Review of The Godfather
The first film in the series by Francis Ford Coppola is still an epic with hypnotic performance that reimagined mafia villains as participants in a dynastic psychodrama.
The gangster has been a recurring character in movies for fifty years before to The Godfather’s release by director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter-novelist Mario Puzo. Their brilliant idea—as well as the producer Robert Evans, the movie’s own godfather—was to recast these criminals as a dysfunctional dynastic psychodrama.
They regarded the grizzled leader of a covert American state-within-a-state as seriously as they did the figure of the aging don. Extensive rituals of familial piety and reverence are placed side by side with stomach-turning acts of violence, which generations of real-life criminals in the United States used as behavior manuals for decades later. These Italian-American gangsters are nonchalantly racist and antisemitic while not complaining about the prejudice coming their way. Women must accept their role as an excuse for retaliation while also being subjected to extravagant displays of romantic affection and somber regard for women. (A tour guide in Sicily once informed me that the name “mafia” is derived from the Italian proverb “non toccare ma figlia” (don’t touch my daughter); I have yet to find any other confirmation of this claim.) The opening statement of the movie has a toxic chill as a pitiful local undertaker beseeches the Don to exact revenge on his behalf against two affluent white youths who molested and scarred his daughter. Many people will never forgive this movie for romanticizing mob violence with this fanciful justification.
As the aging gangster patriarch Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando is as fascinating as a cobra, his cottonwool jowl padding providing something more to that recognizable adenoidal wheeze. He is throwing a massive family wedding for his daughter Connie (Talia Shire), which is a spectacular set-piece scenario with more vigor, attention to detail, and dramatic tension than the majority of movies. The don will listen to information or counsel whispered in his ear while maintaining a composed demeanor and holding up a finger like a cardinal or the Pope himself. Carmela, the name of Vito’s wife who was popularized by The Sopranos in the later 1990s, says almost little or nothing. Both Vito’s belligerent hothead son Sonny (James Caan) and his weakling son Fredo (John Cazale), who is inebriated and acting in an impolite and disorderly manner, are present at the party. However, the elderly don is longing for his favorite son, Michael, a decorated second world war warrior who has little interest in the family company (Al Pacino gives a breathtakingly compelling performance). Michael arrives late but looks dashing in his outfit, demonstrating his military training. He is accompanied by Kay, his wasp fiancée (Diane Keaton).
Unofficial son Tom Hagen is played by Robert Duvall in a masterful, unusually humble portrayal as Vito’s trusted consignee. The movie’s most heinous act of violence is being overseen by quiet Tom off-camera. It involves kidnapping a racehorse—Godfather fans will recognize the horse—belonging to a Hollywood producer who must be coerced into casting the Don’s Sinatra-like godson Johnny Fontane (Al Martino). The horse is then drugged, its head is severed, and it is placed in the sleeping man’s bed. Strangely, this producer (played by veteran Cassavetes actor John Marley) had delivered an ardent speech the previous evening condemning Fontane’s ruination of an innocent actress, a strange echo of the undertaker’s address to the don regarding his daughter.
All of this, however, is only the calm before the storm as the arrival of drugs causes the peace agreement between the crime families to fall apart. Vito is offered a share of Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo’s (Al Lettieri) expanding heroin business; however, the don declines, ostensibly because he disapproves of this immoral activity or perhaps because he believes his cut is insufficient. Sollozzo’s men conduct a preemptive strike, shooting Vito as he purchases oranges from a market, in response to the rejection and their suspicion that the Corleones merely want to launch an attack for all of his business. Of course, weak, inept Fredo is powerless to defend his father in this situation. (Once more, Godfather aficionados will be able to identify which Jake LaMotta fight is being promoted on the poster in the foreground of this picture.) Michael comes to the realization that his destiny is to give up his claim to the respectable American ideal and take over the family business as Vito lies in the hospital after miraculously surviving. It will culminate in the now-famous scene where Michael agrees to be the godfather of his sister’s child and the baptism service is split up into nightmare flashbacks of all the rival bosses being killed. Of course, the point is that this is Michael’s own baptism.
Coppola’s vast narrative sweep is wonderful; even the transition from New York to California to Sicily and back to New York has an electrifying force. This is the “great man” idea of organized crime, the top-down method to dealing with gangsters. Later films, like Scorsese’s Goodfellas (although Paul Sorvino’s Paulie Cicero insists on the Corleone-esque mumbling in the ear), would emphasize the more ragged lower echelons, while David Chase’s The Sopranos would depict the Italian-American mob in decline. The Funeral by Abel Ferrara, which depicts the horrible sensation of self-replicating guilt and shame in the criminal society, is in my opinion one of the best post-Godfather films.
With the equally ambitious and audacious The Godfather Part II, a sequel/prequel that is frequently regarded as even greater, Coppola was to follow up his epic masterpiece. Despite the second movie’s brilliance, I believe the first one will always be superior due of its simplicity, brevity, and ruthless force.
On February 25, The Godfather will be released in theaters.
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