#2) The Godfather (1972)
OR “Vito Power”
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo. Based on the novel by Puzo.
Class of 1990
This is a revised and expanded version of my original “Godfather” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the respected head of a notorious crime family in 1945 New York. After an assassination attempt on Vito, his hotheaded son Santino, aka “Sonny” (James Caan), takes over as Don, and a war between the five major crime families is imminent. Vito’s youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with the family business, but just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in (never mind, that’s later). Rounding out the cast are Robert Duvall as family consigliere Tom Hagen, John Cazale and Talia Shire as Corleone siblings Fredo and Connie, and Diane Keaton as Michael’s girlfriend Kay who never learns to not question the business.
Why It Matters: The NFR states that the film “ranks in the highest echelons of filmmaking” and praises Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and composer Nino Rota. An essay by film critic Michael Sragow is a tribute to this film and its sequel.
But Does It Really?: Yes. Moving on to “Shout Outs”…
But seriously, I have nothing to say about this film that you haven’t heard before. “The Godfather” is as perfect as filmmaking gets. Every aspect of this movie is a master class in subtlety. The direction and cinematography never draw attention to themselves, but a change to either would be film blasphemy. Brando’s iconic and easily imitated work is without peer, and it’s remarkable to watch the likes of Pacino, Caan, and Duvall all hold their own with the legend. I can’t throw enough superlatives at “The Godfather”: perfect, engaging, groundbreaking, flawless, and deserving of its reputation as one of the great American films.
Shout Outs: No direct shout-outs, but honorable mention to “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, the sequel to future NFR entry “Going My Way”. A sequel that’s as good as the original? What a ridiculous notion.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the team will be back for “Part II”, but making their only appearance here are actors Richard S. Castellano (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”) and Alex Rocco (“I’m Moe Greene!”). Producer Albert S. Ruddy was selected by Paramount due to his track record of bringing films in on time. He didn’t produce “Part II” because he was busy with his magnum opus: “The Longest Yard”.
But Not Everybody Bats 1000: John Cazale only appeared in five films, but all of them have made the NFR (as well as receiving Best Picture nominations): Godfathers 1 & 2, “The Conversation”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, and “The Deer Hunter”. A fitting legacy to an actor who left us much too soon.
Seriously, Oscars?: The most successful film of all time up to that point, “The Godfather” led the Oscar pack with 11 nominations. This was bumped down to 10 when Nino Rota’s Original Score nomination was revoked due to Rota using portions of his score from 1958’s “Fortunella” in “The Godfather”. On Oscar night, “The Godfather” lost in most categories (including Best Director) to Bob Fosse’s equally impressive albeit flashier “Cabaret”. But “Godfather” prevailed in the end, winning Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor for Marlon Brando. If I remember correctly, Brando sent a proxy.
- Speaking of the Oscars, both Brando and Pacino are in that gray co-lead area the Oscars have never been good at categorizing. Although newcomer Pacino had more screentime, he was nominated for Supporting Actor (alongside Caan and Duvall), while established star Brando was campaigned as the lead. Pacino disliked this strategy and boycotted the ceremony.
- Brando was 47 when he filmed “The Godfather”, a tad too young to be playing a man from his mid 50s through his mid 60s. But thanks to Brando’s committed performance after a decade of phoning it in (and the inspired makeup design by Dick Smith and Philip Rhodes), you cannot imagine anyone else playing Vito. The other strong contenders were Laurence Olivier and Ernest Borgnine, whose performance styles would have clashed with the younger, primarily Method actors.
- The wedding sequence takes its time, but it sets up the rest of the film beautifully. Without too much expository dialogue, Coppola and Puzo establish all the major characters, several of the minor but integral characters, and showcase the importance of family and community within the organization. When dialogue is needed to clarify some points, Diane Keaton’s Kay makes a lovely audience surrogate.
- It’s easy to cry nepotism when you cast your sister in a movie, but when your sister is as good as Talia Shire it doesn’t matter. Also making appearances throughout the film are Coppola’s father Carmine, mother Italia, wife Eleanor, sons Gian-Carlo and Roman, and daughter Sophia, who was born during the production!
- Today on “Stating the Obvious”: my god, Pacino’s good in this. Look no further than Michael explaining to Kay how Vito helped Johnny Fontane get out of his recording contract. You can see Michael’s internal struggle in Pacino’s eyes. Brilliant.
- No wonder “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” caught on; they say it like eight times in the movie.
- What happens to Don Vito’s cat? It disappears after the wedding. Hope it didn’t betray the family. Though I’m sure the cat won’t mind if it “sleeps with the fishes”.
- 33 minutes in, folks. That’s when the magic happens. Khartoum did not die in vain.
- Hey, another movie for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list!
- Pacino is so quiet throughout this film. Is that why he yells in all his other movies?
- Coppola recognizes that the best novel-to-film adaptations can be episodic, as long as each episode builds upon the previous one. In the hands of a lesser screenwriter/director, these would have been unrelated incidents involving the same characters, but Coppola keeps the various character arcs front and center throughout the entire film.
- Ah yes, Sterling Hayden as Captain McCluskey. No one’s guarding Vito at the hospital because Hayden is busy preserving those precious bodily fluids.
- Dick Smith, you’ve done it again! Between aging up Brando by nearly 20 years and giving Pacino a realistic broken jaw, I can’t believe the Academy didn’t create the Best Make-up category then and there.
- Another moment where Pacino’s subtle eye acting comes into play: the restaurant scene where he intends to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. The tension throughout is brilliantly orchestrated, and Pacino takes it to the next level.
This is where the movie was originally supposed to have an intermission, so this seems like a natural stopping point. Click here for Part II (not to be confused with “Part II”; that’s a whole other post).