“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.”
The opening line sets up everything. The concept of America, a place to “make one’s fortune”, the heavy Italian accent. Soon we discover he’s an undertaker – a man who profits from death – and it all falls into place.
There are great films, capital G-F Great Films, and then, there are those films admitted to the VIP table behind the velvet rope, those seriously discussed when the question of the Greatest Film of All Time is raised. KANE. CASABLANCA. VERTIGO. RULES OF THE GAME. 8 ½. Few films from the last four decades are invited to this gathering of cinematic high rollers, but the first admitted is, nigh-unanimously, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, THE GODFATHER*.
(* Arguably, the only picture post-1970 afforded more gravitas is Coppola’s uber-sequel THE GODFATHER PART II, but that’s another piece for another day.)
There’s an excellent reason for this: THE GODFATHER is stunningly, bewilderingly, intricately and – it must be said – damn near accidentally, brilliant.
1. “I want them to smell the spaghetti.” - Robert Evans
Mario Puzo’s 1969 mafia (a term the film famously avoids) novel, detailing a decade-long rise to power of the Italian-American Corleone crime family, was a massive bestseller upon release, prompting Hollywood to flog an inexpensive adaptation to the screen, post haste. After being turned down by big names, Paramount honcho Robert Evans decided an Italian-American perspective on the subject matter would help, and he responded to Coppola’s plans to imbue the film with subtext on capitalism and the dark side of the American Dream. (The fact he was young and came cheap didn’t hurt.) A first-generation Italian-American, he knew all too well the notion of the humble immigrant carving out a new, larger identity in the self-styled Land of Opportunity. Paramount wanted stars, but Coppola craved authenticity. He lobbied the studio with casting choices that, to them, seemed unorthodox: real, Italian faces. Unthinkable as it is now, the studio didn’t want Al Pacino. (Their hilarious preference: Robert Redford.) Marlon Brando developed a look and voice for patriarch Vito that must have seemed bizarre in person – the man stuffed cotton wool in his cheeks, for pete’s sake – and Coppola’s cast of little-known New York actors and non-professionals had Paramount terrified. However, the director’s tenacity (which continued throughout the shoot, from which he was threatened to be fired from daily) paid off, and his crusade for verisimilitude informed every part of the production. The protagonists’ criminal dealings aside, THE GODFATHER embraced Italian culture in a way few American films had to that point, and introduced it to the world at large. The film is steeped in ritual, in Italian-language asides and gestures, which gives the picture a living, breathing heart any number of mob wannabes before and after painfully lack.
2. “Both the Mafia and America feel they are benevolent organisations. And both the Mafia and America have their hands stained with blood…” - Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola mined Italian organized crime for its true, heretofore unearthed operatic dramatic potential, giving it Shakespearean weight. His GODFATHER is a story of a King, Don Vito Corleone, with three indulged princes in waiting: the eldest, dim Fredo (the amazing John Cazale, believable and often amusing in his impotence, right up until he breaks your heart), firebrand Sonny (James Caan, arguably still American cinema’s most iconic symbol of urban Italian masculinity) and the youngest son, Michael (Pacino – we’ll get to him). Then there’s the women; matriarch Carmela (Morgana King), who provides emotional support to the family but, in this old-world hierarchy, holds no power and scant profile, and the princess – in every sense of the word – Connie (Talia Shire, Coppola’s real-life sister, draws a bracingly solipsistic character). Then there’s the adopted scion, the shrewd Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall, brilliantly embodying pragmatism, and the closest thing to a heart the film has), whom Vito and Carmela adopted as a child and put through law school.
Vito created an empire of criminal enterprise with a veneer of honor and, to the best of his ability, tries to pass this ethos on to his kids (what parent can’t relate to that?), with varying degrees of success. The fruits of American prosperity have poisoned his brood – indulging them in wealth, privilege and an overblown sense of entitlement. Only Michael, who joined the army to defend his country in World War II, and Tom, who has a curious relationship with the Corleones (he’s loved like a son, but constantly reminded he isn’t “blood”) seem to have escaped this. Then there’s the immense roster of outstanding characters drawn into their vortex: affable but ruthless Clemenza, loyal and inarticulate Luca Brasi, sage but opportunistic Tessio, immature schmuck Paulie, brazen antagonist Solozzo, megalomaniacal studio boss Jack Woltz, smooth and scheming Don Barzini, and so on. This depth of characterization is a massive testament to the world Coppola and Puzo fleshed out; few stories outside of Shakespeare boast this many indelible characters.
The picture takes a stunning detour when Michael decides to avenge his father’s assassination attempt, and must flee to Sicily. This vignette would derail most films, but Coppola and Puzo give it a feel of both old-world purity and almost Wild West-like danger that informs everything that happens back home. We’re with Michael on his journey into darkness, because we like him, fearing what’s to come of him. When he returns to America, ready to rule, we believe his transition. Pacino’s transformation from shy, all-American kid to calculating criminal overlord is a marvel, all the more startling when one considers it was just his third feature film role. After all, THE GODFATHER’s story is Michael’s.
Because Michael is America: Starting out idealistic, chivalrous and hardworking, then surrendering to greed and hot-blooded emotion, building a fearsome empire. Brando’s Vito, the warm counterpoint to Michael’s cold efficiency, is the old world, embodying the good intentions the Cosa Nostra system was built upon: preservation of community, tradition and family. Don Corleones past and future present a fascinating dichotomy of the psychology of organized crime, capitalism and even fatherhood.
3. “Possibly the greatest movie ever made, and certainly the best-cast.” - Stanley Kubrick
To match the gravity he and Puzo brought to the script, Coppola built the picture to last. The film’s palette is deep mahogany and deeper shadow. Gordon Willis’ dark, clandestine cinematography inspired a generation of cameramen (earning him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness”) and gives the film the conspiratorial backroom feel it requires, without the need to go verite. It also gives the film a bleak patina, and when the film goes outdoors – such as Clemenza and Paulie’s drive upstate – proceedings feel even more exposed, and downright shocking. Walter Murch’s seamless editing moves the story like a rocket, makes its every shift and whim perfectly clear and races through a decade without ever feeling hurried, imparting all the information we need and not a frame more or less. Nino Rota’s score is as instantly recognizable as any committed to film, and its ever-present horns and strumming give the film a powerful echo of the old country, like a rapidly fading memory.
4. “The first movie wrapped up everything.” – Francis Ford Coppola
It strikes me that I’ve gone on for almost 1300 words about this, and yet I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of why THE GODFATHER gets my vote for the Greatest Film Ever Made. Without dropping spoilers (I’m sure some lucky sod will read this and see the film for the first time, and I don’t want to rob them of a glorious experience, so allow me to err on the mafia code of omerta), here are some more reasons for those in the know:
The entire opening sequence. Luca Brasi practicing his speech. “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” “Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking again.” “My Kraut-Mick friend.” Woltz’s entire riff on Johnny Fontaine. The fate of Khartoum. Clemenza ribbing Michael about calling Kay. “Nice college boy, huh?” Sonny’s reaction to Connie’s bruise. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The tollbooth. “He was banging cocktail waitresses two at a time!” “You don’t come to Las Vegas and speak to a man like Moe Greene like THAT!” Vito’s heart-to-heart with Michael in the garden. The entire christening sequence. Willi Cicci’s chilling stare, blasting into the revolving door. Vito lying among the oranges. “Don’t ask me about my business, Kay.” The door closing. The credit font--
Okay, let’s be honest: Every second of every minute of the whole damn thing is my reason. THE GODFATHER is the capo di tutti capi of motion pictures.