An offer you can’t refuse.
The Godfather (1972): 10 out of 10: An epic tale of the Corleone Family based on the best-selling book by Mario Puzo. Considered (correctly) one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale has permeated the culture like The Bible or Shakespeare. It is simply there. To better understand America and our modern times, one should be familiar with The Godfather.
How does The Godfather hold up today?
The Godfather is still a very entertaining film. Though it clocks in three hours, it seems to breeze on by. (An accomplishment The Godfather Part II did not manage.) Many times, films we consider classics simply don’t age well. Sometimes it is a special effects failure that is glaring today. (Hitchcocks’s overuse of chroma key in many of his films.) Acting styles that have gone out of style or seemed mannered to modern audiences. Tropes that were shocking in their day but are so overused now as to be expected. (Michael Myers coming back to life in the first Halloween, for example).
The Godfather’s biggest accomplishment is one that has really never been replicated (Even by Coppola himself). An amazing introduction during the wedding of the Godfather’s daughter, where we are introduced to almost all the characters in the movie. Everything and everyone is established in such a natural way as to be effortless. The viewer is completely transported into this world. By the time the wedding is over, we know these characters, have a dozen plots are off and running and we are immersed in this world.
Biggest Surprise on the rewatch.
Well, for me personally, it is that Michael brings the family to Vegas. I always associate Vegas (understandably) with Godfather Part II. My brain keeps forgetting that the move to Vegas is in the original Godfather.
I also forget how good Marlon Brando is. He is incredible in this role. Not even a lap cat can upstage him. It would have been very easy for the character of the Godfather to be a cartoon, but he simply is not. Brando talks with his facial expressions and body language. It really is one of the best performances ever put on film.
One of Hollywood’s lessons from the Godfather
One lesson of the Godfather is that you don’t need a Pulitzer prize-winning book to be a good movie. In fact, pulpy plot driven fun books make for better movies than, say, Infinite Jest. I am not sure the Godfather started the movie is better than the book trend. But it is its greatest example. (Other examples are Jaws, The Warriors and Die Hard.) Hollywood has stepped away from this trend over the last few decades, either slavishly copying the book (the Harry Potter films) or once again disastrously trying to fit an expansive complicated novel into a ninety-minute film (The Dark Tower).
Coppola, with author Mario Puzo, wisely cut what needed to be cut from the story and left in what needed to be left in. (Anyone who has read the Godfather knows exactly what was cut. Even today, I am not sure how one would film that.)
Life Lessons from the Godfather.
One theme in the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail is using The Godfather as a reference point for life. Or as Tom Hanks says, “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom” There are real life lessons from the Godfather.
Going to the Mattresses.
As I write this, we are going into a probable recession. As a result, the media will be filled with the usual stories of people in Bentleys shopping at Walmart and “common folk” buying store brand cereal. Quotes like “people are spending more on food and less on fashion” or “high end electronic sales slump” will fill the papers. Shockingly can’t miss collectible trends such as expensive men’s watches and limited edition sneakers will suddenly lose their luster. Why? People are going to the mattresses.
Most people are not stupid. (I said most.) When a storm is coming, they batten down the hatches, cancel a few streaming services and decide the old car, cell phone, TV will have to do another year. It isn’t just universal experiences like a nationwide recession either. When my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we went to the mattresses. All focus, changes, and priorities in life were immediately adjusted. It isn’t necessarily just negative life events, either. As any Bridezilla can tell you, it takes a lot of focus to make one’s perfect day… well, perfect.
A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
Speaking of priorities, the Godfather is about family. “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.” is advice from the Godfather to his son Sonny and “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” is advice from Michael to his brother Fredo. (When I said above “Most people are not stupid” Fredo is an example of the exception)
One of Coppola’s filmmaking tricks in the Godfather is to have children everywhere. This is a brilliant decision. First of all, this is a film about family, so of course it would include children. Italian families tended to be large in the fifties (Not just those involved in high stakes organized crime either) so the idea of children underfoot is a touch of realism. Characters are constantly corralling children from playing where the grownups are talking or shushing a crying baby.
I really notice Coppola’s genius in other films that drop the ball on this. Revolutionary Road’s children seemed to have been kidnapped halfway through the film. For a film about a disintegrating marriage, the lack of children underfoot really reduces the stakes. Another film where the lack of children is a head scratcher is Disobedience. Here is a film that takes place in a Hasidic community which, like 50s Catholics, is known for their large families and yet the children seem to have been scrubbed from almost every scene. What is unfortunate is that in Disobedience’s case, a Coppola’s style set dressing would have really helped with the drama and themes of the film.
Speaking of Family
Francis Ford Coppola had some challenges in the casting department. Coppola had to make peace with the actual mob so he could make his not actual mob movie. As a result, he was forced to hire some “family members”. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Lenny Montana, an enforcer and an arsonist for the Colombo crime family, made a fantastic Luca Brasi. His nervousness in front of the camera and in the presence of Marlon Brando fit the character to a T.
Coppola also gave one of the major roles to his sister. Luckily for him, his sister turned out to be Talia Shire. (He famously went to that well once too often in Godfather 3. The best thing one can say about Sofia Coppola’s performance is she is a really talented director.)
There are tons of stories about the casting of Godfather, but the result speaks for itself. This is one of the best cast films you will find out there. (With one exception)
The one exception
The only thing that really doesn’t work is the relationship between Michael and Kay. Diane Keaton is stiff and basically there for exposition dumps there is little rhyme or reason and little chemistry between them. She gets better in the sequels, but she seems very stiff here. Pachino doesn’t really help matters here, as they seem to have little chemistry. (Al does a lot better with his first wife Simonetta Stefanelli. Perhaps because she doesn’t speak English.)
Diane Keaton’s character is a bit of an odd duck. As a WASP among a nest of vipers, she is an audience surrogate to whom Pacino can explain such concepts as Consigliere and why Brando is in his office talking to bakers and undertakers on the day of his daughter’s wedding. It is a thankless but possibly necessary role and Coppola handles it as well as one can.
But when Michael returns a widower from exile and tries to reunite with Kay, the movie honestly loses all credibility. It simply is not believable she would go back to him after he murdered a police captain and married someone else. I am thinking deal breaker here. And as a couple, there simply is no chemistry on screen to make that decision believable. (Honestly, they would have been wise to have the reunion be a little more passionate. An unexpected pregnancy would have been all the catalyst they would need realistically. Hell, Coppola used Sonny’s tryst with a bridesmaid to introduce an entire family line in Godfather part III)
The two best actors in the Godfather. A quick Photoplay.
Things that are so brilliant I don’t have time to list them all.
The editing during the christening scene is so good it amazes even today. Though I am sure I will expand on it in my Godfather Part II review John Cazale as Fredo is easily one of the most underrated performances not just in the film itself but in the twentieth century. And the horse’s head scene could not have been shot better.
In Conclusion: The Godfather is in a way a mandatory film if one wants to understand the American canon. Fortunately for modern viewers it is still an amazing and entertaining film. Well worth the watch every few years. And don’t forget. “This is business. Not personal.”
Mob Enforcer Lenny Montana trying to remember his lines.
I have been on a film dissolve transition in the seventies tear of late and no one embraces the trend as much as The Godfather.
Hell, The Godfather might be ground zero for the popularity of the same. (Much as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid caused every movie for the next ten years to have an inexplicable soft rock montage.)
I had always assumed Best & Co. was a made up store. A stand in for Macys. Well, I am showing my youth here. Turns out Best & Co. was a department store founded in 1879 by Albert Best in New York City. The white marble building featured above was torn down in 1970 and replaced with the Olympic Tower.
Perfection (part duex)
I have never actually understood the tape on the gun. Is it to prevent fingerprints? Michael was not hiding who he was when he kills Capt. McCluskey and Sollozzo.
The Godfather passes the fake newspaper test with flying colors.
This scene is a great example of Coppola’s use of framing and his use of children in the scene. Notice Fredo is standing with the children as almost an outsider.
I am sorry, but Simonetta Stefanelli makes a better wife for Pacino than Diane Keaton.
Keaton with Pacino in a hotel room
Simonetta Stefanelli with Pacino in a hotel room.
Diane Keaton in front of a blown up car.
Simonetta Stefanelli in a blown up car.
Keaton wins by default, but she really doesn’t seem too happy about it
Has any man ever worn a wife-beater better than James Caan?
Mad Magazine did a parody article about the violence in the Godfather. Primarily focused on the violence against all the classic cars in the film.
For viewers today, The Godfather has plenty of automotive scenery porn.
No helicopters alas, but this sweet old-fashioned ambulance will do.
There is a weird subplot about Pacino’s bruised cheek/broken jaw. (Caused by a hard slap from Sterling Hayden in the hospital scene.) It seems to change from scene to scene and honestly lasts way too long. He seems to sport the bruise a year later in Sicily.
I love how this scene looks with Pacino wearing a casual sweater in what looks like every basement in America.
The use of framing and focus in this scene shows the skill of Coppola.
If any character gets the short shrift in The Godfather, it is Moe Green.