Forty years ago this month The Godfather was released. It had been delayed from a 1971 release, accounting for the unusual opening date (but back then there was less strategy in releasing films for optimal box office). Based on a best-selling book by Mario Puzo, the film quickly became a sensation. I remember a Bob Hope joke at the time: “I was in line for The Godfather and turned to the guy next to me and said, “This is a very long line,” and the guy said, “I know, and I’m Marlon Brando.”
The film became the highest-grossing film of all time up to that time, but, as the lore suggests, this was not a foregone conclusion. There is considerable material to read and see about how Francis Ford Coppola, the Young Turk hired to translate the material into a film, was almost fired. Coppola had directed four features before this massive one, the most prominent the musical Finian’s Rainbow.
The resulting film has been, rightly so, in my opinion, been acclaimed one of the greatest films of all time. It scores a 100 on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and is rated number 2 on IMDB (inexplicably behind The Shawshank Redemption). To prove, though, that the IMDB rating is meaningless, over 26,000 voters gave The Godfather a 1. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1972 (although Coppola did not win Best Director–Bob Fosse did for Cabaret). Marlon Brando won his second Best Actor Oscar, but, in a classic bit of Oscar history, sent a young actress named Maria Cruz, going by the name Sacheen Littlefeather and dressed like the Indian maiden from the Land O’ Lakes butter box, to refuse the Oscar, in protest of the treatment of American Indians in Hollywood films.
I don’t proclaim that I can have anything to say about The Godfather that hasn’t been said before, other than what it means to me. I classify it as my second all-time favorite movie, though I don’t believe I ever saw it in a theater. I did read the book in about seventh grade, and my father, who would go see movies I wasn’t old enough for and then tell me the stories, regaled me with its greatness. Eventually I saw the film when it premiered on NBC in the fall of 1974 over two nights. I was transfixed, and have been ever since.
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the structure of the film and the kind of revenge drama that is contained therein. In many ways, the film follows the template of many genre types, from the gangster film to the Western to the Shakespearean tragedy to the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. It is elemental to see two or more opposing forces going to battle, in this case in a shadow world that is both above and below the law. There is also the internecine battles; the sense that no one can be trusted except family. Outsiders are treated with suspicion, and when the chips are down only your family can be relied on (of course, that will be stretched in The Godfather, Part II).
But Coppola’s greatest achievement is taking the pulp novel and making it a commentary on the American dream. The opening line is “I believe in America,” spoken by the aggrieved undertaker Bonasera, who, unable to find justice from the law in the assault on his daughter, seeks a different authority in Vito Corleone (Brando) to find satisfaction. The very success of Corleone, who we learn in the sequel came to America with nothing, but built an empire, is a twisted version of the American success story. As he says late in the film, “I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all those big shots.”
But Vito is behind the times. The hinge of the plot is when Solozzo (Al Lettieri) comes to Corleone to finance his drug racket. Vito doesn’t like the idea of narcotics. He believes that his criminal organization does just fine in the union and gambling rackets, providing those things for the common man that the Catholic church denies. But it’s 1945, and his hot-headed son Sonny (James Caan) and level-headed adopted son and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) realize that they must make the transition. But when Vito refuses Solozzo, the drug dealer strikes back, nearly having the Don assassinated and igniting a war.
It is here that the main character of The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) emerges. Vito had hoped he would not get involved in the family business. He is a war hero and a straight arrow. But when he sees his father in danger, and since Solozzo sees him as a civilian, Michael realizes he can be the only one to exact vengeance. By the end of the film, he will have transformed into someone even more ruthless than his father.
Pacino was Coppola’s choice, though the studio fought hard against it. And though Brando won Best Actor, it is really Pacino’s show. Brando, giving a cagey performance, full of tics like stuffing cotton in his cheeks and playing with a stray cat that happened to be on the set in the opening scene, is a pleasure to watch, but Pacino gives the performance of a lifetime. I’ll never forget the mixture of indignity and rage on his face after he is frisked by Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Pacino knows that he will kill McCluskey shortly. Or the chilling scene at the end of the picture, when he confronts his brother-in-law, Carlo, who had set up Sonny for murder. Carlo lies to save his skin, but Pacino, in a blood-curdling tone, says, “Only, don’t tell me you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.” He says this very calmly, but his intent is clear. It is unfortunate that the later Pacino would have probably shouted these lines, spittle flying.
Pacino, along with Caan and Duvall, were nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Not nominated were composer Nino Rota, as it was discovered that his score, famous today for it’s haunting love theme, was not completely original. Also not nominated, in an absolute crime, was cinematographer Gordon Willis. The Cinematographer’s branch always had it in for Willis, who was tabbed “The Prince of Darkness” for shooting many scenes in very low light. Justice later prevailed when he was awarded an honorary Oscar.
I, along with many other people, have a habit of stumbling upon the film while channel surfing (usually on AMC) and settling in to watch, even though we may own the film on DVD. We know the film so well that we can tell what’s coming up, and like a favorite music album we wait for the good parts. There are so many scenes that are like this, as Coppola structured the movie like an opera, with elaborate set pieces springing up like arias. Many of the scenes begin with moments of calm or quiet–the tranquil dawn outside Woltz’s mansion before he finds the horse’s head in his bed; the sound of the baseball game on the radio before Sonny beats up Carlo; the moments before Sonny is gunned down at the tollbooth (also with a baseball game on the radio in the background); and, most famously, the baptism scene while simultaneously the heads of the five families are being assassinated (for my money, this scene is the greatest ever put on film).
If there’s anything negative to be said about Coppola’s direction in The Godfather is that his symbolism can approach heavy-handedness. Michael, as godfather to his sister Connie’s baby (Sofia Coppola is the infant used in that scene) renouncing Satan and his works while at the same time eliminating his enemies could be seen as obvious. But instead of being heavy-handed, I find it to be viscerally exciting. For instance, using an orange as a symbol of death: When Vito is shot early in the film, he is buying oranges, and when he dies, he has used an orange to make himself into a literal monster while playing with his grandson. While watching this time I noticed that Tessio, who will come to a bad end, handles an orange during the opening wedding scene. And has everybody noticed that when Luca Brasi meets with Tattaglia in the hotel bar, there are fish engraved on the door? Luca’s end will be, of course, that he “sleeps with the fishes.”
Except perhaps The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, The Godfather has provided more lines of dialogue that have ingrained in popular culture than any other film. From “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business,” and “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” The Godfather is like a cinematic dictionary of famous quotes. The phrase “Ba-da-bing” is said to have originated there, when Sonny describes to Michael how it is to shoot somebody in the head. There’s even a recipe for tomato sauce, courtesy of Clemenza (Richard Castellano). One of my favorite lines is when Solozzo, thinking the Don is dead, is informed otherwise. “He’s still alive! We put five bullets in him and he’s still alive!” The most heartbreaking may be when Tessio (Abe Vigoda), discovered as a betrayer, realizes he’s doomed. “Can you get me off the hook, Tom, for old time’s sake?”
I’ve seen The Godfather probably 20 times, and in bits and pieces a lot more than that. It’s one of the primary reasons the 1970s are seen by many as America’s greatest decade of filmmaking, when box office wasn’t yet a statistic kept in the daily papers and studios believed that making great films was the key to success. For a while, they were right.