Should I Watch..? 'The Godfather'
What's the big deal?
The Godfather is an epic crime film released in 1972 and is based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film follows the highs and lows of life in the Corleone family between the years 1945 and 1955 as aging patriarch Vito hands over control of his criminal empire to reluctant son Michael. The film's ensemble cast features Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire. The film is also notable for its iconic score composed by Nino Rota and its mournful trumpet solo "Love Theme From The Godfather". Released to critical acclaim as well as award success, the film became the highest-grossing movie of 1972 with global earnings in excess of $245 million. It not only spawned two sequels in 1974 and 1990 but it also became highly influential in the 'gangster' genre and is considered today one of the best films ever made. It was later selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry in 1990 for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
What's it about?
In 1945, Vito Corleone - the head of the Corleone crime family in New York - is holding a Sicilian-style celebration for the wedding of his only daughter, Connie. While Vito's youngest son Michael introduces his new girlfriend Kay Adams to the family, Don Vito is hearing requests for favours from those loyal to him. Just before Christmas, he is approached by a drugs baron - Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo - requesting protection and investment for his operation but Vito refuses, not wanting to get mixed up in a dangerous new business. Shortly after, Vito is gunned down and his closest advisor Tom Hagen is kidnapped by associates of Sollozzo's - the Tattaglia crime family.
With Michael's eldest brother Sonny now in command while Vito recuperates, his hot-headed ways threaten to unleash a gang war. Michael thwarts another attempt on Vito's life at the hospital and finds his reluctance to get involved in the family business ebbing away. Fighting the urge not to follow the same path as his father, Michael finds that he has no choice but to fight back and slowly but surely, he discovers that power corrupts.
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola*
Release Date (UK)
24th August, 1972
Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Brando), Best Adapted Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actor (Pacino, Caan & Duvall), Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score (nomination revoked)
What's to like?
I recently wrote about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a film composed painstakingly over a period of four years to produce animation so realistic that it remains the best-looking animated film decades later. You can sense the same attention to detail in The Godfather because every scene feels natural and worryingly believable, almost like a documentary. The fact that the film has provided gangster movies with every cliché imaginable is testament to its power and effectiveness as a film. Where would fantasy films be without J.R.R. Tolkien?
It draws you in so quickly that you sometimes forget you are watching a film. Only Brando's intense charisma gives the game away - Pacino's portrayal of a young man fighting against his destiny is heart-breaking to watch. I loved the scene of him in church renouncing Satan, knowing that his enemies are being dispatched at that very moment. Supported by Caan and Duvall, the film offers viewers a look into the dark world of organised crime and the hierarchy that exists at the top. It also illustrates the hypocrisy that exists - the idea of "honour among thieves" is discussed a lot but nobody has much honour to begin with.
Coppola has crafted a film of exquisite beauty, underscored by the tragic and mournful score provided by Rota's lone trumpet. It's impossible to separate the film from its music, such is their innate compatibility. Even the film's narrative, following every twist and turn on this epic tale of one man's descent into evil, never allows you to rest. It demands your attention and despite lasting almost three hours, you're happy to give it. If ever there was only one gangster movie to watch, it must surely be this one.
- Brando felt that Vito Corleone should look like a bulldog so he went to the audition and stuffed cotton wool into his mouth in an attempt to physically transform into the character. For the movie, he had a mouthpiece created which currently is on display in a museum in Queens, New York.
- The famous scene with the horse's head upset a number of animal rights activists as well as a number of the film's crew. Coppola pointed out that nobody objected to the numerous killings of people in the film and also said that the head itself came from a pet food manufacturer who slaughtered 200 horses a day.
- At the Academy Awards, notable absences included Brando, Pacino and author Puzo. Pacino refused to attend because he felt he should have been nominated for Best Actor and not Best Supporting Actor while Brando sent a Native American actress in protest of the poor treatment of such in entertainment.
- Many people assumed that the part of Johnny Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra although Puzo denies this. Nevertheless, Sinatra confronted Puzo about the character after they crossed paths in a restaurant, screaming vulgarities at him. In the film, the character's role is reduced as a result.
What's not to like?
For a film of the stature of The Godfather, you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing could be wrong. Granted, most of these criticisms might be of a personal nature but the assumption that any film can be perfect is a dangerous one. Trust me, I'm English - if anyone can find something to criticise, it's me!
Not having read Puzo's novel, I don't know how closely it follows the book's narrative but I imagine it's pretty close given the film's length. What I didn't like was the lack of female representation in the film. Keaton's character doesn't offer much in terms of story-telling and I was confused by Michael's impulsive marriage in Italy and subsequent tragedy, which seemingly came out of nowhere. I understand that the Mafia is largely the reserve of men but I would have liked to see how a woman's influence might have played out on someone's thinking - Michael, especially. I can't honestly say I understood his motivations all of the time.
The only time the movie-making illusion slips is during the more dramatic and violent moments. These days, we are used to characters getting blown away in gun fights with blood emerging from hidden squibs or imposed via the magic of CG. But The Godfather feels rather out-of-date by comparison which isn't a surprise but given how much attention to detail the film possesses (check out the cars with wooden bumpers instead of chrome, like they often were in the post-war years), it feels sorta slapdash. Am I being overly picky?
Should I watch it?
The Godfather is one of the most compelling and brilliantly produced films I have ever seen in my life and it remains an absolute landmark in cinema. But it suffers from what I call Shawshank Syndrome - despite the quality of story-telling, performances from the cast and superb effort by the film-makers, I have no desire to see the film again. Gangster films don't usually work for me and this is no different. I respect the film enormously and fans of these films will lap it up. But I just don't love it, sorry.
Great For: gangster film fans, Italian-American stereotypes, lovers of cinema
Not So Great For: animal rights activists, the incontinent, me
What else should I watch?
Although I have not gotten around to watching the sequels, The Godfather Part II certainly received similar levels of praise as its predecessor. It follows the efforts of young Michael to maintain his power and leadership of the Corleone family in the late Fifties as well as flashbacks to Vito's childhood in Sicily and the foundation of the Corleone family in New York. The Godfather Part III might not have the respect of the two earlier films - Coppola himself considers the film a mere epilogue to the first two films - but it offers a conclusion to Michael's story as he attempts to legitimise the business while tying the story into real-life events such as the death of Pope John Paul I. Much of the criticism seems to focus on the casting of Coppola's daughter Sofia who later turned her hand to directed such films as Lost In Translation.
Gangsters have been popping up in movies since the days of Prohibition and the real-life antics of wise-guys like Al Capone. Hollywood was quick to capitalise with classics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy in the early Thirties. The genre faded somewhat with the introduction in the US of the Hayes Code, a list of what could and couldn't be shown in films. With its abolition in 1968, a revival of interest in gangster films arose thanks to movies like Bonnie And Clyde and Mean Streets, both of which would be overshadowed by the success of The Godfather. Coppola's influence would later be overtaken by Martin Scorsese who would come to dominate the genre with films like Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox