by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic The Godfather is without question one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so easy to see why so many people list this film in their top five films of all time. Not one frame of The Godfather seems like filler or like Coppola was having an off day when he made this flawless masterpiece. There is not one moment in the film where your eyes will wander from the screen or you will become antsy from its nearly three hour run time. It’s an absolutely riveting and extraordinary masterpiece, a harsh examination of family, loyalty, and the dark side of the American Dream. Incredibly influential, it laid the groundwork for the modern gangster dramas that trickle out from Hollywood every now and then, all secretly hoping that they may be the one that bests Coppola’s juggernaut. If you are someone who admires cinema, wishes to study the medium, or someone who works within it, The Godfather is a must-see film for both the technicalities and the story structure of Mario Puzo’s screenplay, which is based on Puzo’s own novel. If you are someone who is an acting buff, the film is a must-see for Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Vito Corleone, the slurring Don who lurks in the shadows behind a desk and makes offers his victims cannot refuse. Hell, if you walk this earth and call yourself a human being, The Godfather should be required viewing.
The Godfather introduces us to Don Vito Corleone (Played by Marlon Brando), the head of a powerful organized crime family in 1945 New York. When an up and coming rival Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Played by Al Lettieri), who is backed by the Tattaglia crime family, comes to the Don for political and legal protection for his drug business, the Don refuses and voices his dislike for the drug importing business. Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family retaliate by attempting to kill the Don and several other affiliates of the Corleones but they only manage to severely wounding him. His loyal sons all rush to his side and his vicious eldest son Sonny (Played by James Caan) takes over the family business while the Don recovers. The Don’s beloved son Michael (Played by Al Pacino), a war hero who has just returned home from service in World War II, reluctantly begins helping the family and ends up lashing out against those responsible for the hit on his father. The reprisal sparks a deadly gang war that sends Michael into hiding along with his younger brother Fredo (Played by John Cazale), but as the war takes more lives and enemies of the Corleones close in, Michael realizes that he must return to protect his father and take over the family business.
The Godfather has a thick plot with quite a bit going happening on the side. Coppola introduces us to several characters throughout the epic runtime and at certain moments, the almost three hour runtime doesn’t seem long enough to cover all the ground that Coppola and Puzo need to. The film, however, isn’t impossible to follow and its accessibility adds to the allure of it. Coppola wins back viewers because there are so many characters; a second viewing is almost necessary just to put faces with names. You are left wanting more from secondary characters like the Corleone’s enforcer Luca Brazia (Played by Lenny Montana), Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane (Played by Al Martino), the Don’s daughter Connie (Played by Talia Shire), her husband Carlo (Played by Gianni Russo), and the Don’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall). There is also the detour to Sicily that Michael takes where he meets the beautiful Apollonia (Played by Simonetta Stefanelli), who we only see for a brief time.
The technical aspects of The Godfather add to its place in cinema history, a film that is packed with moody lighting, incredible set pieces, a lush trip to Sicily, and rich performances that have become legendary. Throughout most of the film, the characters sit in darkened rooms, offices, and dens, shrouded in shadows with only portions of their faces visible in an amber glow. This dark color palette Coppola uses when the mobsters meet behind closed doors compliments the shadowy subject matter that he is exploring. While the cinematography is grainy in comparison to what we have today, the film avoids looking dated due to being a period film. The set pieces never seem boastful or too grandiose, just subtle enough to let us know that we have taken a trip back in time. Most period films slip in minor showy details to remind you that you are watching a period film but The Godfather is an exception. The flashiest thing in The Godfather is some of the cars that you will see either parked or driven around. Coppola also scores points by taking a scenic journey to Sicily, waltzing through the peaceful and verdant countryside, giving us a slight break from all the paranoia and suspicion that is threaded through the film, but even this trip isn’t airtight.
The most memorable aspect of The Godfather is the performances by the two main actors. Marlon Brando is at his absolute best when he is making offers that can’t be refused. There is a moment halfway through the film when he calls a meeting with the other heads of the five rival families after the murder of someone very close to him. Slurring through Puzo’s silky dialogue, Brando shines brighter and brighter as the scene goes on. He lectures about his loss, his conservative perspective, and his readiness to forgive and move on from the pain that plagues him. It is without question my favorite Brando scene in the entire film. Pacino also checks in with a haunting metamorphosis from a disinterested son who is the apple of his father’s eye into a brooding, chilly, and obdurate gangster. The Don wants something better for his war hero son but he is inevitably drug down into the seedy underworld full of deceit and betrayal. Puzo and Coppola understand that this metamorphosis wouldn’t occur in the blink of an and they don’t demand that it does. Coppola lets his camera sit on Michael, allowing Pacino’s eyes to convey the deterioration of his morality and his soul.
The Godfather isn’t simply a bullet riddled gangster film. The film is a complicated study of family and loyalty, understanding that loyalty is far from a straightforward path. The Corleone family wants so much more for Michael but he gives up an honest life to keep the family business together. The further in he gets, the easier it is for him to embrace darkness. He will kill for this family, to protect them and uphold their name. The film also exposes the dark side of the American Dream, pulling it up like a rock that has been stuck in the dirt, exposing the worms and filth that lurk underneath. The American Dream, which consists of prosperity and success, isn’t obtained by always playing nice and to keep all that comes with the American Dream, you won’t always be able to play fair. It is virtually impossible to find anything wrong with The Godfather and it is completely deserving of its place near the top of the greatest works in cinema. There a few films in the history of motion pictures that are pitch perfect, without one misstep or questionable choice, that continues to stand the test of time. The Godfather is one of those films.
The Godfather is available on Blu-ray and DVD.