the five identified Mafia families. This theme is likely to have been topical in the US during the early 1970s, when the country began to wake up to the fact that many returning Vietnam veterans were bringing home heroin addictions, and fuelling the demand for the drug at home.
In the film, a rival family attempts to assassinate Don Vito to gain the support for the drugs trade of his oldest son and assumed successor as head of the Corleone family, the headstrong Sonny, played with great animation by James Caan. But the assassination fails, and the youngest Corleone scion is drawn into the business of the family through his efforts to thwart a second attempt on his father’s life and avenge the shooting.
Michael Corleone’s act of love for his father, his clear judgment, and his willingness to act decisively in a time of crisis, lead him into a position from which he will find it impossible to escape the legacy of his father.
He takes a leading rôle in the Mafia war by assassinating a rival Mafioso and a crooked cop. From then on he is marked as a gangster himself, no longer as the squeaky-clean war hero he was at the beginning of the film.
The fury of the Mafia war sees his brother Sonny killed, and his own new Sicilian wife blown up by a car bomb meant for him. These events harden Michael’s character, and, when he returns to the US, it is clear that he is the logical successor to the wily but ageing and still convalescing Don Vito.
The sojourn in Sicily is somewhat underplayed in the narrative, and serves as the entrée to the sequel, illuminating the apparently mysterious ties to the ‘old country’ that so underlies the mystery of Mafia clans.
However, Michael uncovers the hidden enemies who have caused so much pain to his family, and in a brilliant collage of intercut scenes, he attends his nephew’s christening while his men assassinate all the family’s enemies in one fell swoop.
Later he even orders the garrotting of his brother-in-law for his complicity in the murder of Sonny Corleone. There is a deliberate touch of irony in Michael becoming godfather to the condemned man’s child. An irony contained in the hypocrisy of American capitalism, which does not shrink at all from cannibalistic excesses. Again, that point is made more obvious in the sequel.
The final sequences of the film show the family pack up to move to Las Vegas to assume new business interests in gambling, and Michael lying without scruple to his wife about the murder of his brother-in-law.
Michael Corleone is cast as the Nietzschean Übermensch, rejecting the conventions of his times, seizing his opportunities, ruthlessly destroying his enemies, and refusing to fall victim to the expected American malaise of moral ambiguity or paralysis of action. He is played with the brilliance of an as yet unaffected Al Pacino that made him the iconic star he is today. Whether it was good acting, clever makeup, or both, Pacino visibly aged and hardened in the rôle between his first appearance at the wedding and his stony-faced, hard-headed leadership of the family on his return from exile in Sicily.
In showing us the inside of the family, Coppola removed the unfathomable strangeness of movie bad guys we can hate because we don’t understand their motivations, because we have no insights into their psychology and feelings, and because we find it easy to condemn them as sociopaths for the apparently random soullessness of their actions.
The Corleone family is shown to be entirely human. And there is no cause to fear them. They kill only their enemies, and even then only for business reasons. It is a harsh metaphor for the unrestrained form of capitalism peculiar to the US, but not altogether unwarranted. There are solid reasons to regard US democracy and capitalism as inherewntly built on violence and corruption, but that’s a seperate discussion.
In the sense of looking after ‘family’ interests, however, the Corleones are shown as a model US corporation, and Michael is the new CEO who reforms outdated systems, introduces a new product range, and fights off hostile takeovers and competitors.
Coppola’s biggest success was in refusing to moralise about even the most brutal of killings in the film. He allowed the characters and their concerns to speak for themselves.
As a viewer I found myself sympathising more and more with Michael as he attempts to pull together his family and rid himself of his mortal enemies. In fact, I could not frown on the murders he caused to eliminate his family’s enemies: they were the only logical answer in a situation which might well have seen his own murder had he not acted as he did.
Given the political climate of the US at the time the film was made, it might be valid to conclude that the characterisation of Michael Corleone was a sharp criticism of the moral dithering by US leaders about the nation’s position in the world, particularly the Vietnam War, where America did not choose either of the two commonsense paths of action: retreat or full-scale war fought to win.
Unlike most US leaders of the era, Michael Corleone was not a hypocrite. He chose his methods to suit his needs and pursued his goals unapologetically and single-mindedly. Even if the methods Corleone chose were questionable, his success was not. This message was a clear reflection of the reality that success is rarely achieved without disadvantaging someone else, and spectacular success for one person or group implies spectacular failure for someone else.
The commercial success of The Godfather is likely to have had much to do with its honest approach to the contradictions within liberal democracies between the promise of freedom for individuals and morally untainted institutions on the one hand, and the ruthless nature of corporate capitalism and inevitable corruption of governments on the other hand.
The Godfather succeeds at every level of film-making, from the script to the acting, and from the visualisation to the technical execution. It is a film that deserves the much misused and now trite accolade of ‘classic’ because it not only encapsulated the mood of its times, it actually helped to shape it.
Watching the film today it is hard to imagine how daring it was to present two-and-a-half hours of feature film with as cerebral a plotline as The Godfather in the early 1970s. What is not so hard to imagine is the undiminished relevance of the message, and the timeless quality of the film-making that stacks up as an intimidating yardstick to most big budget features to this day.
The film won Oscars for Best Picture (Albert S Ruddy), Best Actor (Marlon Brando, who refused the award), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). It seems to me Al Pacino was overlooked entirely. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar went to Joel Grey in Cabaret, not entirely undeservedly.
Paramount, 1972, 175 minutes.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Produced by Albert S Ruddy. Written by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Towne (uncredited), based on the novel by Mario Puzo. Cinematography by Gordon Willis. Music by Nino Rota, Carmine Coppola. Editing by William H Reynolds, Peter Zinner.
With Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, James Caan as Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Diane Keaton as Kay Adams-Corleone, Talia Shire as Constanzia ‘Connie’ Corleone.