The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) Director: Francis Ford Coppola

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

★★★★★

The Godfather is simply a perfect movie -beautifully shot, an impeccable script devised by Director Francis Ford Coppola and original novelist Mario Puzo, a transcendent score by Nino Rota, excellent acting from an all-star cast (even the actors considered but ultimately denied roles in the film included an extraordinary line-up, Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, Orson Welles, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Redford, Robert De Niro, Martin Sheen, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and so on). The Godfather is about a Sicilian family now living in America and running a criminal enterprise. The year is 1945 in New York City. We are dropped into the wedding celebration of Vito Corleone’s daughter, Connie (played by Coppola’s sister Talia Shire). Per Sicilian tradition, Don Vito Corleone (played by a cotton-mouthed Marlon Brando and based on real mobster Frank Costello) is required to entertain requests from anyone on the day of his daughter’s wedding. He listens to a line of inquiries and we learn about his family -the Corleone mafia family (though all references to the “mafia” were removed from the script due to real mafia threats). People come to him when they lose faith in the American justice system, or when they cannot achieve their personal goals (as in the case of a singer named Johnny Fontaine –loosely based on Frank Sinatra who hated the film because of it– whose situation is resolved in the famous severed horse head scene, a scene in which an actual severed horse’s head was retrieved from a dog food company and shown in the film). Famously when the henchman Luca Brasi appears to pay his respects to Don Corleone he is nervous, fidgety, fumbling over his words, and this was the actor Lenny Montana’s true nerves alongside Brando captured on camera (Coppola later included a scene in which Luca Brasi practices his speech before meeting with Don Corleone). In every case we see a calm and collected exhibiting the Hemingway-esque ideal of “grace under pressure.” He commands respect, and he demands respect. Yet he also looks for friendship, something higher than mere vulgar business transactions, and he prizes his family -“a man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.” He believes in quid pro quo, and in building deep and lasting relationships with people (contrast this opening scene with the first scenes of Michael in The Godfather Part II in which he is in a meeting with an arrogant, snobbish politician who openly disrespects Michael and his family). In The Godfather, we are introduced to a sunny space filled with music and dancing -almost as if part of a family movie. We meet Vito’s three sons: short-tempered heir apparent Sonny (played by James Caan who befriended the true Gambino crime family during production, drawing the attention of the FBI), drunken middle-child Fredo (played by John Cazale) and the youngest Michael (played by Al Pacino, he waas originally denied by Paramount for being a “midget”). Michael is a World War II veteran. At the wedding he introduces his family to his girlfriend Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton), however she is a modern woman -educated and noticeably not Italian. We get the sense that Michael seeks to distance himself from his family -he is American, not Sicilian, and he feels a certain sense of patriotism for the United States hence why he enlisted in the military, perhaps as a rebellion against his traditional family ties, and he is college-educated. Nevertheless, despite his reaction against his family’s nefarious reputation, Michael is warmly greeted by all including the family consigliere, Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall).

However, in The Godfather the old world is rapidly changing. Vito’s gambling businesses and mobster crime activities are soon brought into question during a meeting with a drug baron named Virgil Sollozzo who has the backing of one of the other five families, the Tattaglias. In the meeting, Sollozzo requests the support of Vito Corleone for the dealing of narcotics in his territory, but Vito politely declines because it is a “dirty business” (his bombastic son Sonny interrupts and questions his father). After the meeting the Corleone family sends one of its henchmen, Luca Brasi (played by Lenny Montana who apparently once was a true mafia henchman), to pose a defector interested in Sollozzo’s offer, but the trap is immediately sniffed out and Luca Brasi is assassinated – he “sleeps with the fishes.” Shortly thereafter, while out in the marketplace with Fredo, Vito is savagely gunned down. Tom Hagen is kidnapped by Sollozzo and asked to persuade Sonny to acquiesce to the deal.

Now the hot-headed, first-born Corleone son, Sonny, takes his place at the head of the family even though Vito miraculously still survives after enduring several bullet wounds. Sonny quickly orders a hit on Bruno Tattaglia’s son in retaliation despite Tom Hagen’s disputations. They assassinate their leak within the Corleone family who sold out Vito, and all the while Michael has remained mostly uninvolved until one night he visits his father in the hospital only to find him unguarded and vulnerable to an attack. Michael quickly moves his father to another room and poses as a guard outside the hospital with a very nervous well-wisher named Enzo the Baker (this was the actor’s first role and his nerves were real). Michael is then beat up by a corrupt cop named Officer McCluskey. Michael’s jaw is broken in the scuffle. Perhaps in this moment, we see Michael turning away from his youthful optimism about fighting for the American ideal writ large. Now, he sees a degraded culture that cannot even protect his own father. In this moment his focus turns toward his family. Back at home, the wild-card Sonny finds disagreement among his advisors, but Michael calm and calculating, hatches a plot to agree to meet with Sollozzo and McCluskey’s per their request. Michael is portrayed as an innocent third party, though Vito does not want Michael to be involved. Nevertheless meets both men at a neutral spot and there is a hidden gun which Michael uses to kill both men before fleeing the United States for Sicily. Here, we see a beautiful montage scene shot by Coppola’s old friend George Lucas who was repaying him for funding American Graffiti and helping produce THX-1138.

In this interlude, we see the old world (Sicily) contrasted with the new world (New York). Michael wanders the dreamlike Sicilian landscape. It is desolate and has changed very little in many centuries, allowing him to gain attachment to his roots. All the men have died in the political “vendettas.” Michael is accompanied by two guards. He comes upon a beautiful woman named Apollonia and marries her but their romance is short-lived. Apollonia dies in a car bomb intended for Michael -he is betrayed by one of his guards. Back in New York, the five families are in open war. Fredo is sent to Las Vegas where he is sheltered by a businessman named Moe Green (played by Alex Rocco, based on the real Bugsy Seigel). In a fit of rage, Sonny drives to attack his sister’s husband who has been abusive, but Sonny is brutally gunned down at a traffic stop. In a meeting of the five families, Vito calls for a truce. He realizes the Tattaglias are now under the rule of Don Barzini. Vito pledges to allow the heroin trade to grow. This peace allows Michael to return, become involved in the family business, and marry Kay. She agrees and Michael promises her the Corleone family business will be fully legitimate in five years; but it is a promise he cannot keep.

Michael enacts a plan to move the family to Las Vegas. Tom Hagen is sent ahead and Michael attempts to buy-out Moe Greene and he is dismayed at Fredo’s loyalty to Greene’s avaricious lifestyle. Meanwhile, the elder Don Corleone warns that whoever tries to arrange a meeting with Barzini is the traitor -and this man turns out to be Salvatore “Sal” Tessio who is then assassinated -“tell Mike it was nothing personal.” Just as it once was in the old world, so it is in the new: It is kill or be killed. Vito dies an old man, chasing his grandson through the garden (as in numerous other scenes in the film oranges are used to symbolize death), and almost immediately Michael orders the execution of the heads of the five families along with Moe Greene. Whereas his father once pursued a path of reconciliation, Michael prefers vengeance. These executions are dramatically contrasted with the baptism of Michael’s child (who is actually played by Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, who appeared in all three Godfather movies). The massacre is another symbol of a return to the brutality in the old ways of doing things. Michael lies to Kay about these killings in order to preserve his marriage, but his true loyalty now lies with his place as Don of the Corleone family. This distinction is hauntingly captured as Kay looks onward while a clutch of men swear fealty to Michael, and the door is slowly closed leaving Kay alone. The transformation of Michael has been made complete: from a sunny and optimistic American patriot, into a cold and calculating killer who has chosen the old Sicilian family life instead.

The Godfather was a big risk for Paramount Studios, which had faced a string of failures at the time, along with its chosen ‘ethnically authentic’ Director Francis Ford Coppola whose own production company was indebted at the time due costs incurred for George Lucas’s THX-1138. Thankfully and unsurprisingly The Godfather was a critical and box office success, winning a panoply of awards including Best Picture and Best Actor -Marlon Brando infamously refused to attend the ceremony, following in George C. Scott’s footsteps before him. In his stead a Native American civil rights advocate named Sacheen Littlefeather attended the ceremony and accepted the award while decrying the depictions of Native Americans in Hollywood and on television. Amazingly, Brando had not even memorized his lines in the movie and can be seen reading cue cards in several scenes. In addition, Al Pacino also refused to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in protest of merely being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, rather than Best Actor, despite having more screen time than Marlon Brando.

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