Eric D. Snider August 9, 2011
This is one of the most-praised films in history, so we’ll just hit the highlights. It won Oscars for best picture, actor (Marlon Brando), and adapted screenplay, and was also nominated for THREE best supporting actor awards (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), as well as director, editing, costume design, sound, and musical score. It rivals Citizen Kane for the most frequent appearances on “best movies of all time” lists. When the American Film Institute compiled its list in 1998, The Godfather ranked third, after Citizen Kane and Casablanca; on the 2007 revised list, it moved up to second place. Entertainment Weekly and Empire magazine both declared it the greatest film of all time.
Even without its frank, bloody depiction of violence, The Godfather could not have been made in Hollywood 20 years earlier. The Production Code followed by the major studios from 1934 until the creation of the MPAA ratings in the late ’60s dictated that criminal action in movies had to be punished, and that criminals couldn’t be portrayed in a sympathetic light. The Godfather is told entirely from the point of view of the criminals — the only law-enforcement figure with more than a couple lines of dialogue is crooked — and while a few individuals get comeuppance, it’s not because they broke the law. The Mafia flourishes in this story.
That fact alone made The Godfather noteworthy. Real-life Mafia trials in the 1960s had increased the public’s curiosity about that subculture, and Mario Puzo’s bestselling 1969 novel stoked the fire. Hadn’t there been movies about gangsters before? Sure — but mostly in the 1930s, and never without law enforcement playing a significant role in the story. With the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and other movies about law-breaking antiheroes, the public was ready for the next step: a film in which the sympathetic main characters rob and murder and AREN’T gunned down at the end.
Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939) earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Hofstra University in 1959, then went to UCLA to get a foothold in Hollywood. After a few failed endeavors, he went to work for legendary B-movie impresario Roger Corman, under whose tutelage he wrote and directed Dementia 13 (1963), a Psycho-inspired exploitation flick. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Coppola made films that seemed promising but didn’t amount to anything, like Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and films that were good but didn’t get him anywhere, like The Rain People (1969). As a writer, he won an Oscar for the Patton (1970) screenplay. As a director, he remained on the edge of success.
Unsurprisingly, such a man was not Paramount’s first choice to direct the big-screen version of a million-selling novel. The studio wanted Sergio Leone (who made Once Upon a Time in America instead), then Peter Bogdanovich (who made What’s Up, Doc? instead), then settled on Coppola. But Coppola wasn’t interested at first either; as the grandson of Italian immigrants, he didn’t want to glorify crime and violence and contribute to negative stereotypes. He has said that what changed his mind about the project was realizing he could tell the story as a metaphor for capitalism and the American Dream. This made it more nuanced and interesting than when it was just a gangster story about Italian-American thugs.
As with so many films from this era made by young directors working for old studios, The Godfather‘s production was troubled. The studio wanted Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas for the title role, resisting Coppola’s suggestion of Marlon Brando because of Brando’s well-known penchant for being an erratic diva and general nutcase. Paramount also wanted somebody famous like Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone; Coppola insisted on Al Pacino, a virtual unknown who at least had the benefit of looking Italian. Paramount desperately needed The Godfather to be a huge hit, and Coppola was in constant danger of being fired. The film was shot primarily in the spring and summer of 1971 and was not, in Coppola’s recollection, a pleasant experience.
But none of that mattered when it opened, on March 15, 1972, to rave reviews and sold-out theaters. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Francis Ford Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.” Time magazine said: “No American film … has ever caught so truly the texture of an ethnic subculture.” Paramount and Coppola had a hit on their hands.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the head of a powerful New York crime syndicate (Marlon Brando) sees one of his sons (Al Pacino) gradually rise to the challenge of taking over the family business — a destiny in which the son is not initially interested. Also: gunshots, dead fish, horse heads, cannoli, etc.
What it Influenced
Well, first of all, a thousand hack comedians whose impression of Marlon Brando is really an impression of Vito Corleone. Along those same superficial lines, we have bits of dialogue that have been referenced countless times: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family.” And who can forget the unequivocal message sent by a severed horse’s head?
The film’s enormous box-office success had the usual effect, i.e., suddenly everybody wanted to make a movie about organized crime. Coppola got to write his own ticket; Brando was cool again; Pacino’s career took off. Real-life gangsters reportedly loved the movie, and by some accounts altered their speech and mannerisms to imitate it. What had been intended as an imitation of a real subculture wound up influencing that subculture.
Every movie about organized crime made since The Godfather has been compared to it, and with good reason: it’s impossible to believe that any director working in the genre since 1972 hasn’t seen The Godfather. The smart films have acknowledged the inspiration rather than try to fight against it. HBO’s seminal series The Sopranos is an obvious descendant, and its characters openly declare their affection for the Godfather films.
The Mafia is a common element in pop culture now, but that wasn’t the case in 1972. Most of what we “know” about the Mafia comes from The Godfather, the same way most of our Santa Claus lore comes from “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
What to Look For
The first words spoken are these: “I believe in America.” Vincent Canby noted in his review that “the experience of the Corleone Family, as particular as it is, may be the mid-twentieth-century equivalent of the oil and lumber and railroad barons of nineteenth-century America.” Those early capitalists could be ruthless — indeed, ruthlessness seemed to be a requirement for success. The way Don Vito Corleone exercises his control over the less-powerful families parallels the way major corporations dominate their fields.
An exchange between Michael Corleone and his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), explicitly draws a connection between the family’s business and American enterprise in general.
MICHAEL: My father’s no different than any powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president.
KAY: Do you know how naive you sound?
KAY: Senators and presidents don’t have men killed!
MICHAEL: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
Those lines are spoken by characters in about 1950, when such cynicism toward government would not have been common. In 1972, though, a sizable part of the American population was ready to believe their elected officials were no less crooked than the Corleones — and this was before Watergate!
It’s crucial to note several things that are NOT found in the movie. The word “Mafia,” for example. Or any victim of organized crime who isn’t part of that world himself. References are made to the Corleones’ illegal activities, including gambling, prostitution, and protection rackets, but we never actually see any of these things in action. There are no scenes of low-level goons making their weekly collections from frightened shop owners or breaking the legs of some poor sap who can’t repay his gambling debts.
And yet there is no question that the Corleones are, indeed, murderers and monsters. The film is 20 minutes old when Michael unambiguously tells Kay (and us) how his father does business, in the form of the story that ends with “Luca Brasi held a gun to [the bandleader's] head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.” Thirteen minutes later, we see this sort of tactic employed just as unambiguously, in a sequence that ends with a Hollywood producer waking up next to the severed head of his beloved racehorse.
Pay attention to the way women are portrayed in this world. Family is supposedly the most important thing, yet the Godfather’s wife doesn’t have a first name, has only a few insignificant lines of dialogue, and is played by an unknown actress. Sonny (James Caan) is married but fools around with an anonymous girl during the wedding party. The Corleones’ one daughter, Connie (Talia Shire, who is Coppola’s sister), is weak-willed, married to an abusive turd of a husband. Even though she’s a Corleone, she gets no stake in the family business the way her brothers do. Luca Brasi’s greatest wish for the Godfather on the day of his daughter’s wedding is that the couple’s first child be “a masculine child.”
It is obviously better to be a man in this world than to be a woman, but simply being male is not enough. (Notice Luca didn’t just say he hoped for a boy.) Vito Corleone slaps a guy around for crying, telling him to “be a man.” Sonny has the stereotypical elements of manliness — he’s proud, hotheaded, and macho — but he has those qualities in such abundance that they lead to his undoing. His brother Fredo (John Cazale), meanwhile, is effeminate and weak, practically a non-entity, and therefore unsuccessful. Between those two on the scale of manliness is Michael, who asserts his authority without losing his temper and controls his women without abusing them. He is a man of action, a man who gets things done, a man who doesn’t let his emotions get in the way of business but who isn’t a cold-hearted monster, either. He is, in short, the movie’s representation of the Ideal Man. How often has this same type of man been idealized in other movies? (Answer: a zillion.)
What’s the Big Deal?
After having been told all your life how great The Godfather is, it’s unlikely that you’ll come away from your first viewing of it thinking, “Why, yes, that IS the greatest movie of all time!” It suffers from Citizen Kane Syndrome, in that it can’t possibly live up to the expectations created by being placed atop so many lists for so many years.
You have to keep in mind that these lists have a way of feeding on themselves. If someone compels you to make a list of the best movies ever made, well, something has to be at the top, so you probably go with one of the usual choices: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, etc. I doubt anyone, gun to his head, could honestly declare that ANY one movie is the greatest of all time. If you’re being reasonable, you’d list five or six candidates and insist it’s impossible to rank them.
So never mind the whole “best movie ever made” thing with The Godfather. It gets that designation because it’s more modern than Citizen Kane, and people got tired of always saying Citizen Kane. The Godfather is a terrific movie, sure. The glowing contemporary reviews, massive box office, and numerous awards are indicators of that. But what makes it a Big Deal is its enduring impact: how it offered a new perspective on an old genre, how it provided an indelible image of an American subculture, and how its tone of moral ambiguity reflected the changing values of society. And, not for nothin’, how it provided so many useful catchphrases.
Further reading: Vincent Canby’s original review is a succinct, spoiler-free summary of what makes the film so good, as is Jay Cocks’ review in Time magazine. For more exhaustive detail, go to Tim Dirks’ analysis at Filmsite.
This piece, “Fact and Fiction in The Godfather,” explains the real-life analogues behind what happens in the film and is a fascinating read.
Related columns: What’s the Big Deal?: Apocalypse Now (1979).
Categories: Big DealTags: Al pacino, Diane Keaton, Eric d. snider, Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather, Marlon brando, Robert deniro, The godfather, What's the Bid Deal?