Taken For Granted – The Godfather
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
Wide Release Date: March 24, 1972
Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Produced By: Albert S. Ruddy
Cinematography By: Gordon Willis
Edited By: William Reynolds and Peter Zinner
Music By: Nino Rota
Production Company: Alfran Pictures
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone
James Caan as Santino “Sonny” Corleone
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen
Diane Keaton as Kay Adams-Corleone
What Do We All Know?
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather made an immediate and long lasting impact on the film industry. The highest grossing film of all time until Jaws topped it four years later, The Godfather won almost every award there is to win. 45 years later, it still holds up as one of the best movies ever made. It was the breakout role for Al Pacino and Robert Duvall, and somehow managed to elevate the already magnificent career of Marlon Brando.
Despite being the rare film that achieves both universal critical acclaim and iconic status in the pop culture, The Godfather does have its detractors. And while I won’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t care for extreme violence or doesn’t want to sit down for three hours, I think The Godfather is more than worthy of the praise. I watch it every year or so and I always enjoy it. One reason I think I like it so much is that depending on my mood, it can feel like a riveting power fantasy or an introspective critique of the very same.
What Went Right?
The Godfather, for those who need a refresher, tells the story of how mob boss Vito Corleone is succeeded by his son Michael. A World War II Veteran who has no aspirations of entering the “family business”, Michael changes his mind when his father is nearly killed by another crime family. After murdering the boss who orchestrated the attack and a corrupt police officer, Michael flees to Italy while his brother Sonny tries to rebuild the Corleone family during a gang war. Sonny is killed, and Michael returns home, finding that the life of a mob boss suits him, and he quickly rises to power by ruthlessly taking down his rivals after his father passes away. This is a very simplified version of the plot, which has many moving parts but is pretty easy to follow so long as the viewer pays attention. There are no real loose threads and even in a cast of dozens, there isn’t a character that doesn’t feel important to the story.
The cinematography was both striking and groundbreaking. After most films in the fifties and sixties were brightly lit to accommodate drive-in theaters, this film was cloaked in shadow for most of its runtime. This was done to establish the tone and themes of the film; evil men doing dark deeds where nobody can see them. The opening scene sees Vito’s eyes shrouded in darkness as we try to figure what kind of man he is. Outside, in broad daylight, he acts like a family man, while in his home he conducts business that could often lead to murder. We are also introduced to Michael, who seems to be understanding of his father’s work but uninteresting; he wants to focus on his wife and his family. As the film progresses, we see Michael compromise, first acting out of vengeance because of his love for his father, but eventually making ruthless power grabs. Conversely, we see that Vito is truly a family man at heart, and will do anything to protect his sons, even though he never wanted Michael to fall into his lifestyle.
It’s a powerful tale of corruption as well as an epic story of family; what parents will do to provide for their children, and of the expectations and actualizations of children as they grow up. Vito emphasizes the importance of family; a man is not a man unless he spends time with his family. And yet, he and his sons clearly keeps their wives at arms length. Women are often abused or treated as less than men in The Godfather, although the film does its best to condemn this mistreatment. When Sonny beats his brother in law Karlo for abusing his sister, it is a moment of catharsis. When Michael shuts his wife out in the iconic final shot, we understand that what he is doing is wrong.
Another powerful juxtaposition is that of religion; the Corleone’s are clearly raised as “good Catholics”, but can they truly be Christian and still do what they do? It is an interesting question, although the film leans towards “No” as the answer. Sonny is an angry, impulsive and violent man, but he wears a cross around his neck. It is jarring. This theme is used to spectacular effect in the film’s climax as Michael becomes Godfather to his nephew at his baptism, “renouncing” Satan and all of his ways while.his men murder his enemies. It’s perhaps the finest example of Coppola’s directing and a major tribute to how effective film editing can be. I often contend that The Godfather has the best opening and closing shots of all time, as well as one of the best climaxes.
What Went Wrong?
I’m sorely tempted to say that The Godfather doesn’t really have problems. There’s a purpose to every scene and there isn’t a weak spot in the acting (except maybe Michael’s first wife but even she gets a lot across with her body language). But there are a few minor things. Some of the fighting comes off a little fake; Sonny’s beat down of Carlo never feels as brutal as I’d like it to. And while I personally am not bothered by the real decapitated horse since the animal was already deceased, it is almost too shocking and I know some people who remember that scene more than anything in the movie. I also think the film might have benefitted from time cards since it covers years, and it can be confusing for a first time viewer. Similarly, I do occasionally find myself wishing for subtitles for the Italian conversation, but I also understand why Coppola left it out.
Also, while almost all gangster movies are cautionary tales by their nature, they are not always effective at clearly illustrating this. Films like Scarface and Goodfellas have many fans who probably think the violence and corruption on screen is being celebrated, as opposed to being condemned. The Godfather falls into this same trap in a way. While Michael is being corrupted, it is very hard not to root for him as he avenges his family. In this film, he feels more like a cool anti-hero, the kind of guy we know we shouldn’t be, but also sometimes wish we could be. Like I said; sometimes it’s fun to watch this more as a power fantasy.
What Went Really Right?
I don’t know if I can call The Godfather the greatest film ever made, but it’s almost certainly got to land in the top ten. One of the reasons is that for all of its thematic richness and its filmmaking excellence, it’s still an entertaining, quotable, and suitably grandiose production. And I do genuinely feel that it has the best cast. Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen is great as the voice of reason, James Caan has his career best performance, and the cast is loaded with great character actors like Richard S. Castellano, Al Lettieri, Lenny Montana, Abe Vigoda and John Gazale, who’d get an even bigger role in Part II as Fredo. Not to mention Diane Keaton and Talia Shire, the also get more significant time in the sequel.
But the MVPs here are most certainly Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. Brando was already a legend in Hollywood before this, with legendary roles in On the Waterfront, The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire among many others. And yet, his performance as Vito Corleone is just jaw-dropping even by his high standards. He commands the room with his voice and his mannerisms, almost all of it highly understated. The character is as iconic as it gets, the one part of this movie you’re almost sure to recognize even if you’ve never seen the film. On the flip side, there’s Al Pacino, who had his true breakout role here and would have a very successful career after this. He’s so good in this, doing so much acting with his eyes and naturally evolving. The cast elevates the screenplay, and the director elevates the actors. It’s one of the best movies ever made, and there really is no reasonable way to dispute that.
Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Back to the Future
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we took the plunge into The Abyss.1 This week, possibly my favorite movie is tackled as we watch Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia, and Friday the 13th, Part 2.
Next week, I’ll be doing The Godfather, Part II.